Reviews /

If My Words Had Wings

Authored by Danielle Jawando
Published by Simon & Schuster Ltd

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If My Words Had Wings is another hard-hitting but hugely powerful YA novel from Danielle Jawando. Her previous novel, When Our Worlds Collided, felt in many respects like a British answer to Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give in its depiction of the racial discrimination and violence faced by Black British teenagers. In the same way, If My Words Had Wings feels like a counterpart to Ibi Zobi and Yusef Zalaam’s Punching the Air as it documents a Black British teenage boy’s experiences in a young offenders prison. This is not to suggest that Jawando’s writing is derivative – in fact, the opposite is true, and If My Words Had Wings is a novel which will stay with readers long after they have finished reading because of its original and nuanced treatment of its subject matter.

Jawando makes a number of crucial decisions that add to the novel’s impact. One is to set the novel towards the end of the narrator Tyrell’s eighteen-month sentence as he is counting towards his release date. This allows us to see that being released from prison is far from the sentimental happy ending we might imagine; instead, Tyrell faces further barriers as he seeks to re-enter society, from rebuilding his relationships with his mother and siblings to dealing with the stigma and humiliation he feels as an ex-convict who is still on probation.

Arguably an even bolder choice is to make Tyrell guilty of the crime for which he has been imprisoned (armed robbery). While all readers would naturally sympathise with a narrator who has been wrongly convicted, Jawando instead challenges us to consider the ways in which Tyrell might simultaneously be guilty and a victim of numerous forms of injustice. Tyrell expresses remorse for his actions, but Jawando suggests that he has ended up in this situation because of the way the education system and society more generally have failed him, and also that he has been judged far more harshly than many white people are for similar or worse crimes. At the same time, Jawando uses other characters, particularly Tyrell’s fellow inmate Dadir, to highlight miscarriages of justice which disproportionately affect Black and mixed-race prisoners: Dadir is convicted of murder under a joint enterprise prosecution (a concept with which many readers will be unfamiliar and find shocking) because he happened to nod at the actual killer, and the drill music he listens to is used of further evidence of his alleged gang membership.

This is a harrowing and viscerally painful read: Tyrell’s voice is raw, honest and real, allowing us to feel the constant sense of dread he has to live with, especially while he is in prison. There are some horrifying descriptions of violence, but it is the psychological impacts of incarceration which are most distressing. ‘This whole place makes you feel like you have no voice,’ Tyrell observes, ‘cos you don’t matter, not in here, and not out there.’ Small wonder, then, that Tyrell, like many other prisoners, resorts to self-harm and even attempts suicide. And while we are desperate for Tyrell to avoid doing anything that will send him back to prison after his release, we can understand the impulse he feels at times to give in and become what society repeatedly tells him he is.

Against this bleak backdrop, Jawando does offer hope for Tyrell – through his relationships with his family, with Dadir and with his oldest friend Elisha; through the caring professional support of his probation officer, his GP and the teacher at the college where he enrols; and, perhaps most significantly, through poetry. He is initially cynical about the writing workshops he attends while still in prison, but reading poets such as Caleb Femi and Lemn Sissay allows Tyrell to recognise ‘a beauty in the poems that none of us ever get to see, and a truth as well that we never even talk about.’ During the first workshop, he poignantly reflects that ‘no one’s ever told me to be proud of what I’ve done in my entire life’, but with the help of visiting performance poet Malik, Tyrell is able to unlock his own voice and use it to speak out against injustice. Jawando only includes a couple of the poems that Tyrell writes, but both are stunningly profound pieces of writing.

This is such an important book to share with teenage readers. I would personally only share this with pupils in Year 9 upwards because of the style (very frequent swearing) and content (violence, self-harm, suicide, recreational drug use) – all of which help to make Jawando’s writing so essential. But for many young people, reading this book will be a transformative experience, either in terms of seeing their own communities represented on the page, or in understanding and empathising with the lives of people who are all too rarely given a voice.