Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Richard Swift

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Richard Swift

Author and international journalist Richard Swift's newest book, Gangs (Groundwood Books), is a fascinating and informative look at street gangs across the world. He talks to Open Book about how writing a YA book compares to journalistic work and how the degree of inequality in a society directly corresponds to its level of gang activity.

Gangs launches this week on Thursday, May 5th at Jet Fuel on Parliament Street. Visit our Events page for more details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Gangs.

Richard Swift:

Gangs is an overview of what has become a startling global phenomena — the rise of youth criminality and violence. My attempt is to go beyond "shock horror" to an understanding of the social context of poverty and inequality that has proved such a fertile breeding ground for today’s youth gangs. I try to look at the wider influences in adult predatory behavior in the political and corporate worlds that acts as a modeling influence for contemporary gangs. Without at all romanticizing gangs, my book attempts to move beyond the notion of criminal "other" to see gangs as part of a world that we have created and can un-create (i.e. change) if we so desire.

OB:

How do you hope this book will be used?

RS:

I hope that the book finds a readership amongst both kids who have to deal with gangs as part of their daily lives and policy makers and educators for whom gangs are a source of concern. Hopefully the book helps demystify gangs for kids of recruitment age. The book will succeed if it gets people to think of gangs as a symptom of a deeper malaise rather than a kind of psychotic outbreak that can be repressed by the simple application of tough love zero-tolerance policies.

OB:

Gangs is directed towards readers in Grades 9 and up, who I suspect can be tough customers. What strategies did you use to make sure the book would appeal to your target age group?

RS:

I think kids have a strong antenna for pompous self-righteous bullshit. So I tried to make the book straight-forward and to-the-point. Most kids know that not everyone attracted to gang life is a useless villain. They know that the drug laws are ridiculous. They know about the hypocrisy of the adult world. So I have tried for clear and concise writing that tells it like I think it is and is critical of the ruling myths. As Mark Twain said, sacred cows make the best hamburger.

OB:

How did you conduct your research for this book?

RS:

Well, I’m too old (and too chicken as well) to infiltrate gangs and tell the story from the inside. So while I did a number of interviews with sources in-the-know, the book is researched from an eclectic number of sources (TV, web, books, films) plus my own knowledge and experience as an international journalist. This is, after all, a global look at gangs from Cape Flats in South Africa to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, so the variation is probably greater than the similarities when it comes to gang cultures and economies.

OB:

What were you most surprised to learn during the process of writing Gangs?

RS:

A few things: 1) Rank-and-file gang members do not prosper economically. Many could make the same money with less risk (and less glamour) working at some McJob in the social service industry. Also the economic gap between the rewards of gang leaders and ordinary members is not that different from that between corporate CEOs and their workers.

2) That there is such a strict correlation (as measured by the Gini index) between the inequality in a particular society and its number of gang problems. So countries like Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti, the USA and South Africa (the world’s most unequal) all have huge gang problems.

OB:

How did your writing process for Gangs compare to the process you go through when doing journalistic work?

RS:

Fewer resources for travel to work with than when I was editing an issue for New Internationalist. You can get into the subject in a bit more depth, which is nice. I have done other books in the past so this was not too different. You need to pay more attention to the structure of your argument in a book than in reportage, where you are freer to draw scenes for your readership.

OB:

As a Toronto resident, are you alarmed by the frequent incidences of gang-related gun violence? How do you think the problem should be addressed?

RS:

Any violent death is a terrible thing and all steps should be taken to prevent them whether guns are used or not. This is particularly hard for the black community in Toronto as a lot of the shootings have been black-on-black gang violence. We can do a few things to stop this: 1) decriminalize drugs; 2) take guns off the street and have strict gun control laws; 3) give poor young people more equal life chances and publicly supported cultural activities and 4) don’t put so many people in jails where gangs rule the roost.

That said, Toronto does not have a serious gang problem by international standards. There are no multi-generational embedded gangs that having been going on for decades, controlling entire neighbourhoods that are no-go zones for the police. Our murder rate is quite low for a city of 2.5 million. I remember passing through Puerto Rico on January 10th this year, and there had already been 29 murders on that one island. We seldom top 100 for an entire year in Toronto.

We also have to be careful about law-and-order politicians that play the crime card. It is always possible to get people upset about a particular horrendous crime. But you need to look at overall tendencies involving our shrinking crime rates. Otherwise, manipulation by conservative politicians will only make matters worse.

OB:

Can you remember a book or article that you read as a youth that really opened your eyes about an important social issue? What was it that caused you to sit up and take note?

RS:

I think Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 really made me think about wars and how they are fought.

OB:

Have you recently read any current-affairs books that do an excellent job of tackling difficult subjects?

RS:

Michael Riordon’s recent book Our Way to Fight, published by Between The Lines, on the struggle for peace and justice in the Middle East does an excellent job on a very thorny subject.

OB:

What are you working on now?

RS:

Mostly journalism. I just did a piece on the Assad Family dictatorship in Syria and am working on a piece on political Utopianism. I am looking for another book project. I would like to do something on the politics of taxation and its manipulation.


Richard Swift is an internationally regarded journalist and a former editor of New Internationalist magazine. He has done stories from many parts of the world on issues as varied as famine and the plight of farmers, slums, the prison system and struggles for national liberation. Swift is author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Democracy and Trigger Issues: Mosquito, and he is editor of Ties That Bind: Canada and the Third World. He has also worked as a radio journalist. He lives in Toronto.

For more information about. Gangs and other Groundwood Guides, please visit the Groundwood Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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