Leone Ross was born in Coventry, England, on 26 June 1969.
She grew up in Jamaica, and studied at the University of the West Indies and at the City University in London, where she now lives. She has worked as a journalist for The Voice newspaper in London and as a researcher for LWT as well as contributing to a wide range of magazines and newspapers in Britain and America, including The Guardian and The Sunday Times. In 2000, she received a London Arts Board Writers' Award.
Leone Ross teaches creative writing and was a Fellow at Trinity College Dublin in 2001. She has worked at Cardiff University, Birkbeck College and the City Literary Institute, and is currently co-Programme Convenor for Roehampton University's Creative Writing programme.
She is the author of two novels, All the Blood is Red (1996) and Orange Laughter (1999).
In her first novel, All the Blood is Red (1996), the lives of four black women converge in a narrative of innocence and experience set in the dark days of late 20th-century London.
Jeanette, Nicola, Alexandrea and Mavis, are by turns confined and liberated, pleasured and tortured by sexual desires and sordid acts in a haunting narrative that shuttles between England and Jamaica. Themes of sex and violence run through the author’s work as a whole, which is sometimes published under the label erotic fiction. Meanwhile, Ross has described herself as a writer primarily interested in human sexuality.
In her second novel, Orange Laughter (1999), Ross relocates to New York and North Carolina while pursuing similar themes of violence, love and loss. The narrative focuses on Tony Pellar, an archetypal invisible man who lives in the subterranean subway system of New York City. Nodding knowingly to an African American tradition, and the likes of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, our protagonist is a haunted soul, on the verge of a madness marked by childhood memories and by the civil rights movement of the 1960s:
'I stooped over the child and looked at him for a long time but I felt nothing I wondered if he was garbage I hunkered down a foot away and stared at his body at first he looked like a sack then a mattress torn apart I stretched and I could see his arm and the tilt of his pelvis I stared hard WAS it a child you know the darkness plays with all our minds down here I didn't want to touch I tried to decide not to know but I'm not an animal baby so I reached out for the pathetic coat he wore I couldn't see its colour and I wondered where the sound was coming from a raw sorrow song I wondered who was crying over his crumpled face dang I saw the tears falling onto his little arm I watched them fall and I was thinking there are so many leaks down here then I realised the leak was me
it was me'
In these striking opening lines from the novel, Tony appears in unbroken narrative prose as a broken man, alienated from his self, at once without feeling (‘I felt nothing’; ‘I didn’t want to touch’), but paradoxically overcome by feeling: ‘I held him he was cold all I had was a thin coat but I wrapped it around him I hugged him to me and thought if only he would cough and struggle like the end of any good book everything would be alright his head was soaked with my tears how old was he why did he die alone down here in this stinking place did the trains get you child’. As Tony and child cry into each other, they leak into one another, becoming one. Tony’s identification and merger with his childhood self serves to embody the protagonist’s broader preoccupation with a past that both consumes and actively pursues him in the form of the spectral figure, Agatha, otherwise known as the Soul Snatcher. He contacts his childhood friend Mikey in a desperate attempt to recollect a personal history that will either redeem or (re)claim him.
The kind of formal experimentation that marks the opening of Orange Laughter also helps to explain Ross’s notable success with the short story form, a genre that demands sensitivity to the shape of narrative. In short stories like ‘Contract’ we are exposed to the sex-starved interior monologue of Theron, a young Jamaican man in the United States. The pornography of Theron’s sexual fantasy is punctured by the reader’s growing awareness that our narrator is in fact in a coma, dying, or dead, as his parents grieve over his lifeless body. As he drifts heavenward, Theron experiences his own petit morte in a brief moment of ecstasy in a Brooklyn apartment:
'I’m not a virgin anymore, fuck me, then I ran out of words, bright light in my head, and the smell of sweat and the smell of being somebody, and just as I broke into pieces inside Rose, I broke into pieces for real, all up in the air, part of the air, peaceful, free, bare, nothing. I’m not a virgin anymore, fuck me, then I ran out of words, bright light in my head, and the smell of sweat and the smell of being somebody, and just as I broke into pieces inside Rose, I broke into pieces for real, all up in the air, part of the air, peaceful, free, bare, nothing.'
As with Orange Laughter, the self seems at its most singular when it falls apart. But pleasure-seeking hedonism amounts to more than the content of Ross’s fiction. As experimental short stories like ‘Contract’ suggest, it also accounts for her interest in the condensed brevity of the short story form:
'I find the short story form immensely rewarding. I often refer to it as a glug of vodka: down the hatch in one swig. But the brevity of the form isn’t the only reason I love shorts. Simply put, I can always manage to write a short story before I get scared. While I am in my soul, a novelist, the long form is often a frightening experience. But I’m not scared of my shorts ...'
The use of brevity as a positive fictional force is what characterizes all of Ross’s short fiction to date, from early tales such as ‘Phone Call to a Rape Centre’ to more recent pieces such as ‘Mudman’. It is perhaps unsurprising then to discover that, in interview, Ross has said the best advice she ever received was that ‘It takes five minutes to change the world’.
Dr James Procter, 2010