The concept of “going viral” wasn’t yet in the popular vocabulary in 2005, the age of Nokia 6230s and AOL messenger, the year in which website thefacebook.com changed its name to Facebook and Twitter was still a twinkle in the internet’s eye. That year, a young Londoner by the name of Jade typed out a handful of chapters about the social life and misadventures of Keisha the Sket, a teenager from London’s working-class neighbourhoods better known as the ends, and posted them to now-defunct social networking site Piczo.
What happened next is still hard to define by any other phrase: Keisha spread like wildfire across mobile phones, schoolyards and online forums, passed along by word-of-mouth and, even, on printed-out listing paper – the old-school fax-machine kind with the perforations and holes along its edges. To a young and predominantly Black British audience, Keisha the Sket quickly became a vital part of the culture; its 16 chapters depicting teenage life in London, written in the slang and texting language popular in its time (“Ye alrite, c u 2moro”), became discussed and debated in reverent tones.
Even more exciting was its authorship – or rather, its lack thereof. By the time the stories had become a phenomenon, their creator, known only as Jade LB, had wiped all traces of her identity – her real name, photos, everything – from Piczo. Who, a generation wondered, was the author of Keisha the Sket?
In the decade and a half since its original serialisation, Keisha’s standing and influence have only grown: the stories provided an antecedent for Black spaces on the internet, such as Black Twitter and Vine; Candice Carty-Williams has written about Keisha’s influence on Queenie, and referred to Jade as “our literary foremother.”
This week, Keisha the Sket will be published as a book for the very first time by Penguin imprint #Merky, meaning Jade LB’s iconic work will finally take its rightful place in the literary canon. To celebrate, we asked a few key voices – including Jade herself – to tell the story of this publishing milestone.
On Jade LB’s 13th birthday, she received her first desktop PC, and began writing a story about a teenager’s life in London that touched on socialising, friendship, love and – though Jade was still a virgin – sex.
Jade LB, author: We didn't have like Microsoft Paint and all of the things we used in school, essentially, and internet was out of the household budget too – but I just had to use it, because we had a computer finally. I always enjoyed reading as a child, so I was like “Okay, let me write a story.” Months later, when I finally got internet – Year 8 – I had written up a few chapters of the story.
Everybody was on Piczo, and it had an ‘about me’ page where you told everyone what school you went to, your name, and like, where your parents were from as well: “I’m half-Jamaican,” all of that kind of stuff. I had a last-minute bright idea: “Let me just put a page called ‘The Story’ and just put this chapter up.” I remember writing in red, “I’m gonna put up a chapter every two weeks.”
Written in a casual tone, with the texting vernacular of the early 2000s, the stories were irreverent and immediate. Within a year, the stories were beginning to attract attention, and Jade was writing new chapters for her audience.
Jade: Keisha the Sket was a reflection of me at the time. Of course, I wouldn’t write in my schoolbooks in text language, but anywhere else that I could, I would. That was my version of creativity, my version of expression, writing like that. It was just the way that I chose to express myself, it was so true to me at the time. I had the earliest connection to and clarity around [Keisha’s sexual partner and boyfriend] Ricardo; I almost wrote up my ideal boyfriend at the time, a fantasy who was loving enough to match Keisha.
I wasn’t being swarmed at school, though I remember the odd comment like, “Oh, when are you putting up another chapter?” And I remember much later on, there was a thing called the guestbook that everyone had on their Piczo. I remember on the very odd occasion, I would scroll through the guestbook comments and see that people were actually writing comments to me: “Where's the next chapter?” I remember getting on a bus once in year nine, and a girl was like, “Are you Jade? Did you write Keisha the Sket?” I made a couple of friends with girls that went to different schools because of it; they hunted down my email address to talk to me on MSN.
Lemara Lindsay-Prince, Senior Commissioning Editor, #Merky Books: I was just about to leave sixth form, or in that transitionary period between like Year 11; 16, 17 years old. We had this forum called Lebanese Connection, which was the forum of Hammersmith and Fulham schools. If your name was on Lebanese connection, it was for a good reason or bad reason, and someone mentioned there: ‘Has anyone heard of Keisha?’ I thought it was just another student. But then, before I knew it, someone was giving me printed pages, like, “You need to read this.” For some people, it was passed around on Blackberry messenger, but for me it was a very physical, very tangible interaction with the first pages of Keisha the Sket.
It was written in the text speak of the early 2000s; if I was ever talking to my friends or my peers, or like writing to my parents, it would be a number 2, rather than a lettered ‘two’. The writing spoke to me, drew me in; we spoke like that. At home we spoke Creole and patois. It was always slang.
Candice Carty-Williams, author: Reading something written in slang and Ebonics for the first time made me feel seen. It pushed the limits of what I believed writing could be. Jade LB refused to follow the rules of literature. Only Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, written in Scottish dialect, came close to what Jade LB did in Keisha the Sket.
Lemara: And the sex! The bait, the most alluring part as a young person, was the sex. Sex education back in the day was like, the teacher would roll in the VHS tape; boys in one room, girls in the other. They’d teach abstinence: rubbish. Not consent, not pleasure: rubbish. So I can’t lie: as a teenager, I was drawn to the sex. It created an instant, I would say, female solidarity moment, because some of us in my friendship group were having sex like that, and some of us weren’t, and it allowed us to talk.
Candice: It feels important to talk about Keisha the Sket in the context of Black female sexuality. It was my entry point to understanding what sex was. It was also where I understood the perceived value of the Black female body.
Lemara: Keisha is a young Black woman with agency. [At the book’s beginning, when she’s enjoying an active sex life], the world hasn't got to her yet. There’s freedom to the sex, and it works in a positive way: she bangs two breds [men] in a day, and her friend doesn’t shame her. But it works in a negative way, too; there are the scenes of sexual trauma and rape. But for many young people, we never knew the difference between sexual assault and sex; it was just sex. So when the bitterness impinges on the freedom of [her sex life], that’s very real. You're reading Jade write it in a really blunt way.
As Keisha’s influence and popularity spread further, Jade began to feel its effects.
Jade: When I started, I was writing with abandon; I had no awareness of the fact that this could potentially carry quite heavy consequences for myself, for my self-image, bring feelings of shame, all of that stuff. But I would see people online being like, “Yeah, I know her. She goes to this school, and she lives in this area.” But there were also some things like, “Yeah, [the sexual depictions are from] her life, you know,” which is also just weird and completely untrue.
Shame started to overshadow and shroud my authorship. I went to an all-girls convent, but they allowed boys in in the Sixth Form, when I was 16, and I remember desperately thinking, “I pray that none of my friends mention Keisha the Sket to these boys.”
Rachel Mann, Jade’s Agent, Jo Unwin Literary Agency: It's like ultimate death of the author. You know, it really ran away from Jade, and then there was whole mystique about who had written it, and that's a lot for a 13-year-old girl.
Jade: You can almost see a sudden awareness within the Keisha story [of my internalised shame], as her engagement with the world around her basically became quite negative. So it was almost like I didn’t put the two together until later on, that I might be deemed as bad or wrong because Keisha is being deemed as bad and wrong for her sexual expression. So in Sixth Form, I took everything off Piczo apart from the story. I left it up because of the awareness that people were engaging with this thing and reading it. I wasn't interested in snatching that away from people; just myself, and my association with the story.
Jade stopped writing Keisha chapters, and left the book on a cliff-hanger, but it remained a vital part of the culture.
Candice: Around once a month, I would catch myself thinking about Keisha: What would Keisha be up to now? How old would she be? In my WhatsApp group chat – a set of five Black women working in the creative fields – we’d discuss it constantly.
Lemara: If you really want to get deep with it, it's almost part of the tradition of African griots, being the bearer of a story and passing it on, making sure a tradition stands the test of time, and it's never forgotten. Keisha’s popularity speaks to how we interacted with ephemera, with popular culture, how much we valorised stories that spoke to us, that looked like us, that sounded like us.
Jade: In 2016, I was coming out of my mum's house with my boyfriend, and her neighbour was walking into his house, and he was like, “Jade, you wrote Keisha the Sket, innit?” He said it in front of my boyfriend, who was the one person who existed in my life who I really didn't want to know. In my opinion, it just wasn't good. But I think at that point, I became hyper aware of the fact that I couldn’t hide or run away from this forever. And my boyfriend’s reaction – or his non-reaction, really – was a relief.
Then [poet] Suli Breaks got in touch and was like, ‘I would really like to talk to you about Keisha the Sket and some of the things that you can do with it.’ That encouragement was really important.
By 2018, Jade was ready to think about Keisha’s future again.
Jade: It was like a climb up a mountain reengaging with this thing that was written in text language, and was just so raw and uncomfortable. Being told that Keisha the Sket was a positive or good thing was definitely central to gathering the strength to re-engage with it. Candice Carty-Williams referred to me as “our literary foremother” – it’s printed on the book cover – and that was really poignant.
Lemara: In November 2018, Jade walked into a #Merky Books pop-up with Suli and approached us and said “Hey, have you ever heard of Keisha the Sket?” I wasn’t there because I’d pulled my back, but at the same time, a friend who was a producer for the BBC reached out to me to do a podcast called ‘Finding Keisha’. So within two weeks Keisha had been mentioned here and mentioned there. On Twitter, I was seeing Keisha the Sket everywhere: “Do you know what should be a classic? Keisha the Sket.” It was doing those rounds.
When I met her two weeks after the pop-up, I think I shook her hand and I probably cried, because I knew this was the real author of Keisha the Sket. Because of the nostalgia, because of folklore, because of the mystery around it, it would take some nerve to say you own that story, but she was the real McCoy. And that's where everything kicked off. [Jade and I] started building trust and understanding, but it was months of her being un-agented; I think Rachel Mann coming into it in spring 2019 gave it a lot more structure. Suddenly, acquiring it was a competition.
Rachel Mann, Jade’s Agent: Jade had already, without an agent, spoken to #Merky, and had all kinds of other meetings as well because of course, this thing – this huge force and a phenomenon – went completely under the radar of conventional publishing, such as it is. I was there just to be able to contextualise what is still, and certainly was when Jade had those conversations, a very opaque and seemingly impenetrable industry. We did speak to other publishers as well, because I felt that was important for Jade to kind of really get a sense of how many people were out there that would get it and would want to publish Keisha.
Lemara: Up until then I built up a really good relationship with Jade, but we also kind of had to get our act together in terms of putting a price on it, valuing it, and getting it signed off internally and showing that #Merky had a real publishing vision for how this had to be.
Rachel: #Merky ended up being the obvious home for Kesha. They always were, and that has been borne out for sure. Our approach the whole way through was that we only really wanted to send it to people that are going to get it. That felt really important.
By mid-2020, negotiations were finalised, and #Merky got to work publishing Keisha the Sket as a hardcover book, complete with ‘The OG’ version, an updated ‘Keisha Revisited’ version of the story (in non-text-speak), an author note from Jade, and a series of essays by Candice Carty-Williams, Caleb Femi, Aniefiok Ekpoudom, and Enny.
Lemara: When we announced that we acquired it, it felt like time froze. We showed the tweets where people talked about it in the marketing; we had to pay homage to the fact that it was the original viral moment. But when we saw the retweets of the announcement, when we saw the likes, when we saw the trailer views and went straight into movers and shakers on Amazon and the signed copies started to sell out, it was just so nice to make the impact it deserved. I was at a wedding and the groom was like, “This is my friend Lemara, she’s publishing Keisha!” I was like, “Bro it’s your wedding!”
Rachel: I think the editorial process was particularly interesting. Editing is a type of standardisation that has absorbed all of the systemic issues in society, and there were at points this feeling from everyone that the OG text should somehow be “improved” – but it’s in a very vivid, poetic vernacular. The ‘youth-authored youth experience’ thing is particularly interesting, too. I think it’s important because Keisha is not the kind of work that most publishers would publish for teenagers – except it was exactly what teenagers wanted. It was so reflective of their experience, so representative of British culture of that particular moment. It's juicy – I mean, this is not Judy Blume. So to have the two versions [the OG and rewrite] has been amazing.
Jade: We had such a long period of being unsure about what this final product was going to look like. In the end, we agreed “Okay, yeah, we're gonna do a rewritten version.” I was really happy and satisfied with what I was able to do with Keisha’s story. As a woman in her late twenties, I don't write [in text-speak] anymore.
Lemara: [By making it a book,] Keisha the Sket is being preserved, and brought into the literary canon. This ephemera, this viral moment, this story – it went away, but it became folklore. It’s a beautiful full-circle moment to honour a Black British story of this magnitude. And I think it makes it more important that it's come through publishing and Penguin Random House. To drop it as a book – not a magazine, or on social media, but to have the industry respect it, include it – is a big moment. Keisha had so much nostalgia, so much history. So much respect needed to be paid; I feel like the culture of people who grew up with it have been demanding this for years.
In the book’s new author’s note, Jade LB explains that she has worked out much of the internalised misogynoir that kept Keisha hidden for so long, but she has made the conscious choice to remain anonymous, especially as the book reaches a larger audience.
Jade: Having this be my offering to such to such a middle-class, middle-England white space can make me doubt. I'm aware that I'm going to be speaking to people, and they're going to ask about racism and misogynoir and that. It’s something that I really think about a lot. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to make a decision about my hyper-visibility. I want to be able to go to a festival, or go to an event, and just be with my friends. I love having the choice to have a social media account or not, not to have 50,000 followers, and then have 3,000 comments and two-thirds of them be really horrible.
Am I writing anything new right at this moment? No. I am really open to writing as an expression of creativity in the future though, most definitely. I'm always so pleasantly surprised at work, where my mind can go, how imaginative and creative and how maybe even smart I'm able to be when I just allow my imagination to run freely. My hope is that I can cultivate a life and circumstances for myself where I'm able to enjoy creating and to do it with a freedom that mirrors what I was doing when I was 13 years old. So I say let's see what happens.