Gabriel Krauze, author, Who They Was

If you grow up in an environment like I did, you quickly understand that life is brutal, suffering is inevitable, and art is the closest thing to God.

Author Gabriel Krauze writes seldom-told stories that are rarely shared. Exposed to a life of crime and gangs from a very young age, having grown up in the back streets of South Kilburn in London, Gabriel, now 30 years old, has left that world behind, trading drugs and guns for pen and paper. His debut novel Who They Was, which received critical acclaim for its raw and unflinching portrayal of London’s dark underbelly, continues to spark discussions amongst critics about the glorification of violence and criminality. Gabriel is set to take the stage at Brisbane Powerhouse for PANOPTICA, in a conversation on crime, morality and the enduring power of ‘art’. We chatted to Gabriel ahead of his appearance about his life experiences, how they’ve shaped his writing and his future as an author.

First of all, we would like to know when everything clicked for you in terms of realising that writing was your desired career path. Was there a particular moment that inspired you?
There was no particular moment. I grew up in a household where I was introduced to books from a very young age and by the time I was 13 I knew I wanted to be a writer, although it took many more years before I was ready to commit to writing a novel.

You grew up in the back streets of South Kilburn in London where you were exposed to crime and gangs from a very young age. How did those experiences shape the way you write today?
It gave me an uninhibited rawness and made me fearless in terms of my writing. I want to confront people with my work. I have no interest in pleasing people, in providing them with utopian fantasies that feed into unrealistic desires to imagine that the world is a better place than it actually is. I have no interest in writing contrived stories that are sickly sweet with hope and joy, that are easily digestible, or that tick the boxes of the current performative zeitgeist where everyone is desperate to prove how righteous they are. All of that is dead. It has nothing to do with art. If you grow up in an environment like I did, you quickly understand that life is brutal, suffering is inevitable, and art is the closest thing to God. If you want to be an artist who genuinely cares about authenticity in your work, you have to resist the impositions of other people’s moral or aesthetic requirements. Create on your own terms and fuck what anyone else thinks.

Your debut novel, Who They Was, received critical acclaim for its raw and unflinching portrayal of gang life and violence in London. At what point did you feel like you were ready to write about your experience?
When I wasn’t as involved in the gang culture of northwest London anymore and I felt I had enough distance from the events I recount in my book to be legally safe, and safe from possible reprisals (although one can never truly be safe from repercussions when you’ve been deep in the streets). Also, when I had £25,000 stacked in a shoebox from selling drugs which meant I could just sit at a desk for four months and write without having to worry about the practicalities of rent, food etc.

Who They Was is an autobiographical novel. Was it difficult to offer up such a personal detailing of your life for the world to see?
No. All I wanted to do was to capture the truth of my life and to create a work that had some kind of genuine artistic intent behind it.

Your debut novel was long-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize and sparked debates and discussions surrounding the glorification of violence and criminality. What was your reaction to the response? Were you surprised?
I was surprised at how limited and intellectually lacking a lot of the commentary on my work was. It seems that in the UK few critics have the capacity to engage with complex philosophical ideas about morality. The British seem to always want to politicise everything, which immediately kills the longevity of a work. Or they have moralistic requirements of both literary protagonists and writers. When it comes to transgressive narratives, they tend to root for characters who are pathetic, justifying the actions and psychologies of amoral characters through pity. This is the death of art. Art should be confrontational as opposed to being morally justifiable. It needs to be imbued with power for it to affect our souls. And as for violence and its so-called glorification… imagine if people started saying we shouldn’t look at Caravaggio paintings because they’re full of darkness, and because the painter himself went around having knife fights, gambling, drinking, and carousing with prostitutes on the streets of Rome? We’d miss out on some of the most beautiful art that has ever been created.

Post release, what has been some of the most meaningful feedback that you have received? What do you hope readers take away from Who They Was?
The best response to my work was when Lemn Sissay (poet and one of the Booker Prize judges) said he needed to take a shower after reading the book. It showed he understood what my work was about. I hope that one message people will take from my work is that morality is relative to the level of danger in which you exist.

We’re very excited to see you as part of PANOPTICA at Brisbane Powerhouse on Wednesday August 23 – what can our readers expect from your appearance
I’ll be talking about my work in relation to art and the philosophy of morality. I would like to convey to both readers and the wider public that risk is important in all forms of art, otherwise it becomes predictable and shallow, numbing our senses with comfort and predictability.

Finally, can we expect more novels from you in the future?
I’m currently working on my second novel, based largely on my experience of going to Ukraine for two months where I took part in MedEvacs of wounded soldiers from the front. I have plans for many more books in the future.

PANOPTICA will take over the Brisbane Powerhouse on August 23 and 24. For more information or to grab tickets head here


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