(Picture: Candice Carty-Williams)Candice Carty-Williams adores writing. She loves telling stories that take you on a journey, that allow you to see yourself reflected.
But she doesn’t necessarily love what comes with it. The promotion, the interviews, the need to put herself in the limelight.
A self-confessed introvert, she admits she finds that side of her job difficult. But with her beaming smile and the easy eloquence with which she articulates her ideas, you would never know that she was nervous.
Constructing a convincing front of confidence is nothing new to Candice.
‘I remember my sister teaching me when I was really young to lock my shoulders when I was walking down the street,’ Candice tells Metro.co.uk.
‘I said to her, “what do you mean?” and she said, “you just watch”.
‘I realised how many people were hitting me – just barging right into me – when I wouldn’t turn or move aside for them.’
This is what Queenie feels like. A locking of the shoulders in a literary sense. A refusal to turn and duck away to allow the same old narratives to be told again and again.
Queenie is Candice’s debut novel. It is the story of a young Londoner grappling with love, loss and trauma while trying to maintain a career, a relationship and friendships. It is a story that so many of us can relate to and you can’t help but root for the often hapless, always lovable, titular character.
‘I didn’t want to write anything that was going to be too much of a challenge, or intellectual – I wanted this book to be entirely accessible,’ explains Candice.
‘It was written with me in mind. I just thought to myself – what would you like to have read? I wanted to read about a girl going through an extreme situation, so that it could give me the tools to go through situations that weren’t so extreme.
‘But I also wanted everyone to read it and for everyone to understand why this is needed.
‘I needed this story when I was growing up and I didn’t have it. I thought that by the time I got older something like this would exist, but it still hasn’t materialised.
In recent years there has been an explosion of black authors writing pertinent, important things about race in this country – but there is still a dearth of mainstream, commercial fiction that centres black and minority narratives.
‘I enormously rate the works of Akala, Afua Hirsh and Reni Eddo-Lodge – but reading non-fiction about these issues can feel like work,’ explains Candice.
‘I wouldn’t say it can be triggering necessarily, that’s not the right term, but it weighs on you and you end up automatically applying the pain and trauma to yourself.
‘I want fiction, I want a ride that you can be taken on. This is just about Queenie’s life.
‘Someone asked me if Queenie is an “issues” book – and I said no. It is just about a woman living her life. That isn’t an issue, it’s just a narrative.
‘All books are about someone going through something difficult or challenging, this is just seen through a different lens. I wish I had had that.’
Candice’s debut works hard to make young black women feel seen. The importance of mainstream representation can’t be understated – just to see someone you recognise or to read about an experience that you can personally relate to can help people feel less alone.
‘Someone just tweeted me to tell me they wished they had known they could have their hair like the style on the cover – that they wouldn’t have spent so much of their life straightening it.
(Picture: Orion Books)‘That’s exactly what it’s about. It starts from the cover.
‘This book shows people that there is difference in the world, and that that difference is OK. It’s not even about celebrating that difference, it’s just about seeing it as part of everything else.’
In the novel, Queenie’s relationships with her friends are a joy to read. The unconditional love, the unspoken tensions, the inescapable WhatsApp groups. It is an ode to modern friendship and we all have friends exactly like Queenie’s.
‘It was really important to me that Queenie had different friends as well, with different cultures – because that’s very much my experience of living in London,’ Candice tells us.
‘When I was growing up, my surroundings where so multicultural, but that pool of difference has just been shrinking as I’ve gotten older. From secondary school, to university, to working in publishing. I really wanted to highlight the reality that we do have different pools of people in our lives.
‘I have best friends who are Jewish, who are white and middle class, Ugandan. Obviously that would be the case. But I am yet to read a book by a white author where they have a group of friends that are black – or just more diverse. It may exist – I am happy to be corrected – but I am yet to read it.
‘Queenie’s friends are a big amalgamation of all the girls I have known and know. What I really want to do is reflect real life in human nature, those conversations you have, the tensions that you have and the fact that we all have friends that make us say; “why the f*** am I your friend?”
‘That is the reality of being young and growing up and becoming an adult.
‘I have had to get rid of a number of these relationships in the last few years – the people who treat me badly, who talked to me badly. And it’s that process that I wanted to reflect. There are so many tensions that we just discuss.’
Dating as a black woman in Britain can be fraught with hostility, microaggressions and fetishisation.
The immediacy and brutality of dating apps allows people’s prejudices to come to the surface with alarming speed, with black women often faring worst on the receiving end.
Queenie’s love life is tumultuous and is intrinsically tied to her mental health. Her deteriorating mental state is mirrored by the levels of appalling treatment she will accept from the various men in her life.
‘Writing about a young woman’s experience is absolutely crucial to it. Queenie spends a lot of the novel not wanting to be like her mum,’ explains Candice.
‘For her, a relationship with Tom [her white boyfriend at the beginning of the novel] represents integration, stability and never being like her mother or going through what she has.
‘When that relationship breaks down, she starts making all the wrong decisions with men.
‘Writing about Queenie dating was so simple because I was reworking versions of things that have happened to all of my black friends on dating apps. And this is happening constantly.
‘The way black women are treated in the world of dating is just kind of exhausting. So much of it is about value and the value you have in yourself, and if you haven’t seen it then you don’t know it’s there.
‘For women, black women and white women, so much of our validation comes from men – because we are taught that it comes from men. I really wanted to explore that notion. And also what happens when dating and sex become instantaneous – what does that do to our sense of value.’
How many is too many to sign? This is too many. This is only a quarter. 👑 pic.twitter.com/hwFH28foK5
— Candice Carty-Williams (@CandiceC_W) April 3, 2019
Queenie’s mental health struggles are drawn from personal experience. Brought up in an environment where mental illness was taboo, Candice knows just how important it is to normalise conversations about mental health.
‘I didn’t realise this at the time, but when I was growing up there were two men in my family who had depression – but no one used that language,’ explains Candice.
‘Antidepressants were “helpers”, and panic attacks were just not being able to eat for a while.
‘And when it started happening to me, I didn’t know what language to use.
‘When I graduated from university, my best friend at the time was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I started experiencing regular panic attacks.
‘I felt overwhelmed with life, the fact that none of us have any control, I didn’t have a full time job – it was a lot.
‘I told my family that I was having panic attacks and they were just like, “no, no, no, you’re not.”
‘I then went to a doctor and told them I feel sick all the time, I can’t breathe all the time, I feel really bad all the time. They told me they thought I had a stomach bug.
‘They gave me medicine for this alleged bug that stripped my stomach acid away – my stomach has never been the same again. I have torn a hole in my esophagus as a result of the reflux it caused me.
‘So we are not being listened to on both sides – by our families or by the medical professionals.
HELLO EVERYONE, my insomnia is doing big things at the mo so I’ve only just woken up to many amazing messages that I’ll reply to soon. THANK YOU ALL and happy publication day to QUEENIE, this flawed, reckless but loving babygirl who has taken over my WHOLE life 👑 pic.twitter.com/HBKu6rbJDC
— Candice Carty-Williams (@CandiceC_W) April 11, 2019
‘There is such a conflict there. Your family is what you know, they are who you trust – so when you ask for help and you are getting these conflicting messages, that’s really hard and can cause a disconnect within yourself.
‘When it comes to families it’s a cultural thing. And there is this pervasive discourse about strength in black communities. We always have to be seen as strong – physically and spiritually. There is never any time for weakness.
‘When you look at the statistics around black people and mental health – black men are significantly more likely to be sectioned than white men. There is so much to unpack there and there is still so much taboo around it.
‘That’s why I knew mental health had to be part of Queenie’s narrative, it just felt natural. And it also fits in perfectly with the classic quarter-life crisis that Queenie is going through.’
Candice wrote Queenie for herself and for younger versions of herself. She wants to carve out space for stories like Queenie’s and make her part of the mainstream tapestry of narratives about Britain.
It’s about creating reflections yes, but it is also about creating a deeper understanding. Elevating the narratives of black women and allowing people to understand how they experience the world – it could open eyes and challenge perceptions.
‘One message that really spoke to me was a DM on Twitter from this black guy. He looked like a “dude bro” type, and I was worried that he was going to rip me to shreds,’ says Candice.
‘But actually he told me that he has bipolar disorder and that reading Queenie really helped him to feel less lonely – so that was pretty amazing.
‘I want Queenie to help people feel seen. Queenie is flawed, she makes mistakes – like we all do, we are human. So allowing Queenie to be a real person allows people to properly identify with her and see themselves in her as well.
‘But it also helps people to learn about difference.
‘I have had messages from people who said that they now realise that asking to touch my hair, even if it is well-intentioned, is still “othering” me, and they know now that it isn’t OK.’
Queenie has been published by Trapeze and it is out today.
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