Candice Carty-Williams' debut is smart, funny, and incredibly timely. Queenie (the book) tackles life, love, race and family through Queenie (the character), a young woman with a talent for self-sabotage that readers will take to their hearts. Full of warmth, heart and bite, Queenie is a stunnng and unforgettable read.
Candice Carty-Williams tells us why she wrote Queenie and how she feels now it's written.
I know that everyone is probably bored of hearing me say that I wrote Queenie with representation and nothing else in mind, but it really is true. I wasn’t thinking about money or Twitter followers, what I was thinking about was how not seeing yourself reflected in the culture around you can make you feel invisible. When I was growing up, I devoured books; I don’t even think the term devoured does service to how much I read. I’d read books twice, three times over, and was hugely grateful to YA authors Malorie Blackman for Noughts and Crosses and masses more, and immensely thankful to Yinka Adebayo for writing the Drummond Hill Crew series, a set of books following the japes of young black schoolkids. There was love, heartbreak, rejection, there was turmoil, the drama was high, and I loved it because I could see myself in that world.
As I moved into the horrific teenage years, full of hormones, unwanted change and bad skin, I looked for books that reflected my experience so that I could at least read some version of what I was going through. Instead, the only books I could find were about pretty blonde girls being asked to prom by the best looking boy in school and being horrified by an unplanned pimple when the day came. Thank god she could find a cover up stick in time! I realised pretty quickly that books weren’t going to get me through secondary school, and as I got older, they definitely weren’t going to get me through sixth form and beyond.
It might seem odd to turn to books to tell me how to get through the tumultuous journey that’s young womanhood, but given that I was in a mainly white, middle class school (and then university) where there were a handful of girls like me, how else was I going to get through it? I also understood, as I was getting older, that I didn’t have much in common with nice, perfect characters whom everything goes right for. They’re not realistic, and I also have no interest in “nice” characters. I’ve always been attracted to flawed characters, so Queenie’s personality wasn’t hard to write. Like when we watch a horror film, I wanted readers to turn the page and shout ‘DON’T GO IN THE HOUSE!’ -- but instead of the woman being met by some sort of ghost or monster, instead she’d have to face some idiot guy calling her skin chocolate and telling her that he was excited to finally have sex with a black girl.
I wanted to create a character that looked like me -- and girls like me -- who had so lost sight of her own value through not seeing her worth that she didn’t know who she was anymore. I wanted her to have to find her way out of the nightmare that our early twenties can be, and by making her go through the most extreme assault course of events, wanted to show that if she can get through that, we can get through anything.
Queenie’s already out in the USA, and the response from readers over there has been overwhelming. Black women have messaged me in their hundreds to tell me that even though Queenie frustrated them, they could see themselves in her, white women have told me that they too could see themselves in Queenie’s decisions and circumstances but have also learnt that racism—even well intentioned—is still racism. I’ve even had a couple of white dude bros tell me that they were grateful to the depiction of mental health in the book, and how it made them feel less alone in their own struggles.
In writing Queenie, I wanted to cover so many things; sex, relationships, dating, interracial dating, friendship, therapy and more, but I had to do it through my lens so that everyone could read it and understand that black women contain multitudes; I was tired of the sassy, loud tropes in TV and film (not so much in books, because not enough books by or about black women exist, as the funny friend or otherwise). In life, I never saw myself in the role of the funny best friend, and felt this burning need to correct the idea that it’s fine for our bodies to be consumed for sexual excitement and exploration, and discarded afterwards. It was important for me to give black women the humour, humanity and heart that we deserve in literature and in the world.
When people ask if I’m excited about Queenie being out, I always feel really boring when I answer that I just feel like a job has been completed. But that’s exactly what it’s felt like; completing a task that needed to be done. The work to represent will never be over, not in my lifetime anyway, but I’m glad that Queenie could be a part of that. I’m not excited, but I’m content that I’ve created a Jamaican British leading character who isn’t loud, who isn’t sassy, but who also doesn’t have to be perfect in order to exist.
Candice Carty-Williams is a marketer, author and journalist based in London. Born in 1989, the result of an affair between a Jamaican cab driver and a Jamaican-Indian dyslexic receptionist, Candice worked in the media before moving into publishing.