The Scholar: A West Side Story

the scholarLast month marked the 21st anniversary since the publication of Courttia Newland’s debut novel, The Scholar. To say that this novel is a timeless classic would be an understatement in my humble opinion. As I am re-reading it, I’m discovering that even though it’s set in London in the late 90s, the characters, the story and themes would not be out of place today –  that is if you excuse the street slang (people say ‘star’ a lot!) and the fact that no one has a mobile phone! Other than that you have a typical modern tale of youths trying to escape the poverty trap of inner city living.

Cousins Cory and Sean Bradley are as close as brothers, having grown up together on the Greenside estate after Cory’s parents died. Cory is street-smart, impulsive with a burgeoning sideline in petty crime. Sean on the other hand is serious, sensible and studying hard to get into university, hence his nickname ‘the scholar’. Despite their differing life choices, the two cousins remain close. However, a fight between Cory and another youth escalates over time, and in a dramatic turn of events, Sean finds himself taking his cousin’s place in the world of easy money, drugs and crime. Can he find his way back to who he was before it’s too late?

I loved this novel when it first came out and loved its sequel – Society Within – even more. For me, Courttia Newland’s depiction of life on a London estate was so realistic. The story, the pace and the drama had me transfixed and staying up late to finish ‘one more chapter’ before bed. For the first time that I could remember, I was reading about characters that not only looked like me and my friends, but also spoke like us. Their trials and adventures were something that we understood as young people, whether or not we went through the same experiences ourselves. There was a commonality, something specific to the Black British experience that we instantly just got.

The language alone set the novel apart because it spoke in the language of young Black Londoners. In a way it’s reminiscent of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, in which the characters’ speech was deliberately written in creolised English or what the poet Kamau Brathwaite called ‘nation language‘. For me The Scholar represented a powerful way of storytelling that comes from the source i.e. Black people telling their stories in their own words. And this meant that I not only understood the story but the reality of it. In my mind, Cory and Sean, could easily have been the boys I grew up with. And in some respects, they were.

At the time The Scholar was published, Newland and his counterparts Alex Wheatle and Diran Adebayo represented a generation of Black British writers who were writing specifically about growing up Black and British, and the issues that come with that. A genre of writing that has continued to this day, whether it’s through essay collections like The Good Immigrant or YA novels like Alex Wheatle’s ‘Crongton stories‘, (which could be arguably said to owe a debt to Courttia Newland’s Greenside characters – the similarities too obvious to ignore).

I’m excited that this novel is being celebrated right now and with the subsequent discussions going on, it will be interesting to see what a new generation of readers think of it.

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