Keisha The Sket author Jade LB on the importance of Black British storytelling

Photography: Stuart Simpson

It was the viral story that had Noughties kids glued to MSN messenger. Now, its cultural significance is being celebrated with a print edition.

Londoners who grew up in the early-mid Noughties will recall fond memories of that time. When we were chilling at Sams or Dixy chicken after school, we’d be able to get a one-piece chicken and chips meal for a quid. Our playlists were packed with of Channel U classics like Gash by Da Hour, and our fashion style consisted of excessive colour coordination and Nike Just Do It bags.

Back then, our methods of communication were the Sony Ericsson W800 phone and MSN messenger. And one memory many people hold close to their heart is the story that circulated around school playgrounds: Keisha The Sket.

Written by Jade LB when she was just 13-years-old, Keisha The Sket was an 18-chapter coming of age story first published in 2005 on the now-defunct blogging platform Piczo. The story went viral – via Bluetooth, Infrared and MSN – and became the most talked about topic across London’s school playgrounds.

The story was far from your average Young Adult novel, exploring themes such as sex, consent and gender violence with unflinching detail.

But for many of us in this generation, Keisha The Sket was the first story that captured the Black British experience. From the slang used (lyk, l8r, bcoz) to relatable comical characters (best friend Shanice) and familiar London settings (top deck of the bus), for the first time, we could see ourselves reflected in the characters. They sounded like us, dressed like us and looked like us. While most teenage literature around the time only explored teenage years and girlhood through the lens of white characters, Jade LB unintentionally challenged the literary status quo by centring Black British girlhood in her story.

Now, over a decade later, the once-anonymous author has re-written the story. The print edition of Keisha The Sket is accompanied by essays by revered writers like Candice Carty-Williams, Caleb Femi and Aniefiok Ekpoudom. It’s out today, via Stormzy’s imprint #Merky Books. We called Jade LB to talk about the story’s cultural significance.

Jade, congratulations on the publication of Keisha The Sket. Why was it important for you to rewrite the story?

My writing abilities, opinions and thoughts have changed since writing the original. As a writer, I’ve now gained a better understanding of the complexities of each character. I’m now a 29-year-old woman, and I have a full new understanding of Black girlhood and teenagehood’.

What made you choose the title, Keisha The Sket?

Fun fact, I didn’t even call the story Keisha The Sket. People just started calling it that, and it stuck. I called it Da Story on Piczo. I assume this new name stuck because of the perception of Keisha as someone promiscuous. In the revisited version, I explore the fact that maturity and wisdom meant my lens shifted, and I realised that Keisha didn’t have agency over her body in many of her interactions.

Reading it back now, it was so clear that there was so much missing, parts that didn’t make sense, and context that needed to be added. For example, you’ll see that I delve into Keisha’s mum’s character and their relationship in the revisited version. But I saw the rewrite as an opportunity to help my teenage self make the story a better version of what it originally was.

What inspired you to start writing?

Honestly, writing a story was on the long list of things I wanted to do when I finally got a computer. I ended up getting one for my 13th birthday.

These were the days of dial-up internet but AOL broadband was outside of the household budget for some time – so I just had to make do with the factory set programs on the computer that didn’t require the internet for a while. That’s when I came across the notepad function, and I started writing.

You literally went viral before we even knew what it was. When you look back at it now, how did it feel to see your story gain so much popularity at such a young age?

During school, I didn’t think it was that much of a big deal. I knew that a few people were reading it, but I still couldn’t measure its impact at the time. I realised that people were not only reading it but hooked onto it when I started receiving anonymous threats from strangers when I was late uploading chapters. That was crazy!

I’ve only now begun to grasp the significance of Keisha The Sket. My friends on Twitter would send me screenshots of people talking about the story online, almost a decade after I published the first chapter. This did trigger my anxiety at times. When my friends first showed me the screenshots, I would be like, oh this again, why does everyone still remember it?!But in hindsight, it’s amazing to think that so many people remembered my story years later.

It can’t be understated how important a role #Merky Books is playing not just for the culture, but wider society too.”

Growing up I loved Jacqueline Wilson books, especially the Girls in Love series. Were there any books you read growing up that inspired you?

I enjoyed reading Jacqueline Wilson books too, because she spoke about the complex parts of navigating your teenage years that I could relate to. But, like most mainstream teenage fiction novels at the time, all of the characters were white.

At the time, my friends and I would go to our local libraries and ransack the Black fiction section. They were always based on Black American characters. Books like Around The Way Girls and Chyna Black were the first bits of real literature that reflected people who looked like us. Looking back on it now, I’m glad that for many people, Keisha The Sket was their first authentic representation of Black British fiction characters.

Were there any parts of your culture or upbringing that you referred to when creating the character Keisha?

Not really, we’re both Black girls who grew up in inner city London. But that’s where the comparison ends. Perhaps the ways in which Keisha is described — bold, ambitious, sharp — are the adjectives those close to me would use to describe me. I definitely didn’t feel particularly bold, sharp or ambitious at the time of writing though, so this wasn’t conscious.

Photography: Stuart Simpson

The sheer mention of Keisha The Sket gives me instant flashbacks of my school days at the back of the bus, scrolling through my MSN chat, looking for the next chapter. What do you want old readers to get from the revisited version?

Well, I first want you all to get a hit of nostalgia. Bringing you right back to your school days when we were all obsessed with MSN messenger, BlackBerry phones and Piczo.

All the original readers are now much older. So I’d hope that we’d all be looking at these characters from a whole new lens, which can hopefully spark up meaningful conversations that need to be had about gendered violence and sex. I want Keisha The Sket to be at the helm of these conversations.

What are your thoughts on the publishing industry now, and how essential are Black British stories for the culture?

I cannot stress how much of an important function storytelling has, and how unjust it is not seeing and hearing our experiences in literature, in the place many of us call home’. It can’t be understated how important a role #Merky Books is playing not just for the culture, but wider society too.

However, publishing is still an exceptionally gate kept space. There are a lot of steps before you get your manuscript on the table of a publisher — you need an agent, you need a lot of resources to write the work. The publishing world is predominantly white and middle class. A LOT needs to change.

Which books are currently on your bookshelf?

I recently finished All About Love by bell hooks which I think I’ll be recommending until the day I die. I’m currently reading Keep The Receipts by The Receipts’ podcast hosts which I’m enjoying — it’s a fun, relatable read. My next read is Empress & Aniya by Candice Carty-Williams.

What’s next for you? Will we see a Keisha The Sket sequel?

I have no plans on doing a sequel or anything like that. But I still want to continue exploring my passion for storytelling. Through storytelling, we gain a broader perspective of the people that make up the society we live in. I want to sharpen up my storytelling abilities, perhaps do a course in creative writing, who knows?

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