This interview with Gary Younge, the award-winning Guardian columnist, essayist and prolific tweeter, first appeared on Words of Colour online in November/December 2009.
Journalist Gary Younge is widely viewed as an original, inspired and challenging voice on race, politics, social class and identity. Younge is still virtually the only black columnist on a national newspaper, in this case The Guardian. After reading French and Russian in Edinburgh, he was all set for a career as an “activist” and interpreter before studying newspaper journalism at City University. Based in New York, he has a reputation as an internationalist.
Younge has written extensively from South Africa, Europe and the US, and has been active on improving ethnic diversity in media recruitment in the UK. Author of No Place Like Home and Stranger in a Strange Land, early next year will see the launch of his latest book Who are we and should it matter in the 21ST century? Joy Francis caught up with Younge after his short visit to London to take part in Rich Mix’s In Conversation… series.
It was good to hear you as part of Rich Mix’s In Conversation series. What made you decide to leave New York and come to London to participate?
I like to come to London episodically because I like to know what people are thinking. I don’t live in England any more, but it is where I write for and you need to write for your audience. I had a look at what the series was and Rich Mix seemed like a good space – and it was only a fiver to get in.
You said that you felt like an outsider in London with the Oyster Card and getting directions from a Polish man. How so?
I have a house in London, but don’t usually stay there. I always stay with friends in different parts of London. I know Dalston [Hackney] really well, but in Kensal Rise [Brent], that would be as foreign as me in New York. This time I was staying in Aldgate East, which I don’t really know. I‘ve been away for a long time – seven years. New buildings have gone up and lots of new white people have come to London. I’ve had to stop assuming that white people speak English as a first language.
Who are we and should it matter in the 21ST century? is the title of your new book. Can you explain what it is about and why you chose to write it?
It is about the limits and potential of identity politics. Gay, straight, white, black, all of these things inform your politics and to claim they don’t is ridiculous. People from various political strands hide behind reason. The thinking is that if they were born a girl in India or a boy in Peru they would believe the same thing as being born a white guy in Bethnal Green orCheshire. We have to work out a place in the world where we are all authors of our own story. All people have identities. The more powerful you are the less likely that you think you have one. A young kid asked me if it was weird growing up in England with an accent. I said everyone has one. Some people do think that everyone else has an accent and they don’t. An illustration of that is whiteness. There is blackness but there is no whiteness apparently. There is black community but no such thing as a white community. That cannot hold. Race isn’t constructed like that. I chose different themes from around the world to illustrate them for a broader readership. I go to Belgium and look at language. In America I look at the Hillary [Clinton] and [Barack] Obama presidential campaign where there was this face off between race and gender. I think about gatekeepers and the large number of people in Israel being told that they are not Jewish after a lifetime of living as Jewish. All cultures have gatekeepers where you are not black enough or Jewish enough. I take these points and illustrate them through a variety of examples to show how we might talk about these things. The people most likely to adopt identity politics at the moment is the right. The BNP talk about white people as victims. InAmerica, Obama is a racist and white people are his prey.
Do you see yourself as a writer first or a writer and a journalist?
The journalism I do involves writing so to that extent I’m a journalist who writes I guess. I’m not a novelist. Most of what I do is journalism. I don’t see how you can be a print journalist and not be a writer. I’m not a stylist. There are lots of different ways of being a journalist. Lots of them don’t involve words at all but pictures and sound. Mine involves words. All journalism must have an ability to tell a story.
Have you thought about writing a novel?
I’ve written one piece of fiction, a short chapter in this chain letter sponsored by the British Council. It uses a different part of your brain. There are certainly things that I see and wonder where you could go with it as a piece of fiction – historical moments that raise totally huge questions that might be better explored through fiction. Like Claudette Colvin who was kicked off the bus before Rosa Parks. There’s Ruby Bates, the white woman who was pushed to accuse the Scottsboro boys of rape [in Alabama] who then recanted and was taken in by Communist Party lawyers. Both of these working class women found themselves in the crosswinds of a political nightmare. What would happen if they met in their 50s? I have no plans to write that story. I have a two-and-a-half year old son and a demanding amount of work so the idea that I can squeeze a novel in there would be difficult to fathom.
Which book gave you the most pleasure to write: No Place Like Home, Stranger in a Strange Land or your new book?
No Place Like Home. The new one was murder to write. I hope it is not murder to read, common assault but not murder. No Place Like Home was a travel book. It wasn’t just a travelogue but the route had been written for me by history. Each chapter was an American state where I did things and moved on. There was a logic to it. The new book [Who are we and should it matter in the 21ST century?] is like a very long international column where you are trying to keep people’s interest, but you are saying difficult things that are philosophical. I’m trying to make a readable discussion about how all identities emerge from communities, to give it a voice and character and put people at the heart of it so you can see these things being lived. We are all mixed-race. The idea of race is a nonsense. Race is made to enforce certain types of power. Get rid of those power structures then we won’t need to talk about it. Until then, as it affects my life chances, I have to talk about it.
Who was your best interviewee?
My first interview was with Maya Angelou. She took me around LA in a stretch limo. I don’t know if it was the best interview, but I had a good time. The most important interview was with Claudette Colvin. It took a lot of work to find her but it was an important story. Conversely I did a story about this family in Pennsylvania who lost a son in the Iraq war. It wasn’t a sit down interview, but they were very personable to me. I had politics they abhorred, but I wrote a piece they were happy with and it conveyed them accurately and fairly without humiliating them, which gave a sense of where they were coming from.
What next for you?
Take a very long nap. I would like to teach. I’ve been doing some teaching at Brooklyn College in political science. I wouldn’t mind taking some time out with my son [Osceola] and my partner and going somewhere else, like the Caribbean. I would like to spend three or six months somewhere else that would have some meaning for my son, somewhere Spanish speaking. The Caribbean has meaning for him. Africa and England would have meaning for him. Otherwise I don’t have any plans. I don’t have another book I want to write. This one was like passing a huge stone so I’m probably going to concentrate of other aspects of my life for a bit. You have to recharge your battery and get curious in other things.
Who are we and should it matter in the 21ST century? was published by Penguin Press at the beginning of 2010.