‘The Daily Shouter believes that our country is not ready for a Nought Prime Minister.’
A line from the fictional newspaper in Crossfire, the fifth instalment of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series. We’re used to this language of unsubtle but ‘polite’ racism in Britain, much like when The Daily Mail asked Stormzy why he couldn’t show ‘a scintilla of gratitude’ that he was born in a council house in Croydon after he rightly called out Theresa May’s non-response to the horrific tragedy that was Grenfell. We all know what they mean, and this is what Malorie Blackman is most skilled at; telling the truth about the society that we live in by presenting a dystopia that is uncomfortably close to home.
If you ask anyone what they took away from Noughts and Crosses, first published in 2001, they’ll most likely say ‘the bit with the plaster’, and with it the realisation that nude plasters aren’t nude for… everyone. Just the people in charge. ‘They don’t sell pink plasters. Only dark brown ones.’ Sephy is told. Take the plaster, transpose it to the western world, and you see just how on the money Malorie Blackman has been.
Noughts and Crosses was written in response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, but rather than writing about race and racism in Britain plainly, as it was (and still is), Blackman decided to present an alternative Britain in which black people (Crosses) were ruling and in majority, and white people (Noughts) were the minority, and exist as second-class citizens. For the few of you who haven’t yet read it, the book follows Sephy (Persephone), a Cross whose father is a senior British politician, and Callum, one of the smartest Noughts in his year.
That Noughts and Crosses is young adult fiction didn’t stop it from being a brazen political read; the family of Callum are part of the Liberation Militia, a violent Nought-run organisation whose mission is to overthrow the Crosses. When he and Sephy fall in love, the very worst trouble ensues. That book was published 18 years ago. Crossfire, Malorie Blackman said in an interview with Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy, is ‘inspired by Brexit and Donald Trump’, and comes at a serious and near-dystopian political point for us in the West. The politics of fear and division employed by the fictional Prime-Minister-to-be Tobias Durbridge are what we’re seeing daily. ‘Pick a fight with the media and win it,’ Tobias is advised by an associate. ‘Accuse the media of being soft on crime, soft on immigration, soft on holding the opposition accountable, then hammer the point home whenever you have a chance.’ Sound familiar? These tactics could be taken out of the Leave campaign playbook.
We are, currently, watching racism play out openly here and overseas, and are mainly powerless to it. We’ve seen how fear of immigration – and the false rhetoric that leaving the EU and closing our borders would somehow make this a better place to live – has divided Britain almost down the middle. We’ve watched in horror as talk of building walls in the USA to keep a whole group of people out has been cheered on, and we’ve stared open-mouthed at actual children in cages while Donald Trump poses for pictures; thumbs up, smiling with each of his false teeth on show. You’d think you couldn’t make this stuff up, but Malorie Blackman has effectively loosely fictionalised what’s going on, almost in the way George Orwell predicted social media in 1984.
What helps us most when the world around us seems to be falling to pieces is escapism. Reading has always been my way of avoiding my own reality, and considering this, it’s important to say how addictive these books are; when I was a miserable teenager I remember devouring each book in my school library and irritating the librarian by asking when the next instalment would be. It wasn’t just because these books were the first time I saw myself, but it was also that they were pacey, exciting, rich. They were about love, and loss, and didn’t shy away from the brutality of life, and what happens when the reality of politics leak into everyday life.
What Malorie Blackman has always done so brilliantly in the Noughts and Crosses series is put the minority front and centre, both in society and politics. She explores how vicious the world gets when the reality we know is flipped on its head, highlighting how unjust it is that true equality still hasn’t been reached. It’s telling that Crossfire, published this year, is maybe her most political book in the series yet. While we don’t have the fictional Liberation Militia, America’s anti-fascist group AntiFa are actively fighting Nazis and white supremacy. And we don’t need labels, or even plasters, to show that Britain is more divided than ever. That 52% 48% vote has shown us that, loud and clear. How far, truly, have we come since Noughts and Crosses in 2001?