Performance poet Patience Agbabi is a self-proclaimed “poetical activist”, as comfortable with political rap as she is with the traditional sonnet.
Her groundbreaking debut poetry collection R.A.W, penned to right the wrongs of the world, took the 1997 Excelle literary award. And later, in 2009 as poet laureate for Canterbury, she began working on a modern-day re-telling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Telling Tales, her fourth book (2014), was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Prize.
Now she has turned her attention to children’s fiction with a multi-cultural adventure series that celebrates neurodiversity. And she admits her passion for Chaucer is in part responsible for the series The Leap Cycle. The first in the tetralogy – The Infinite (2020) – was CBBC’s Book of the Month and longlisted for the Branford Boase Award for an outstanding debut novel for children.
So it’s no surprise the second, The Time-Thief, just out, is being eagerly received. In this tale about time travel, history and celebrating our differences, we find “leapling” Elle; a 13-year-old autistic black girl, who travels almost three centuries back in time to catch a thief, help her friend and save our future.
Oxford graduate Agbabi, raised jointly by black Nigerian parents and white foster parents who instilled a love of literature, reveals: “Chaucer is very character-based. In The General Prologue you are introduced to all of the characters. I have always liked dramatic monologues.
“Once I had Elle, the main hero in my head, she took over. It had to be a novel, it was never going to work as poetry.
“On a very literal level, it is about speaking in the voice of a young autistic girl and on a political level knowing there aren’t many books out there in the voice of a young autistic girl, especially a young autistic black girl.”
Mother-of-two Agbabi, whose oldest son is autistic and already a literary talent in his own right, ran the resulting text by an autistic sensitivity reader.
She says: “It was really important on a political level to have a sensitivity reader read the book and comment on my representation.”
The novel features the 11 “lost days” of 1752, when Britain changed over from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, and literary giant Dr Samuel Johnson, who at the time was writing his famous dictionary.
In the same year he took on a servant, African boy Francis Barber, who was to inherit his fortune. Agbabi says: “Johnson’s dictionary is central to the book, as is Elle’s love of poetry and also the celebration of neurodiversity in a different age.
“There is Dr Johnson, who nowadays would probably be diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, and Anna Williams, his housekeeper, who is blind. These people are operating and having very fulfilling lives in the 18th Century.
“And then there’s Francis Barber, I was fascinated with him. I would like the audience to know who he was and to celebrate his life as a black British historic figure.”
She adds: “It was interesting having the modern-day characters meet the historical characters. It is important that kids have fun with it. I didn’t want to bash them over the head with the politics, but the politics are there, they are intrinsic. I want kids to read and enjoy reading more than anything else.”
Patience Agbabi – The Time-Thief, Canongate, £6.99
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