Sometimes I read a book which will change lives. The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta is one. A novel in verse, interspersed with stand-alone poems, it follows Michael, also Mikey, and Mike, and later The Black Flamingo, from his first hatching at the crack of the new millennium, through the multiple twists and turns, and fully-fledged transformations, that finally lead to his glorious coming out in full drag at university. Written for the YA market, but equally resonant for adult readers, it showcases the spare, intimate voice which led to Dean Atta’s debut collection, I Am Nobody’s Nigger, being shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize, and saw him named as one of the most influential LGBT people in the UK by the Independent on Sunday. Dean’s poems have been featured widely on radio and tv, as well as on social media, which he works with as powerful channel of communication, using his facebook page to be open about intermittent negotiations with depression, as well as his writing, and performing, and political activism. The Black Flamingo is already picking up rave reviews and fan letters. As the bi-queer mum of an adult queer son, who rocks a mean line in drag himself, I connected with The Black Flamingo at many levels, and valued being able to ask Dean how the project came together and what his intentions were in writing a queer coming of age story that begins in very early childhood and encompasses the black British experience. We also discussed being emotionally truthful, how it felt to speak to a YA readership, at a potentially key moment in their lives – and whether a gender-liberated identity is possible.
AH: There is a scene about three quarters of the way through The Black Flamingo when your teen narrator, Michael, is asked in a barbershop, what he writes about. He replies:
I don’t say Coming out as gay.
I don’t say Sleeping with men.
I say ‘Identity and stuff.’
He doesn’t ask me anything else.
Have you sometimes felt that Michael’s story, of growing up Black-Greek-Cypriot-British, and finding and claiming a Drag identity, is one that people have resisted, or felt uncomfortable, about hearing? If so, did this contribute to your impulse to write?
DA: I judged it in terms of Michael’s feelings of comfort and safety with whomever he is talking to. There is an earlier part of the book when Michael takes his time to figure out if he wants to tell his school friend Daisy that he is gay. I think I come from the school of thought that you’re sexuality is not necessarily everyone’s business, and it’s up to each person to decide if they want to come out and who they want to come out to. Coming out isn’t something you just do once and it’s over and done with. Michael finds himself coming out over and over again. By this point in the book Michael has come out to many people including his extremely supportive mother. I wanted to show him having lots of positive coming out experiences, throughout the book. However, the barbershop isn’t a place I could in good conscience locate one of these positive coming out moments. I would not feel comfortable to talk about my sexuality in a barbershop. There’s a lot said in barbershops that makes them feel unsafe in many ways.
AH: You begin, in the Prologue:
Throughout, your narrative combines teenage and child selves, and flamingo and human selves. Was it a challenge to create a structure to hold so many intertwining strands? How did you set about it?
DA: Everything about writing this book was a challenge. The only easy part was getting the publishing deal because I didn’t do that, my agent Becky Thomas did. Once I was under contract to write the book the logistics of writing a verse-novel immediately became very daunting. I was very unsure how I was going to pull it off. The flamingo metaphor was central to the book and had to appear from the beginning and so the idea of the egg came to me quite early. There’s repetition of eggs, feathers and flight imagery throughout the book. Some were written into the very first draft of the book but many were added when I was redrafting. I initially wrote the whole book with Michael as a teenager starting when he sees The Black Flamingo when he’s on holiday in Cyprus, with all the earlier childhood stuff in flashbacks. However my editor Polly Lyall-Grant suggested that we could start with his early childhood and tell it chronologically. When I had moved everything into a chronological sequence we found it flowed much better as a story.
AH: The Black Flamingo is told in the first person, beginning with Michael’s parallel egg and millennium births, and his human parents’ separation. It then cuts straight to his sixth birthday – for which he has asked for a Barbie. Michael’s words have complete clarity and believability, which comes across compellingly when you perform them. I wondered if you were you interested in capturing the voice of early childhood, for personal as well as political reasons? The early ‘chapters’ have great titles – ‘Barbies and Belonging’, ‘Sandcastles’.
DA: Michael’s childhood was initially written from the perspective of a teenager looking back knowingly on these younger memories. However when we changed this to have Michael’s narration start at six years old and age through the book I had to go back and rework these scenes to be more naive and less knowing. Capturing the voice of a six, seven, eight year old was really fun in terms of limiting the vocabulary and knowledge of the narrator without losing any of the emotional truth or poignancy of the poems. I had to take care not to put adult intentions, motivations or interpretations onto the actions of Michael in his childhood.
AH: At a time when education about identity and orientation is being challenged in some schools, did you feel that giving witness to the formation and articulation of a queer identity from when it starts to have consciousness of itself, was an important act, politically?
DA: It’s an authentic story that is similar to my own in many ways so it just felt like I was telling the truth. In the sense that there was an emotional truth to the book, even though it is a work of fiction. It can be viewed as a political statement but it was just the best way to tell Michael’s story. Meeting Michael as a child makes the story somewhat similar a firework with a long fuse; a slow burn and big bang. What was most important for me about writing this book is that I wanted it to be full of love and optimism, I wanted Michael to have a loving family and friends that he could fall back on when he encountered more hostile and negative forces in the world.
AH: I read The Black Flamingo as bi-queer woman, and the mother of a queer adult son. It is incredibly moving, and totally gripping, partly because Michael/Mike and his mum are so warm, and human and believable, and involving. It is also really powerful because of the ways it shows his identity forming itself, relative to the world in which he moves, and the friendships he makes – and the challenges he faces through school, and then into university. It’s been published by Hodder Children’s Books, and is aimed at YA readers. I wondered what led you and your publishers to position it in this way? Your debut, I Am Nobody’s Nigger, was an adult publication. The Black Flamingo felt to me like a book I will be giving to both adults, and teenagers.
DA: Polly at Hodder is a children’s book editor so Young Adult fiction was the only option if I was to publish with her. I also had interest from a poetry publisher to do The Black Flamingo as a straightforward poetry collection and a non-fiction editor at another publisher to rewrite it as a memoir but I wasn’t so interested in writing about myself, I wanted to try something else. So creating a character seemed more appealing to me and writing a verse-novel seemed like an exciting challenge. Polly gave me lots of editorial support along the way to make sure the story was appropriate for teenagers and I arranged a number of readings with school groups and university students whilst working on the book to check we were getting it right.
AH: Was there a reason for Michael to be born in 1999, which I believe makes him a little younger than you are?
DA: Michael is much younger than me, I was born in 1984. I was sure that I didn’t want to make the book a throwback to the 90s and noughties. I wanted to use contemporary references and deal with the concerns of teenagers today. I wanted Michael to be a teenager today, so I worked backwards from there to pick his year of birth. Some pop culture references got confusing because certain movies have been remade from the 80s and 90s, and some music artists have been around for ages so I had to ask myself, Which version of the movie would Michael have seen and would he actually be into that singer or is that just my own childhood seeping out through him?
AH: Your text combines the ongoing narrative of the novel-in-verse with shorter inset poems, laid out on lightly lined pages, as if taken from a notebook, and text messages in rectangular bubbles. Was it important to you to embrace multiple forms of typography, as well as different forms of poetry-making, within the project to create a more open, possible feeing?
DA: I just wrote the words. In some cases I specified that this would be written in his notebook or this would be on a mobile phone screen. But the design elements of the book are down to the designer Alice Duggan and illustrator Anshika Khullar. It turned out even more beautiful than I could have imagined.
AH: Anshika Khullar’s graphics and layout – with its flowing illustrations all over the pages of flamingos, and seagulls, and drag queens, and feathers, and aeroplanes, and stars, and landscape features – is integral to the way the text performs itself. How did your collaboration come about, and what did it feel like to work together? When did Anshika come on board?
DA: We didn’t collaborate directly, Anshika was picked by my publisher on the strength of their work on Instagram. I was focused on writing the words. They were sent a brief for designing the cover before the book was even written. We were working simultaneously on the insides but never met or communicated directly, it went via Polly and Alice. Our publisher had a big summer party and this was the first time all four of us were together. This was after a year of working on the book. By this point the it had already been sent off to the printers.
AH: Malika Booker was another creative force within The Black Flamingo’s realisation. Could you say something about her role? I know you go back a long way with her through Malika’s Kitchen.
DA: Malika Booker spent a few days working on it towards the end. She spent a day reading and making notes on the manuscript, then we had a meeting where we discussed her feedback. I took a day or two to digest it all and then we had a follow up phone call so I could ask her any further questions. Malika’s feedback was very tough but necessary. She was focused on the poetry. I had already put a lot of work into the manuscript and received countless rounds of notes from my editor and a proofreader on the storytelling, grammar and punctuation. Malika was looking for music, metaphor and striking images. She didn’t refrain from telling me all the places in the manuscript where these were lacking. To use Malika’s own words: “where it flatlines.” With her feedback I went back over the manuscript to revive the poetry. I believe that having Malika as a critical friend was crucial to the book working so well.
AH: Brighton, where Michael goes to university, also has a key role role. I know you wrote segments of the work on location by the sea. Did you already have connections with the city, and how did living there work out? The poem ‘On Brighton Beach’ speaks with great strength from and to the Greek Cypriot and Caribbean parts of Michael’s identity, as well as the traditional ‘island nation’ idea attached to Britain. It ends:
I need to breathe
on Brighton Beach.
I love to know
I live on an island.
I know my people
are island people.
DA: I think anyone who has lived or spent time by the sea will know how calming it is. I spent a week in Brighton at the University of Sussex working on the book but the bigger amount of time was spent in Southend-on-Sea at a place called Metal that hosts artist residencies. I went on three occasion for a total of six weeks. From my room at Metal I could see the sea/Thames Estuary and I found it so beautiful and calming. There is a part in The Black Flamingo when Michael goes to Brighton Beach when he needs to calm down after an upsetting incident. This has always been the case for me. If I can get out of the city and to the coast I’m happy. Brighton & Hove has the best of both worlds being a lively city and seaside resort. It’s a great place to be a student. I’m an alumni of the University of Sussex and they’ve continued to be really supportive of me and my books. I go back often to give poetry readings and workshops.
AH: Michael is Black-British-Greek-Cypriot, and part of The Black Flamingo is set in Cyprus, when he visits his mum’s family. He can follow Greek, but not speak it with any confidence. Not being able to speak your parent’s first language, as a result of growing up in the UK yourself, is something that Nat Linh Bolderston and Arjunan Manuelpillai are also exploring in their work. Was it a topic that you wanted to give space to?
DA: I have already touched on this in my collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger in the poem “Mother Tongue” but in The Black Flamingo I get to give more space to it throughout the story, when Michael visits his family in Cyprus, when he has a phone call with his grandfather, when he meets a Greek guy at university, you get so many occasions where he is at a loss for words.
AH: The Black Flamingo gives witness to the ways in which sections of UK society assault and challenge the Black British, and specifically Black British male identity, whether through unwarranted police harassment, or crassly stereotypical and inappropriate assumptions within daily life. Did you want to put that out there for teenagers, as well as adults, to think about, from within the empathetic point of view of the first person? This is a moment from just after Michael and Uncle B have been pulled over by the police for no reason whatsoever, driving to university, at the start of his first term. Uncle B says:
‘I always thought education
and money was going
to earn me respect,
but a successful black man
is a threat. Pulling me over
for driving a nice car.
This isn’t what I wanted
for your moving day
but this is what it’s like
to be black in this country
or anywhere in the world.
They interrupt our joy.
Our history. Our progress.
They know they can’t
stop us unless they kill us
but they can’t kill us all,
so you’re living your life
and suddenly interrupted
by white fear or suspicion.
They fear sharing anything.
Our success is a threat.’
DA: I guess there are many ways one could approach this, I like how Claudia Rankine in the book Citizen places the reader in the shoes of the black person experiencing microaggressions – small acts of racism – by addressing them as ‘you’ because it allows any reader to imagine themselves as that person in that moment. I didn’t necessarily write The Black Flamingo as a call for empathy, I think the ‘I’ first person point of view serves the book in that you can see how Michael realises things, and changes his mind about things, and sometimes misses things that might be obvious to the reader. He sometimes gets things wrong and misinterprets them. When Michael and his uncle have a run in with the police, Michael finds out for the first time that his uncle has quite strong views about the police and about white people, the reader finds this out at the same time as Michael. I wanted Michael to begin innocent and unencumbered and slowly learn what the world is really like. I think there are white people who still don’t realise these things, so they may begin reading the book as innocent as six-year-old Michael.
AH: As someone who loves, and respects drag performances for their transformative, and radical possibilities, I found it really interesting to read how Michael puts his Black Drag Self together with the support of other members of the Drag Soc at university. Was that a narrative that you wanted to chart and share, at a practical level of wardrobe and make up, as well as through the larger philosophical questions that inform a performed gender-liberated identity? There’s a conversation with the Drag King David/Katy, who channels David Beckham, which goes as follows:
‘You don’t seem to want to change
much about yourself for the show,’
she says. ‘You want to keep the beard
but still pretend to be Beyoncé?’
‘That’s not it,’ I reply. ‘I don’t want to
pretend to be anyone, not any more.’
‘So who is The Black Flamingo?’
asks Katy, with genuine curiosity.
I reply ‘He is me, who I have been,
who I am, who I hope to become.
Someone fabulous, wild and strong.
With or without a costume on.’
DA: I think drag is about intention, it’s about character, it’s about costume and make up too. There’s just so much going on when you decide to do drag, whether you’re cis, trans or non-binary it will raise questions around gender identity, for yourself and for those who see you perform. I’m not sure if a gender-liberated identity can yet exist in a society like ours that is still so heavily gendered but I would like this book to show people some of the many ways you can fuck with gender rather than always being fucked over by it.
AH: It surely does that, Dean. I know you have been staging shows with other Black queer writers and performers in the run up to publication. Would you like to give us some other names to look out for?
DA: Keith Jarret, Lasana Shabazz, Caroline Teague, Olivia Klevorn, Travis Alabanza and Sea the Poet are all part of The Black Flamingo Cabaret. I hope in the future to include Adam Lowe, Remi Graves, Jay Bernard, Paula Varjack, Yrsa Daley-Ward and many many more Black queer writers and performers.
AH: Could you say something about the relationship between your own Black Flamingo drag act, and The Black Flamingo?
DA: No. If people come to the The Black Flamingo Cabaret on 16th October at Kings Place in London, with Poet in the City, or when we do it again in the future, they can find out for themselves.
AH: Have you performed The Black Flamingo in drag to YA audiences yet? If so, how was it received?
DA: I haven’t done yet but mostly because I haven’t fancied getting into drag for a 9am school assembly. It takes at least an hour to do my make up and I’m not really a morning person.
AH: Point taken! Are there any live dates/ performances coming up, in or out of drag?
DA: The Black Flamingo Cabaret at Kings Place, Wednesday 16th October 7.30pm with Travis Alabanza and Sea Sharp Book here.
The Stories We Tell YA Panel at Waterloo Library, Thursday 17th October 6pm with Alex Wheatle, Patrice Lawrence and Alexandra Sheppard Book here.
Being a Writer: Interactive Forum at Free Word, Wednesday 23rd October with Yomi Ṣode, Hannah Berry and Nathalie Teitler Book here.
YA Lit Day at Southbank Centre, Saturday 26th October 4.30pm with Sara Barnard, Yasmin Rahman and Nikesh Shukla Book here.
AH: Thank you Dean Atta. I’m really looking forward to your King’s Place show tomorrow – and many more beyond that.
You can buy The Black Flamingo here.
You can buy I Am Nobody’s Nigger here.