Jacqueline Crooks, author, Fire Rush - “Lived experiences can enrich fiction”
The Jamaican-born British author whose debut novel has been shortlisted for the 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction on identity, heritage and resilience
Fire Rush springs from the well of the personal. Please talk about its genesis and how it has travelled with you for nearly a decade.
I was living in a remote mountain village when I started to think about the dub-reggae music that I had danced to 30 years ago, part of the Black sound revolution. The silence of that village created space for memories of that supra-watt loud subterranean world of dub-reggae dancehalls. People, riots, racist murders, Thatcherism. I wrote everything in my diary, realising at some point that I was writing about a lost world that had existed underground, out of sight of mainstream society. The diary entries grew into the first draft of a novel. I felt a sense of responsibility writing about this Cultural Revolution, so I carried out a lot of research, collaborated with a lot of artists, experimented with form, structure, language across 16 years. I wanted to find a dub-reggae power language for the story as an artistic endeavour and to celebrate Nation Language, Jamaican patois and its artistic and cultural significance.
Yamaye, the protagonist, finds solace and identity through dub reggae and the underground club scene. How does the fusion of music, culture, and personal liberation intersect in shaping her journey of self-discovery and transformation?
Music is the platform that empowers Yamaye as a DJ/MC to find her voice and spirit and to control audiences with her performances. The clothes are an important element of the sub-culture and Yamaye is tailoring her style to suit her emerging sense of self. Music, style, performance, language are intersecting elements of the dub-reggae culture that help Yamaye to explore and find a sense of agency and power.
She uses this to challenge the micro and macro systems of power – the gang, the police – that are holding her down. It’s a good example of the importance of arts in deprived communities, and how it can be a stepping stone towards agency, participation; a way towards the cultural centre and a sense of belonging.
The novel explores the complexities of human relationships in the face of adversity, examining themes of love, loss, and resilience. Did you set out to write a novel with this thematic arc or is it something that you figured as you wrote?
I did set out to explore difficult issues because my writing always starts from an autobiographical perspective. I write informally and freely as a way of examining difficult situations or experiences, to transmogrify them in some way through stories. Loss was the issue I wanted to explore and some of the more difficult issues followed on from that. I am brave on paper, it’s a site of safety to express and explore anything that is important to me. Voicelessness and fractured relationships experienced by migrant communities is a recurring theme in my writing.
In what ways did your personal experiences of growing up in 1970s west London inform the novel’s London section?
I grew up in Southall in the 1970s, a town known as “Little India” because of its large south Asian community. I loved the temples, the smell of incense, the sound of Indian music, the shops selling Indian sweets and textiles, the Caribbean record shop and blues dances. It was a poor community in the 1970s, but it was rich in creativity. I intentionally drew on this vibrancy to create the setting for the first part of the book which is set in London.
There was poverty and dysfunction in my family and I sought solace and a sense of belonging with a gang. It felt important to explore what a gang is and how vulnerable people can be drawn into them and so I drew a lot on personal experience both as a cathartic process and for authenticity. I believe that lived experiences can enrich fiction.
How does the power of music and dancehall culture act as a transformative force?
Dub reggae has the DNA of African music. The music was a link to our heritage and identity. It evolved from the music of slave uprisings. It is a music for revolutions and it powered the community to create their way out of marginalisation and exclusion through the ground-breaking creation of dub-reggae music that continues to influence music, style, and language around the world to this day.
How crucial was music for marginalized youth in 1970s London?
In the harsh socio-economic and political climate that migrants faced in the 1970s, music was all we had. We were dealing with SUS laws, police brutality and discrimination in housing and education. Descending into subterranean spaces to connect to our ancestors and the rallying cries for freedom within the music was a sustaining force. It was how many of us learnt to stand up for our rights.
Moose is born in Jamaica and has grown up there so he impacts Yamaye in a similar way to dub. He is a carrier of cultural knowledge and ancestral connection in much the same way that dub is. And his impact on Yamaye is just as powerful and significant, leaving a lasting imprint, in much the same way that dub-reggae has left a lasting imprint on me.
How would you characterize the friendship and connection between Yamaye, Asase, and Rumer, considering both its special nature and occasional moments of insecurity? At a personal level, what does this sisterhood of the 1970s mean to you?
All these young women have come from families fragmented by migration, colonisation, and history. This affects their ability to trust in the idea of rootedness. They love each other but don’t know how to show it because the modelling of loving relationships has been absent from their lives. I wanted to explore the complexities of relationships between second generation Black women because I believe it is a generation who were underserved and overlooked.
Yamaye, Asase, and Rumer love each other but a small town in 1970s England is perhaps the wrong place and time for their relationship to thrive as they are individually fighting to find a place of belonging, a place of safety in which they can grow. They are also projecting issues from their families and history onto each other, causing conflict. Through writing this story I was able to look back at my friendships with other Black women and see all of this and feel a sense of deep understanding and acceptance for why my early friendships all broke down.
Yamaye’s journey to Jamaica and her connection with Moose’s herbalist grandmother mark a transformative moment in the novel. Can you discuss the significance of this?
Yamaye’s journey to Jamaica is an important part of her journey. Her journey to Jamaica is a process of decolonising her mind from all that she has learnt from Babylon — the racist superstructures of that time. The story moves to Jamaica, and more importantly to Maroon country, home to revolutionaries, as an important part of Yamaye’s spiritual growth, her emancipation. She learns about the immense value of cultural knowledge about the land, botany and the power of indigenous communities to heal themselves.
Can you share some insight about the experiences of first-generation migrant fathers within the black community? How did their circumstances shape their behaviour?
I did not set out to explore the experiences of first-generation men from migrant Caribbean communities but I found myself at times writing unsympathetically about the Caribbean. I tried to redress that by stepping into their shoes, to empathise with them. Irving and Hezekiah are a conflation of some of the men in my family who used silence as a mechanism for survival, making it difficult to understand what they were going through. Ultimately, I try to show that migration can emasculate Black men and the loss of power in the outside world means they exert “power” or their idea of power within the microcosm of their homes, leading to the perpetration of violence in the domestic sphere.
The stories in your collection, The Ice Migration (2018), span different time periods and locations, exploring the experiences of a Jamaican family of mixed Indian and African heritage. How does the movement, both physical and metaphorical, shape the e characters’ connections across time and place?
The physical and metaphorical movement forces people to live in a liminal space, they are outsiders who can only connect to those they have left behind through their imagination. It leads to an eternal search for home across time and space.
Please tell us about your Indian heritage and attachment to India.
My maternal grandfather was Indian. His family left India and came to Jamaica as indentured labourers. My grandfather was both very Jamaican and very Indian. He played tabla, cooked Indian food and sang Indian songs. I am trying to trace my family in India and have made some connections to third cousins. I went to India in 1999 and backpacked alone from Delhi to Kerala in six months. I wanted to explore the country and get a sense of that part of my heritage. I especially loved Pune and Rishikesh where I was welcomed warmly and made wonderful friends who I am still in touch with. Those six months were one of the happiest times of my life.
What are you working on next?
I am working on another novel which once again draws on personal experience. At the moment, I am experimenting with speculative fiction as a way of exploring some of the issues that I touch on in Fire Rush. It is set in a different time with very different characters and two unusual landscapes.
Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers