Featured Artist: Ashleigh Nugent, author of LOCKS, and Creative Director of RiseUp CIC

Interview, Patrick Kirk-Smith

In 2013 Ashleigh Nugent won the Commonword Memoir Competition for his debut novel, LOCKS. The story follows a narrative inspired by the author, playwright and rapper’s own journey, and the stage version of the book headlined this year’s Blackfest.

By the time he was sixteen, Ashleigh had been arrested three times. Each incident was a case of racial profiling on the part of the police. Racism was a regular occurrence for him growing up in 1980s Liverpool.

These painful, aggravating experiences led him to Jamaica, a place he hoped for change. Instead he found himself mugged, stabbed and in prison, having watched his friend drown. In Jamaica he was the White boy.

This book, and accompanying performance, has been the success it has because it shares a lived experience which manifests through passion. With the heightened presence of the Black Lives Matter movement this year the story has helped many to understand their relationship with Blackness, including those with no experience of it.

Following the success of his stage show, we’re catching up with Ashleigh to reflect on the book that inspired it, and find out about his work with RiseUp C.I.C. an organisation focussed on meaningful and life changing projects for the hardest to reach in society

NB. At the time of this interview I was one chapter in, and there’s nothing like interviewing an author while you’re knee deep in their first novel. I’m now two chapters in because I read painfully slowly, but it’s an outstanding story, told by a brilliant artist, musician and teacher.

Patrick: There are many strands to your work, but I wanted to contextualise the book a little by starting with RiseUp, your work in prisons. How do prisoners respond to your work, and the perspective you bring?

Ashleigh Nugent: It’s life changing. Obviously it’s different for every individual, but the way we approach it is that people like me have got the lived experience saying “Look, I know why you’re going on that way, I used to live that way, but I’ve also studied what it is that leads to that. And I’ve also studied what you can do to avoid that”.

We all want those things, every human being wants those things. Being part of a community, having a sense of purpose. None of that includes being paranoid, making your mother ashamed, being fearful, being in danger. None of that is something someone wants, but there’s a reason why we’re led into that.

People tell me they’re rehabilitating, but we don’t approach it in that way. But if you want to acknowledge and change that for yourself, I’m just trying to level the playing field.

Politicians get access to Transactional Analysis, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, mindfulness meditation. They get the benefit of this stuff. Kids in school, prisoners and people living in risk, they’ve never even heard of this stuff. It’s quite simple and it really helps. I wake up every morning telling myself how I want to feel today, and what I’m going to do to make that happen. I set my brain every morning, every day. Especially in times like this when it’s getting tough. If you’ve never been taught that then why would you know that you have a choice in how you feel?

Because of that approach, it’s powerful. Because of what we teach, it’s powerful. Because we use the arts and get into this unconscious level, it’s powerful. And then it bubbles up on the inside. Like “Oh, no one’s told me to do this. This is coming from me, and I’ve decided I don’t want anyone to control me anymore.” So yeah, it’s deep. It’s powerful.

P: The award in 2013 was for LOCKS, but it’s only been published now. How come it took so long to publish?

A: It must’ve been a first or second draft, but I thought I was done, so I entered loads of competitions. I won that one. What that made me realise, speaking to Pete Kalu who runs Commonword, was they’d deemed it to be the best thing in this particular competition, but it was far from finished. And I was gutted for a long time, I was even pissed off with them. “Wow you’ve just insulted me. Your judges liked it, and it was loads of work to get it this point, and now it’s like you’re trying to put me down.”

And about two months later I realised they were right. And about seven years later I finished it.

P: So has it been drafted and redrafted and you’ve come back to it every so often?

A: I’ve got two kids and I run a business, so it comes to an evening, I get the kids in bed, and about half nine, I’ll jump into the office. And I’ve been doing that continually for all that time.

Such a lot of people write a book and get it out there, and write another one, and maybe five books later they’ve learnt the craft. Whereas I’ve been trying to learn the craft on the first book because it was so important to me that I wasn’t prepared to just leave it unfinished. So I’ve had to learn how to do this on the job.

P: The way it talks about your relationship with race – or Aeon’s [the lead character’s] relationship to race – is so pertinent to now, and the confusion that a lot of people are feeling around their own relationship to race. Are you still feeling that now, or have you found a space where you’re comfortable?

A: Yes and no. Before this year, I’d say I’m a Black guy, simple. Me saying I’m a Black guy is a political statement, because I choose to side myself with that side of the debate. And it relates to my experience of being abused will all those racial epithets in the book. I’m different to all those people I grew up around in Knowsley and Rainhill, and I’m proud of who I am. But when I went to Jamaica – this is a spoiler – people there called me the ‘white man’. So that was confusing, but I’m not this ‘tragic mulato’ character. Neither is Aeon. It’s not tragic. It’s beautiful.

I find it a real opportunity to live in-between the worlds. I can’t pretend that my identity as a Black guy is straight forward. My mother is white and Scottish. I can’t pretend that when I go to Scotland I don’t feel an affinity with Scotland as much as I do Jamaica. My identity is not simple, it’s nuanced, it’s complex. And that’s a good thing.

With everything that’s happened this year I’ve found myself questioning. Like the waters have been muddied again. And I have to align myself, politically, with my Blackness again. I’ve got white friends who are totally confused about the Black Lives Matter movement, and I have to explain to them that we do live in a racist world. Nice lefty liberal people. I’m amazed that they don’t get it, but at the same time I’m aware that I’m questioning my own relationship with race. It’s easy to define yourself politically or to align yourself with a particular ideology. But the racial categorisation, as it exists at present, is just a social construct and a pseudoscientific doctrine. It was created by rich, wealthy, powerful white people in order to subjugate brown and Black people all over the world, for the purpose of enslavement and colonisation.

They’ve made up these categories, and we take them on as if they’re real.  I understand why Black people had to stand up and say we’re not going to be called negro any more, we’re Black, and we’re proud of being Black. But we must be willing to question and challenge what that actually means. Some people limit themselves by buying in to limiting stereotypes of Blackness. As if there aren’t as many ways of being Black as there are of being white. If you live in a community with thousands of other Black people this may not be an issue for you, because you will know the diversity in your own community. But Blackness, in my upbringing, was just some identity foisted upon me by others – by racists. And Black male role models in the media tended to adhere to stereotypes. So, as a way to fit in somewhere, I found myself performing Blackness. I did feel a natural affinity with certain aspects of Black culture, but I felt that I also had to learn how to act Black – which is ridiculous. So that’s the struggle Aeon goes through in LOCKS – the search for his authentic identity, his true self. And, yeah, the waters get muddied. But that’s not a negative thing, it’s a beautiful thing. We should all question everything, over and over again.

P: The arts were exposed in a big way this year, partly because they’ve been behind a screen of lefty liberalism, like your mates. But the screen got lifted, and the structures of the art world got shown to be just as structurally racist as every other industry. Have you felt that through all strands of your work?

A: There’re so many layers to this thing. For 100s and 100s of years this system’s been set in place. And, most of the time, it’s totally unconscious. People don’t even realise they’re doing it. But if someone questions it, maybe they’ve been watching some stuff online, and they say “I don’t get what you’re on about, I don’t think we live in a racist place. I don’t think there’s anything holding Black people back. I see loads of Black people getting jobs, probably just because they’re Black; because someone has to tick some boxes.”

I’m not offended by that. I really appreciate people being honest because not only do I get to think through it and explain it somebody, but I also get to work through it in my own mind and question how I feel about these issues, and I get to keep studying and educating myself.

We’ve all got a lot of work to do. And that’s not just white people. Someone like yourself might have read enough to understand the issue from a historical perspective better than many in the Black community. Plenty Black people haven’t got a clue. Because why would they know the history of white supremacy and the racial categorisation we live with now if it’s been covered up? Just because we have more melanin doesn’t mean we have a better grasp of historical context. It’s honestly just a bit of melanin.

P: At the risk of spoiling everything for myself, is there something in LOCKS that sums up where we are now, or sums up where you were when you started writing it?

A: Somebody who recently read it had no idea how it was going to resolve. She said she was amazed by the end that it managed to resolve.

It’s not like Aeon comes out and everything’s perfect, but by realising that his genetic connection with the Jamaican people is a connection to the whole of their history, his identity is something more subtle than the colour of his skin. He feels a deeper spiritual connection with the history of the island and even to the people that were there before the Europeans and the Africans arrived. So 500 years later it doesn’t really matter that Black people say he’s white when white people call him a nigger – none of that is really relevant to this connection that we all have.

The creativity on the island brings that out in him. So then he has to walk away. He still doesn’t know what any of it really means. But that’s for the next books to resolve.

P: So adapting it for performance on stage, how was that?

A: Really difficult. I’ve never written anything for the stage. People who saw it talk about it as a play. Francesca from The Everyman sent me an email calling me a playwright, and I was like, “why’s she spelt wright, like wright, that’s weird” so I googled it, and that’s how you spell it. So obviously I’m not a playwright, I couldn’t even spell it.

P: I guess it’s a way of representing the part of you that’s in Aeon more physically?

A: I suppose there is that, but rather than writing a stage narrative I’m telling bits of stories from the book, and the links in between are me talking to the audience. Obviously it’s a show, but they’re getting some of my personality.

The audience coming want to be entertained. They want to laugh, they want to get angry, they want to get entertained, and they want to leave there going that was dead interesting. So I think I am going to develop it more as a play, because they don’t care whether I think it’s a play. They want to be entertained.

And the audience response has been really nice. And it’s got a lot of people who I’ve been trying to tell about this idea for a long time to take it seriously.

P: How much does your music come into it?

A: I used other people’s music, and I wrote two songs for the show that are mentioned in the book, that aren’t real songs. I invented an artist called Archimedes Aslan, and used his songs.

I use Buju Banton’s music too, the Jamaican dancehall artist. In 1993 his music had a massive impact on me in Jamaica because we hadn’t heard that stuff in this country before.So when I went to Jamaica, I was like, wow, this is something else. I didn’t understand what they were saying because they were speaking in Patois. Particularly Buju Banton’s Boom Bye Bye. The base line and his voice vibrates in your belly, and your heart. And it’s a totally different experience to some jangly guitar and Morrissey moaning about something.

Then I realised that what Buju Banton’s singing about in Boom Bye Bye is that it’s a good idea to murder homosexuals. And after that came out, he was banned in this country. It’s so beautiful, this sound they’ve created, but he’s saying something that is so offensive. Darkness meets light – I suppose that’s what LOCKS is all about.

P: LOCKS starts off talking about you rapping your way down the street, or not, and your worry of what would happen if you did. Was music your root into creative practice?

A: I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was little. I hated school. I left school with nothing, and then I went off the rails. I had no qualifications.

By the time I was 21 I still hadn’t shown my poems to anyone, so I went to St Helens College to meet people who knew about creative stuff. My mates, some of them still work the doors now, and one mate runs an MMA gym in St Helens. They weren’t into that, so I went to college. And there, I met Mak, he’s a musician, rapper and beat boxer.

Mak persuaded me to rap. I didn’t want to be a rapper. I loved rap, but I didn’t want to rap. I had a crappy scouse voice, and I can’t sing. I was 21 years old and I was two and half stone heavier than I am now. I was a muscle-bound skinhead. I wasn’t going to go into town and start rapping. I was a scally. I’d get laughed at, I’d get battered. It took me about ten years to get confident with it.

But what I always wanted to do was write. And now I work with a lot of young people who suffer from the same affliction I did. A lack of self-worth, coupled with a sense of entitlement. So while I didn’t have the confidence, I still thought I was a genius.

I didn’t read books until I was 21, but I thought I could be a writer. So when I met Mak and his mates, one was in Oxford University, they were clever, they read books, and they knew stuff. So I just started devouring books and I was like, oh my god, the stuff you can learn! These books say stuff.

I didn’t finish uni until I was 30. I had two kids, I was running a business and it was tough, but you know, I made sure I left uni top of the class, first class degree, and to prove to the world that I’m not stupid. And then I had to start trying to write a book. So that’s why it took eight years. Try fail, try fail, try fail. And this is my last attempt, so unless Bloomsbury Books, or Penguin turn up tomorrow and say work with one of their editors, unless (until) that happens, I’m done.