Measuring the reach of events on both public and personal scales is a monumental task. Singular occurrences reverberate through communities and express themselves uniquely within individuals. Often, they have their deepest impact on those who have little to do with the incident. The 1992 Los Angeles riots – civil disturbances that occurred due to black and white racial conflict – had their most serious impact on the streets of Koreatown and the group of people caught in the middle. Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City follows the lives of residents of or near London council estates, over the two days following the murder and attempted decapitation of British soldier Lee Rigby.
The high rising towers that make up Estate are a melange of London’s disenfranchised communities. West Indian, Northern Irish, and Pakistani inhabitants make up the group of young men and their parents who narrate their lives over the course of the two days. Teenage life is front and center with a majority of the characters being friends a year before university. Girls, pot, football, and music are what their world revolves around. The two adult narrators spend their space looking backwards and bringing to life the racial struggles that have continuously flowed through the city and are once again beginning to boil over.
“When we saw the eyes of the black boy with the dripping blade, we felt closer to him than that soldier-boy slain in the street,” remarks Yusuf, of Pakistani background, after seeing the video of the murder of Lee Rigby by a recent Muslim convert. This is London, a world of clear divides, and it reflects all too well the current pains of our Post-Brexit Trumpian nightmare.
English, in all its beautiful malleability, paints the picture from the ground up. Through words and phrases like “Ennit” and “Kiss my teeth,” language acts as the concrete and fields where the young kick, flirt, and scrape their way in attempts to come to grips with their community. Grime, the current style of rap that is essential to London’s modern ethos, is the soundtrack to the characters’ lives and points to a possible way out of the shadows of the towers.
Each of the teenagers at the center of the story, Ardan, Yusuf, and Selvon, represent a way out – music, religion, or athletics. “All blacks have is sports and entertainment,” rapped Jay-Z back in 1996 on ‘Can’t Knock the Hustle’ from his debut album. Little seems to have changed about this, only the ethnic groups with few options seem to have grown. It is the belief in a way out, nonetheless, that differentiates and propels each character.
The confluence of belief with the events following in the wake of Lee Rigby’s murder impacts the language of each character and their surrounding world. Yusuf, with his family firmly based in the world of the nearby mosque and its community, finds rhetoric and speech become more fundamentalist and extremist, dramatically changing his interactions with Estate and his London community. Ardan finds belief in himself and the music life he is chasing, allowing him to better string together words and meaning. Selvon, with his motivational tapes, continues training, pushing himself just as he was before.
Gunaratne uses language to deconstruct the Estate. It also serves as the ground on which these relationships have been built. It is words and the character’s belief in them that propels each forward, and it is the language of the community both old and new that separates it from the surrounding London metropolis. In In Our Mad and Furious City language gives hope even while the city attempts to tear itself apart.