I first heard about Gabriel Krauze through a mutual friend – the Booker Prize longlist had just been announced, and Krauze’s debut novel, Who They Was, had been a surprise inclusion. “Is it really that good?” I asked, a requisite question for the under- informed habitual cynic. “Yes,” my friend responded fervently; “I know these people; Gabriel’s characters speak in a way that I can hear.” Intrigued, I vowed to pick it up, and the next day, over a weekend walk through my neighbourhood, I bought a copy at the local bookstore.
To be clear: Yeah, it was that good. Krauze writes with a realism, grit, and honesty that I believe to be unparalleled in contemporary fiction. To boot, the book’s unique language is such that it situates the reader at the heart of a scene, and by virtue of the book’s subject matter, at the scene of the crime. But Krauze is far more than a gifted storyteller; commentary surrounding class disparity and systemic racism brings a gravity to his work that gives it literary weight. To dismiss Krauze’s slang-heavy prose as “unrefined” is to neglect his versatility; his proverbial tool box, far from being lesser than the average writer, simply extends beyond the capacity of most.
In anticipation of the book’s paperback release in the UK, as well as its US publication, I sat down with Gabriel in his World’s End flat to hear his thoughts on what has happened, but more importantly, what is still to come.
I’m glad to be catching you at an exciting time – as your book is about to hit the American market — so perhaps, particularly for people in the US who may otherwise be unfamiliar, can you give a little rundown of how you understand Who They Was?
The book is (basically) an account of my life, based very closely on a time when – between the ages of 18 and 23 – I was heavily involved in criminality and gang culture in northwest London. While I was part of a certain criminal culture in South Kilburn, I started doing an English literature degree at Queen Mary University. The book is an account of that reality; the reality of not only my existence, but those of the people behind the news headlines concerning gang violence or gang culture. [An account of] violence, but also these people’s interior lives and their complexities. I would say my book is a window into that world.
But it’s also a moral confrontation, forcing the reader to re-examine their perception of morality in a wider sense. Part of the book being written in the first-person, in the present tense is that it is true to my perspective at that age. When you’re involved in criminality and you’re involved in a culture where violence is a language that is used to communicate and enhance your reputation, reputation is paramount. You exist for your reputation. Normal social concepts such as empathy, understanding, and moral codes are completely unavailable, and can actually compromise you.
What this book is trying to do is reveal that mystic, existential reality to the reader. Of course, a lot of people find that hard to take, because people want narratives with characters who go through an arc that ends with a redemptive moment. But in real life, you don’t go through a narrative arc with a redemptive moment, you sometimes go through a certain experience, and you’re just lucky enough if you survive it. Especially in the context of London gang culture – or big- city gang culture, because it also relates to cities like New York, Paris – in particularly wealthy cities where the criminality is exacerbated by materialism and the inequalities of a wealthy capitalist society, you’re lucky enough to just survive.
JB: You’ve touched on something that I’m really drawn to in the book, something that struck me as one of the major cruxes of it: This isn’t a book primarily about gang life. Instead, it paints a very clear picture of some of the social issues that surround inequality, and provides a humanist approach to the real lives of those that are affected by the capitalist disparity that exists with the incredible wealth (and incredible disadvantage) in urban areas. Again, that kind of lack that necessitates living for this kind of culture.
GK: The strange thing is – to address the humanistic aspect of it – is that just because people are involved in crime and gangs, it doesn’t mean they don’t have hopes and dreams, or that they don’t fall in love, that they don’t yearn for certain things, or have aspirations that go beyond the stereotypes. I’ve got plenty of friends who have broad interests in all sorts of different things, far beyond cliches about rap music and football. We’d be in the trap house, like selling drugs and playing these epic Monopoly games, just to pass the time and have fun. I know some people who are amazing chess players, partly because they learned in prison, but they carried those skills on when they got out. There’s a huge diversity in personalities and aspirations, and hopes and backgrounds as well.
There’s a particular ailment in British society, which I was aware of before but suddenly became more aware of when my book came out – many critics would write of me, “he’s so unashamedly middle class,” because I went to university, and because my family’s artistic and I was brought up with books. People associate art and creativity with only a middle-class or upper- class privilege, whereas they don’t realize that people from immigrant backgrounds, like myself – both my parents were Polish immigrants – come from cultured backgrounds. Just because our parents are poor and we grew up without certain material advantages doesn’t mean that we’re deprived culturally, or deprived of creativity.
I think that certain readers would prefer that my narrative was about somebody who was completely uneducated, completely ignorant; whose parents were drug addicts or alcoholics, because that will satisfy a need for a one-dimensional character, and it would satisfy the stereotype that all criminals come from broken backgrounds. They can’t stand the idea that somebody could be involved in crime and then go to university and study literature and understand it. Actually, somebody who’s involved in violent robbery, will understand “human nature” much better than a simple “civilian”, who’s never been involved in an act of violence.
One of the big things that is emphasized in the book is how environment can affect people – some people have an instinct for wildness, an instinct to live on the edge, because they feel a certain boredom and malaise with normal life. You can’t control that; it’s not just because of poverty. Plenty of people who grew up in poverty never commit crime.
JB: One of the things that is a constant throughout the book is that you’re never ashamed to tell people that you’re going to university. You always get patted on the back for it; it’s something that’s always respected. To the expectation that these characters are uneducated or ignorant – not only is that not true, but there’s also respect for the antithesis of those things. You could be doing those things, and still take part in this culture without hiding them.
With regard to the people within gang culture having broad interests and multi-dimensionality – one of the things you mention repeatedly in the book is an inability to get out of that life; despite whatever those interests are, part of the nature of inequality – the inequality that spawns these environments – is an inability to pursue those interests, and get out of selling drugs, or the kind of violent crime that will come to haunt you.
GK: It gets to a point where if you’re embedded in that lifestyle, and you’re doing it day in and day out, you become surrounded by people who are also doing it day in and day out. You see all the guys that are on your block, making mad money selling drugs, and this is what’s influencing you. You look up to people like that. You’re also just generally surrounded by a climate of that stuff, or you’re surrounded by a climate of fear. And you decide you don’t want to be in fear, so the easiest way for you to not be in fear, if you don’t have the means to just leave that area and go and live somewhere completely different, is to become part of that fear, and to wield your own power through that.
But, there’s another aspect of it: If you go through your formative years involved in that lifestyle, to step out of it is a little bit like – I wouldn’t compare it in terms of the gravity and seriousness of it – but it’s a little like coming back from war. You come back into normal society and you don’t feel like you can acclimatize properly. I find it incredibly hard still to live a life which is relatively safe now, so to speak. But if I sit around with a bunch of my friends who went through all this stuff, I find myself much more at ease, because it would be normal for us to have a conversation about who’s in prison; who got stabbed the other day. I couldn’t go for dinner, though, with my mom and dad and their friends, and have that conversation. Or if I met some new people and started talking about that shit, they’d just look at me like I’m a bit crazy. To me, that’s just normal small talk; it’s our normal gossiping. You form this intense bond of brotherhood with people during these extreme experiences, and then suddenly you’re in normal society and you’re expected to just put all that behind you and behave like everybody else.
JB: To pivot a little, despite the disparities in the book – the idea of the haves and the have-nots, or to use the book’s terminology, those who eat and those who are getting eaten – one of the major motifs is nature. Sunlight, moonlight, those constants for all of us. When writing this book from the perspective that you have now, was there this sense of finding points of commonality with the person you’ve become? The things that you can observe and draw upon, that exist for all of us, despite the specificity of this story?
GK: I had to hold myself back, when I was writing, from injecting my current worldview. If I had done that, if I’d injected my current perspective on things, then it would have created an unrealistic portrayal of a character who is involved in that life. So every time I wanted to add a more objective perspective, I had to hold back because that wouldn’t be the authentic voice of an 18-to-23-year-old gang member who’s involved in violent robberies and gang crime. But the ability for a human being to connect with what they see around themselves, in terms of the environment, is universal. It doesn’t just come to a human suddenly, when they’ve hit a certain age and maturity; it’s something that we grow up with.
We grow up observing nature, the sun, the moon, the stars, the sky at night, and it can feed us with different feelings and moods. I clocked that often in London, when suddenly the sun would come out and it would be really hot, and in the first few weeks [of warmth] there’d be more violence, because that heat and sun would fill people with some mad energy. And everyone notices that; it’s not like they come out of their yards and are oblivious to the sun because they’re involved in a life of crime. And these are things that not only people now see, but going back into history, the sun we look up to is the same sun our ancestors looked up at.
I write in the book how it’s the same moon that our ancestors looked at a thousand years ago. It’s always been there and it’s always gonna be there. (Well, scientists say for the next billion years or so.) But as far as we’re concerned, and our children and grandchildren are concerned, it’s always going to be there. So there’s that commonality. And I think that nature exists in the book as a symbol of humanity. No matter what lifestyle you’re involved in, you are a human who observes your environment.
JB: I think it’s crafted as a really nice foil to some of the London- or gang- based specificities; there’s always a sense of something much broader, of something outside of this life. To zoom out of the book a little bit, we are lucky enough to be talking at a point when your book, published in 2020, is getting a whole new life through paperback publication, and through publication in the US. I think some of the themes you touch on are very timely in the US, and will be very interesting for those audiences. But I also wanted your thoughts on how some of your writing will be interpreted in an American context. For example, the language in the book: I’m American, and I don’t speak like [the book’s characters], but I understand it, because as a reader, if written well, you can understand anything. Take Irvine Welsh; I’m not from Scotland, but I can enjoy Trainspotting. In that regard, I think Americans will probably have an easy time catching on because it’s just a language or dialect like any other.
However, you’ve referred to it as a conceptual piece of literature, and in that sense, I think Americans may find that easier than the British, as this language is so divorced from the slang we hear around us every day in London. Here in the UK, it seems far too tempting for critics to suggest that you simply can’t write a proper sentence. I can’t wait to see how the American readership reacts, because in the US, you might as well be Irvine Welsh, as it’s not their language. It’s easier for one to assume that this is simply a choice that you’ve made about the way you want to communicate.
GK: I think the description of South Kilburn, and the environment of South Kilburn, is something that for people who’ve experienced project life in New York, for example, will be very identifiable. The environment of crackheads and drug dealers, like in the block, and the politics intrinsic to that. Also, the hidden worlds that exist in otherwise silent buildings, and the secret lives within them. I think that’ll be something that would be very identifiable for people who live in big cities in America, or anywhere that has these kinds of issues, or that aspect of “worlds within worlds.”
I’ll be very interested to see how the Americans react to the language, or to the slang, because I would say a large majority of the English reading public won’t even recognize the majority of the slang terms themselves. So for the Americans, it will be a whole next thing. There are some slang terms which are actually borrowed or influenced by American culture – specifically by American rap music. We call police “feds,” which Americans will probably find funny because they only refer to the FBI as feds, but we just refer to any police as feds. Perhaps the American public will react more strongly to its form, as a conceptual work of literature, because of the detachment of the language and the reference to a city which isn’t in their country. They’ll focus maybe more on the literary quality of what’s being done with this work, and how experimental it is linguistically. I can write normal English; I studied English literature, I read bare books all the time. I wrote this book how I talk, how me and my friends talk, slanged-out and casual, often no punctuation.
I think it will introduce a different side of British culture and of London to them, because they probably think what a lot of Americans think: we’re just The Crown and Downton Abbey and all that shit. But we have the hood here as well. Obviously, guns are illegal, which is part of the reason why we’ve got such high rates of knife crime. But we’re cousins; America and the UK are cousins, but we also have sometimes very blinkered perceptions of each other’s countries. Unless we go live there and see things for ourselves, we have these preconceptions. So I think to some extent, it will introduce a lot of American readers to a completely different version of the reality of life in London.
JB: It’s coming at an interesting time because this is right at the point where grime is catching on as a genre in the US. I think about the way that Americans thought about Britain and British culture – and London culture – this is a moment of real change.
GK: Pop Smoke was rapping over UK drill beats, you know. UK drill is huge. And UK drill originated because we were influenced by Chicago, where drill music started. But now UK drill doesn’t sound anything like Chicago drill; it’s properly our own sound. If you see how mandem in London and New York dress, we dress very similarly. There’s a huge coming together with these things.
So in that sense, I’ll be interested if people get it. But then also, a lot has to do with how the book gets out to the reading public, and how it gets promoted. I think a problem that exists in literature at the moment is that it’s seen or kept almost like it’s some niche thing that only a few people do. And if people were encouraged to absorb literature in the same way that they’re encouraged to absorb music and film, and it was broadcasted in the same way to the mass market, then way more people would read books, and it would be a much more interesting landscape, in terms of readership. We’ll see.
JB: In the US or otherwise, I think this is written in a language that is accessible for someone who’s living this life, who wouldn’t be really drawn to literature. Do you conceive of this book as a way to bring audiences that maybe wouldn’t be reading literary fiction into books?
On the flip side, I think this language can be fetishized for being “hood,” while on some level, the language itself doesn’t revolve around gang culture exclusively; this is just how people talk. Do you see the language of the book being a plus or a minus in that regard?
GK: The language should act as something that makes it more accessible to people who talk like that. Also, the world that’s described should make it more accessible to people who live in those environments, and have experienced parts of that world. However, if they are not introduced to books, and given the privilege or the opportunity to be introduced to the power of literature, then they won’t encounter the book, simply because they won’t be interested in books.
Publishing is far too traditional in its outreach; it knows, for example, that in the UK, middle-class women are the biggest consumers of paperback and hardback fiction. And so who do they target with promotion? Likely, they heavily target middle-class women, and they shouldn’t, because those people already have literature on their radar. They should be targeting other groups, and they should be targeting young people in particular. More young people should be targeted with literature, because that’s where the culture of reading and the appreciation of literature comes from – you introduce it to young people, and young people are mad receptive to it. They shouldn’t be patronized at all; they shouldn’t be treated as if things are too mature or advanced for them or anything like that. A 13-year-old kid could pick up my book and read it and be like, “Oh, shit, I never knew you could write like this, I never knew you could write about this world that I recognized so vividly.” And then hopefully, they’ll be inspired after reading that, to go and read Charles Dickens, which is something completely different, but they’ll have built a connection with literature.
I haven’t really noticed a fetishization here. I mean, then again, I don’t go on Goodreads and read what people have written about me, so I don’t actually know. But from what I’m aware of, there hasn’t been a fetishization of language. I think that some people believe the book is glorifying crime, and that’s linked to them being unable to disconnect themselves from the visceral realism of the book, and the fact that they don’t like that lifestyle.
To be proper blunt about it, if I write about stabbing someone and then go to a lecture and quote Nietzsche off the top of my head, it’s because I know what it’s like to do that, not because I’m trying to create some fantasy for somebody to give them a wild joy ride through this reality. It’s because some people are like that, and because some people have those experiences. And to understand the world, you need to see all sorts of different experiences and be introduced to all sorts of types of personalities. You can’t just read books that make you feel happy. At the end of the day, you have to also read books that confront you with things that you don’t necessarily want to be confronted with. It’s necessary for our understanding of the world.
JB: So what’s coming next? I know you have a second novel you’re writing.
GK: I’m working on a novel at the moment about transgenerational trauma, which is the idea that people can inherit the trauma of their ancestors without even knowing about their own history, and how that can impact people. And in particular, my interest in that stems from the fact that both my parents are from Warsaw. Poland lost almost 20% of their entire population during the Second World War. During the Warsaw Uprising, which was an uprising against the
Nazi occupation of Warsaw, in a space of two months 200,000 to 250,000 people got killed, just in the city alone. And they come from this place, this country, which was hugely traumatized and devastated by the Second World War.
I’m interested in unpacking how they came to the UK for a better life, to a country that for them was undoubtedly a better country than where they came from. But then when they had children here, and I grew up in British culture, in London culture, I got trapped in this world of crime and gangs, which my parents never had any aspirations for me to get into. I’d step out of my house and see certain things that my parents hadn’t prepared themselves for one of their kids seeing. So I’m interested in exploring the concept of how people are affected by their histories, and how people then try to find new identities for themselves within cities.