As part of our Digital Literary Salon, Dean Atta speaks to Keith Jarrett about queer black British experience, schools, and writing for teens.
PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.
KEITH JARRETT: First up, congratulations on having such an engaging and joyous book out in the world. It’s great to see The Black Flamingo being recognised with the Stonewall Book Award, and with a US release. How does it feel knowing that young people (and adults) are experiencing Michael’s journey in different parts of the world? Did you have an international readership in mind when you first set out to write the story?
DEAN ATTA: This is a very British book. But British culture has been – and continues to be – exported throughout the world, so I imagined it would reach beyond the borders of the UK book market. When I was invited to two festivals in India at the start of this year, I was met with a respectful but relentless interest in me and my work, and a curiosity about the black queer experience in Britain. With India having only recently got rid of an old colonial law that criminalised homosexuality, it’s very new to be having this conversation in public, and I was a kind of role model to many people I spoke with.
I guess I’ve always hoped I would “make it” in America. I think that’s a very black British aspiration, because there are far less options for us in the UK, especially in industries such as music and film. When I was younger, I saw acts like Floetry and actors like Idris Elba go from the UK to US and make it big. So I think that’s always been something I had hoped. But I didn’t write my story for the US specifically and, when the US deal came about, I had to do a lot of translation and Americanisation. Obvious things like ‘football’ becoming ‘soccer’, and some other things I wouldn’t have thought of, like ‘vine leaves’ becoming ‘grape leaves’.
I think the story translates whether it’s to India or America; whether some things feel familiar or foreign, it’s about a boy becoming a man and questioning what that means.
I’ve known you as a poet in the spoken word scene for years. How much of a gear-change was it for you to write a novel – albeit a novel-in-verse? Could you talk a bit about the process of switching genres (or whether you even see it that way)? I’m particularly interested in what the process was like for you: developing Michael’s character, sustaining the story, and any challenges along the way.
It was a very painful process. I cried a lot, but feel much lighter having shed those tears. I learnt a lot about craft through this process, and have even greater respect for both genres. The main difference is length: most poems are less than 200 words but with a novel you are dealing with tens of thousands of them. With a novel-in-verse, you are aiming for each page to be as tight as a poem but to work as part of something bigger. Sometimes I had to think of the book as one long poem, writing parts and moving them around. I didn’t originally write the book in chronological order; I imagined it jumping around in time. But my editor convinced me that working chronologically would work best for the teenage reader. Perhaps if this were an adult book, it would have been a bit more experimental.
Speaking of challenges, could you maybe talk more about what it was like to write a teenager’s story for a predominantly teenage audience, while taking into account certain limitations? I know you’ve spoken before about how, for instance, you carefully had to negotiate how to broach sex and sexuality without being too graphic. Were there any other considerations you had to make for a younger audience?
The story is far more streamlined than I had in mind when I set out, but I really appreciate my editor’ input, and the questions she asked that helped me make quite drastic cuts to the storyline. All the characters have so much backstory that isn’t on the page, but I hope it informs their interactions in a way that makes them feel fully realised. Rather than show you everything, some scenes in the book ‘pan away’ from the action or ‘fade to black’. I use these kinds of terms in the book, which I have knowingly borrowed from TV and film, because the influence of on-screen representation is very prevalent in Michael’s story (Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Moonlight, Kinky Boots).
When Michael has his first sexual experience and he has been smoking weed and sniffing poppers, it ‘fades to black’ because he passes out. I think the story is as graphic as I would feel comfortable with it being. At sixteen, Michael is already weed-smoking, popper-sniffing and Grindr-using. I think my editor let me go pretty far with the authenticity of this gay teen experience. I don’t describe sex in any graphic detail because I don’t think it would have added anything to the story. In fact, it may have raised alarm bells with some gatekeepers, and perhaps even prevented the book from reaching some of the young people who need it.
We both spent time in schools as spoken word educators, and I know how important it is – for both of us – to use poetry and stories as a tool of empowerment for young people, as readers and as creators. How important do you feel it is to be visible – as black, as queer, as being someone of mixed heritage – in these spaces, and now as an author?
It feels wonderful for me to take my whole self into school settings. For me to be able to talk about being gay, when it’s relevant, is I know empowering to LGBT students. To discuss my identity as black and mixed race and British opens up a conversation about us having multiple identities. Being open with students that I am dyslexic and didn’t read many books when I was a teenager seems to encourage dyslexic students to be open about their experience. And students with other learning difficulties or anger-management issues seem suddenly to view me as more relatable. I’ve had students tell me things like, ‘You being here makes me feel safe and understood’, and, ‘I don’t really read but I would read your book’.
I think teachers have to have their guard up a lot more with students; as a visiting poet or author, I come as I am and sometimes that can be challenging. I had a school visit in Glasgow this year where a student was sent out by the teacher for saying, ‘I don’t want to be read to by a gay person’. That was the first time in over a decade of doing this that I’ve had anything discriminatory said to me by a student. If the teacher hadn’t sent them out, I would have wanted to keep them in the class and unpack what was behind that statement.
Without too many spoilers, Michael’s coming out doesn’t quite go to plan. In a touching but poignant sequence, Kieran, a black classmate of his, points out to Michael that Justin Fashanu was the first openly gay footballer and was black too. The way they respond to each other shows both the sense of affirmation and hesitancy (earlier, when asked by another friend if he finds Kieran attractive, Michael wonders whether he finds him ‘fit or frightening‘). I guess this is related to the above question in some ways but, for me, this really showed up how black gay role models are needed to resist the prevailing stereotypes of black male aggression and homophobia, among other things. How much do you see this story as speaking to this resistance? How much research went in to including black queer history in the book?
If anything, I had to hold back some of what I knew in order to allow Michael’s story to be one of discovery. Every instance of black queer representation gives Michael a bit more confidence: learning about Justin Fashanu, seeing Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Kinky Boots and Moonlight – these all show Michael that there isn’t just one way to be black and queer. I include a whole list of names of black queer people toward the end of the book (yours included, Keith), because I wanted readers to be able to go away and read about lots of other black queer role models. There are way more than could plausibly fit into this story.
With regards to black male aggression, whilst Michael grows up without his father, he has a black male role model in Uncle B, who is ever-present, generous with gifts, money and advice. The only time Michael sees Uncle B lose his temper is after the police stop them for no apparent reason; this has a profound impact on Michael, and his outlooks on race and racism. Equally, by the end of the book, his relationship to Kieran has changed his outlook. In a way, Kieran appears to be the antithesis of Michael because he’s sporty and gets into fights, but he’s also incredibly tender and thoughtful.
I’m particularly concerned about how we give young people access to a wide range of stories, so that they feel able to create their own paths, especially when we are at the mercy of gatekeepers (schools, parents, libraries, publishers). Growing up under Section 28 – it’s difficult to believe it was actually illegal for schools to “promote” homosexuality right up until 2003 – there was hardly any overt representation of LGBT stories. Even so, in my teens, in a few of the books we were given to read at school, I felt seen – I got chills, finally recognising myself in what I was reading! Were there any books or films for you, growing up, that had a deep effect on how you saw yourself?
As a teenager, the movie Beautiful Thing was the first time I felt like I saw myself. I’m not too similar to the character of Jamie, and my mother is not at all like Sandra, but this London story of a gay teenager and his single mother made me feel so incredibly seen.
Will we see Michael again, or any of the other characters in The Black Flamingo? What’s coming next for you?
I don’t think we will see Michael again, unless The Black Flamingo is made into a movie or TV series. I think that would be really cool because, as someone who wasn’t a big reader when I was younger, I looked for my representation in movies and on TV, and I would love if this story could reach those who might find the book. For those wanting another young adult book like The Black Flamingo, they should look out for Boy Queen by George Lester.
Named as one of the most influential LGBT people in the UK by the Independent on Sunday and “one of poetry’s greatest modern voices” by Gay Times, poet Dean Atta’s work has appeared on BBC One, BBC Radio 4, BBC World Service and Channel 4, often dealing with themes of gender, identity, race and growing up. Dean regularly performs across the UK and internationally. He is a member of Keats House Poets Forum and Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, as well as a Tutor for Arvon and Poetry School. Dean’s debut poetry collection was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. His latest book, The Black Flamingo, follows a mixed-race gay teen as he spreads his wings at university as a drag performer; a bold story about embracing your uniqueness and finding your inner strength.
Keith Jarrett is a writer, performer and educator. UK poetry slam champion and Rio International Poetry Slam Winner, his work has included bilingual performances in Bilbao and Madrid, in addition to UK-wide commissions, from arts institutions to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Houses of Parliament. His play, Safest Spot in Town, was aired on BBC Four. Keith was selected for the International Literary Showcase by Val McDermid as one of 10 most outstanding LGBT writers in the UK. Having recently completed his PhD at Birkbeck University, Keith is finishing his first novel. Selah, his poetry collection, was published in 2017.
This series features voices from the 2020 programme of the English PEN Literary Salon at the London Book Fair (LBF). LBF is the global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels. Taking place every spring in the world’s premier publishing and cultural capital, it is a unique opportunity to explore, understand and capitalise on the innovations shaping the publishing world of the future. LBF brings you direct access to customers, content and emerging markets. LBF 2021, the 50th Fair, will take place from 9-11 March 2021, Olympia London. LBF’s London Book and Screen Week will run for the fourth year, with the book fair as the pivotal three-day event within a seven-day programme. For further information, please visit: www.londonbookfair.co.uk