Author Q&A:
Jade LB

Keisha the Sket
(Merky Books) 

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In 2005, 13-year-old Jade LB started releasing chapters of her story on her Piczo blog. Written in slang and Ebonics, it was revolutionary reading for the young people who found it, printed it off on their school printers when teachers weren’t looking, and bluetoothed it to each other’s phones. Keisha, a 17-year-old girl from North London who’s labelled “top sket”, broke the internet before we knew what that meant. Now, after the anonymous author was found by website Black Ballad in 2019, the original text is published alongside a sympathetic rewrite and essays about its cultural significance from writers Candice Carty-Williams, Caleb Femi, Aniefiok Ekpoudom and singer Enny. Brimming with nostalgia, it’s an affecting story about trauma and abuse, and social attitudes, seen through the lens of a teenager who accepts it as normal and manages to remain fierce and ambitious in spite of it.     

Tell us about your relationship with Keisha from when you first committed her to the page to now. How has she affected your life?
When I first decided to call the main protagonist Keisha and allowed my imagination to run wild with who she was, what she looked like and how desirable she’d be, I was in awe of her. I hoped I’d be that desirable one day, I hoped I’d be that confident one day and I hoped I’d be that pretty one day, too. After a few years and many knocks to my self-esteem, I’d come to decide I didn’t want to be anything like Keisha. I was caught up in the misogyny matrix and I was learning girls like her weren’t desirable (and this was what I ultimately wanted to be). So in those years I turned against Keisha and resented my role in creating her. It wasn’t until unpacking the heavy baggage I brought into the therapeutic space that I looked at Keisha again. Thus far she was accused of being something that might ruin everything misogyny and respectability politics told me I wanted, and so her impact was unequivocally negative in my opinion. But today, with a new lens, the impact is immeasurable. Most importantly Keisha has impacted my belief in my creativity. Build it and they will come, as James O’Brien says.

Apart from a bit of MSN messaging, the internet doesn’t play too much of a role in Keisha’s story (texting is king!) but of course it was instrumental in it finding an audience back in 2005, in a way marketeers could only dream about today. What does it mean to have come of age alongside the internet and do you have a more complicated relationship with it because of your experiences with Keisha the Sket?
It definitely gives me some nuance when looking at the positives and negatives of the net stratosphere. I very much remember a time when I had no internet and found the ultimate joy in buying the Young Voices mag and getting knocked for to play out. My ongoing decision to stay away from hypervisibility also allows me some distance to observe objectively. I have a very complicated relationship with the internet, perhaps less so because of KTS and more so because I have younger siblings who have grown up knowing nothing but the internet. It’s a great, unprecedented tool but boy can it steal your joy.

How did you approach the rewrite and what did you change and why? 
I approached it initially with bags of ego. I wanted to show the evolution of my writing and storytelling abilities. When gearing up to do it, when we had decided editorially that we were definitely having a rewritten version in the book, it shifted. I felt a responsibility to help improve the story by adding texture to the characters and ironing out many bits that didn’t make sense in the original. From a strategy standpoint I wanted to capture more readers that weren’t inner-city, working-class youngsters from marginalised communities once upon a time.

Two of the most significant things I changed in the rewrite were giving the story an ending and very deliberately framing the lens on Keisha and her sexuality – Keisha wasn’t a sket and readers of the rewrite will see Keisha as a victim far more than they’ll see her as promiscuous or sexually confident.  Often time she didn’t have the agency she was presumed to have had, and that the title suggests. (It should be noted here the title was popularly given to the story. I had simply called it Da Story at the time of writing).

I wanted to humanise Keisha by doing those two things. Some colourful (or dark – depends on how you look at it) years in your late teens can be the preamble to a very mundane, “normal” adult existence. I also hoped to inaugurate some necessary conversation and depict the truth of some girls and young women’s realities.

Keisha’s story is firmly located in her North London endz [slang for “neighbourhood”] but do you think her story is relatable to a wider readership?
Perhaps. When we look at broader themes like misogyny, slut shaming, difficult relationships with parents and deprivation, then for sure. A plethora of communities can see their experiences and relate.

I will say though, very deliberately and aligned with my personal politics, the whole book is a portal into the experiences and stories of marginalised communities. I think it’s very important that stories are told and experiences shared. In a heavily individualised society, this is often bypassed with serious structural and policy consequences.

Candice Carty Williams writes in her essay that the way Keisha is treated by men is a product of how “Black women understood our capital and our worth” as teenagers. Do you think the situation has improved for girls like Keisha growing up in 2021 rather than 2005?
I’d presume so, for sure. I think the hypersexualisation and commodification of what are considered features of black femininity is evidence of this and perhaps even a worsening of things. I think Candice speaks to a historical, structural reality that if not looked at, will continue to persist.

I also worked with young girls at risk of sexual exploitation between 2016 and 2017, so I saw first hand how misogyny ravages young girls’ inauguration into love, sex and romance. I perceive it to be a continued and worsening hangover of structural misogyny and anti-blackness.

Caleb Femi points to toxic masculinity and the “violence that fortifies it”, particularly in the representation of Black men, as the scourge of the endz and beyond that leads to Keisha’s trauma. Would you like her story to be used to educate boys and do you think it already has been?
I don’t think KTS has been utilised as the tool it could have been, no. I hope that now it is. I would be honoured if KTS was the starting point of conversations and learnings in relation to gender politics and the realities of gendered violence. I think it is a raw, authentic and relatable offering that could start to draw young people’s awareness to masculinity, violence against girls and even the politics of power.

Are you writing anything else?
I’m taking a well-deserved break at this moment. Given the opportunity, I hope to offer more on the lives of black, British girls and women in particular and contribute to discourse on race, class and gender.

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