In this breathtaking memoir, acclaimed author Alex Wheatle details how reggae music became his salvation through a childhood marred by abuse, imprisonment, and police brutality
“In this inspiring, often harrowing narrative, the author chronicles how, shortly after he turned 3, he was abandoned by his parents and placed in the care of the government. That led to a childhood of physical and sexual abuse on top of the racism and police brutality he experienced growing up in Brixton, England, in the 1970s and ’80s . . . As dark as his early memories are, Wheatle describes his reggae memories with glimmers of hope and appreciation . . . A striking tribute to reggae’s ability to protect a fragile soul when seemingly everything else had failed him.”
—Kirkus Reviews, STARRED review
Abandoned as a baby to the British foster care system, Alex Wheatle grew up without any knowledge of his Jamaican parentage or family history. Preoccupied with his own roots, Alex grew inexorably drawn to reggae music, which became his primary solace through years of physical and mental abuse in a children’s home.
Although riven by loneliness and depression, Alex found joy and empathy among his reggae heroes: Dennis Brown, Bob Marley, Marcia Griffiths, the Mighty Diamonds, Sister Nancy, Gregory Isaacs, Barrington Levy, King Yellowman, and so many others. These were friends and mentors who understood the enormous challenges facing a young Black man, gave purpose to despair, provided a sense of belonging when Alex had no one, and who educated him in ways no school ever could. From the abuse he suffered in foster care, to the challenges he faced on the streets of South London as a young man and his eventual imprisonment for participating in the legendary 1981 Brixton uprising against racial injustice, reggae music always provided a lifeline to Alex.
Alex’s life story was portrayed in Oscar Award–winning director Steve McQueen’s 2020 Small Axe. In Sufferah, he vividly tells his own story, putting the reader in his shoes through the many challenges of his younger years, answering the question: how on earth did he make it? By his example we are reminded that words can be our sustenance, and music can be our heartbeat.
Additional Praise for Sufferah:
"With more than 40 short chapters, the book brings readers along as artists such as Bob Marley, Sister Nancy, Dennis Brown, and others educate a young Black man about racial injustice and provide a lifeline when he felt at his lowest. Wheatle also finds family in his prison cellmate, who guides him toward a greater purpose, and he turns his life around using the music he loves and by tapping into his writing skills. The inspiration for Wheatle's fiction is apparent throughout his memoir, where he vividly and gracefully connects his own experiences to those of his characters. VERDICT: Readers will be drawn to Wheatle's exquisite prose, and lovers of music will appreciate how reggae brings light during difficult times."
“Novelist Wheatle (Brixton Rock) considers in this inspiring autobiography how reggae music helped him endure childhood abuse and connect with his heritage . . . His journey from orphan to self-possessed storyteller is by turns gripping and heartbreaking.”
"Alex Wheatle’s Sufferah is a moving account of one writer’s indomitable will to overcome the odds stacked against him. Tender, hilarious, and deeply felt, this memoir places Wheatle’s experiences in foster care and incarceration within a larger context of racism in the UK and dovetails with his coming of age as a lover of reggae music. What a gift to witness Wheatle’s journey to find and forgive his birth family and to make a life and family of his own."
—Naomi Jackson, author of The Star Side of Bird Hill
"Alex Wheatle writes from a place of honesty and passion, with the full knowledge and understanding that change can only happen through words and actions."
—Steve McQueen, Academy Award–winning film director
“Alex Wheatle's great mission is to make ‘sufferahs’ visible and represent them in his art. With this insightful memoir, which mixes music with memory, he has done exactly that.”
—C.J. Farley, author of Zero O’Clock
"Alex Wheatle's bracingly honest, at times excruciatingly evocative memoir is shaped by the poetics of reggae music—but more than that, it is reggae music: brimming with all the pain and injustice that is baked into Babylon system, yet at the same time, by virtue of its artistic majesty, a beautiful transcendence of these things."
—Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations
"This searing record of a writer's journey is that and more: A history of the reggae revolution in bass riddim. A raw account of racism in Britain. A prose that is Wheatle at his best—gritty, fast-paced, fierce, funny, restrained, a tightrope walker's balance. A crucial chapter in the story of Black lives. It’s hard to put this book down."
—Curdella Forbes, author of A Tall History of Sugar
“First of all, just to say, wow—what a privilege to be invited into Alex’s life in this way. This book is an intimate glimpse into a life full of struggle, pain, discovery and joy. Often heartbreaking but frequently life-affirming too, a lens into some of the most pressing social justice issues of a generation. Alex is a truly gifted storyteller, and the way he details his own story here is no exception.”
—Jeffrey Boakye, author of I Heard What You Said
Critical Praise for Alex Wheatle's Young Adult Fiction:
For Kemosha of the Caribbean
"Wheatle's swashbuckling latest blends adventure, history, and poignancy . . . Well written and full of thrills, this cross between Margarita Engle's Hurricane Dancers and L. A. Meyer's Bloody Jack Adventures series will inspire hope and spark admiration." —Booklist
"Kemosha's heart and tenacity are endearing." —Kirkus Reviews
"A stunning historical adventure that upends stereotypes." —Times (UK)
"Kemosha's indomitable spirit, determination, and wit make for an unforgettable heroine." —Guardian (UK)
For Cane Warriors
"Wheatle brings the struggle of slavery in the Jamaican sugar cane fields to life . . . A refreshing and heartbreaking story that depicts both a real-life uprising against oppression and the innate desire to be free. Highly recommended." —School Library Journal, starred review
"Alex Wheatle departs from his award-winning contemporary novels for a superb foray into historical fiction . . . Wheatle's characteristic kennings and coinages . . . heighten this intense, affecting story of courage, bloodshed and commitment to freedom at all costs." —Guardian (UK)
"I read it in one sitting. I simply could not put it down. Cane Warriors is such a powerful narrative of trauma and triumph . . . Wheatle celebrates the heroism that Tacky inspires. He tells the riveting story of fourteen-year-old Moa who bravely joins Tacky's army." —Gleaner (Jamaica)
For Home Girl
"Another powerful and poignant novel deftly created by one of the most prolific master novelists on either side of the pond. Home Girl is a page-turner, with not a dull moment. Loved it from the rooter to the tooter." —Eric Jerome Dickey, author of Before We Were Wicked
"With a tough exterior and brash attitude, Naomi is an authentic character in an unfortunate yet accurate picture of modern-day foster care in the UK . . . The ending is neither predictable nor sugarcoated, leaving readers rooting for this determined heroine." —School Library Journal