‘The dead boy’s mamma was guarding the blood. She wanted it to stay, you could tell. The rain wanted to come and wash the blood away but she wouldn’t let it. She wasn’t even crying, she was just stiff and fierce like it was her job to scare the rain back up into the sky.’
Debut novelist Stephen Kelman, author of Pigeon English, empathises with his characters more than most. Not only did he himself grow up on a council estate in Luton but he also got to witness first-hand the incredible diversity and social fragility that comes with living among a vast array of immigrants from across the globe and particularly those coming from Africa; how the social and linguistic fabric of a community can change so much, so often and how much of this change lives in language and the choice of the words we use.
11-year old Harrison Opoku has emigrated from Ghana with his mother and sister and, like Kelman himself, is filled with a kind of distracted wonder at the world as he struggles to navigate an environment in which he has no real control but sees so much that he wants to. After a young boy is found murdered outside a Chicken shop, Harri and his best friend Dean turn detective with the aid of a somewhat quirky character incision of a pigeon who watches over them. TMO spoke to Kelman about childhood, innocence and the extraordinary success that the novel (which began life on top of a literary slush pile) has enjoyed.
TMO: The book has enjoyed a kind of fairy-tale success- going from the slush pile to the centre of massive bidding war between publishers. This must make you feel a little great?
Stephen Kelman All aspiring authors dream of having a book published. That’s where my dreams and my hopes ended so for it to go above and beyond….well..
there has been this whole sort of mini-debate about whether the voice can really be authentic when it’s aimed at a middle-class readership-a white liberal readership. Obviously I hope that my book will be read by the kind of people that it represents but unfortunately we live in a society where those kinds of kids aren’t really encouraged to read for pleasure.
TMO: Tell me- is this massive success a good thing or a bad thing- especially when it comes to the writing of your second novel?
SK: I’m finding out at the moment! I actually started the first draft of my second novel before Pigeon English was published and before all the craziness started, so since then I’ve been travelling all over the world. It’s a different kind of expectation this time around because the first one was ‘can I get a book out there?’ or ‘will anyone want to buy it?’ I don’t know if readers now have a level of expectation – whether they want to see me doing something like Pigeon English or whether they are going to be open to going on a whole new different journey with me, because this second book is completely different from PE and there aren’t many similarities in it. I also feel that there’s a lot more people who I might let down if I don’t make it to the top of this one as I hope to.
TMO: Letting people down…..Like being part of a ‘brand’ that might fail to deliver?
SK: No – not so much like a brand. I want to prove to myself that I’m not a one-off and also because Bloomsbury have been so generous and good and I don’t want to let them down either
TMO: The novel is about an 11-year old Ghanaian boy called Harri and was I believe largely influenced by the tragic story of Damilola Taylor who was killed on a Peckham estate in 2000. What was it in particular about this murder that grabbed your attention?
SK: Well it was similar in some ways to the national outpouring of grief with the death of Diana. I think it was the first case that was emblematic of the really deeply felt and important social problems that we were experiencing. Not only that but also the way Damilola was portrayed when the case was reported. I remember reading a transcript of an essay he wrote in school when his big ambition was to become a doctor and travel the world and help people. He seemed to me to be such a genuinely good kid and a bright kid with so much potential and I’m sure he would have gone onto become a great man and do some real good in the world. For me to have that potential ripped away in such a brutal senseless way was tragic and I was deeply saddened. I was living in a place where there were lots of potential Damilola’s and lots of potential Ricky’s and Danny’s [Preddie, suspects in Taylor’s murder] around me as well.
There were potential victims and perpetrators and I thought ‘which one of these kids is going to be next? Which one of these kids is going to fall in this way or get out of this environment to do good?’ and so I was interested in exploring what it would feel like for somebody like Damilola to come over here from a place where he had been infused in positive values and been allowed to express his natural positivity. What happens when somebody like that is sort of abandoned almost in an environment where he has no encouragement for those values because everywhere you look and everywhere he turns there are these huge challenges and huge temptations and people who are using him. How does he deal with that and navigate his way through that mine field without in some way losing his innocence and becoming corrupt?
TMO: Writing as an adult from the point of view of a child is a long-established trope in literature- and has been done by writers like Harper Lee and Italo Calvino to name only a few. How hard was it for you to get the balance wright between the naïve wonder of a child and a credible or realistic voice?
SK: There were certainly challenges along the way. There were a few times I had to ask myself ‘would a child act this way and talk this way when faced with a certain situation?’ I was lucky as I was surrounded by kids like Harri and was able to absorb the way they spoke to each other and the things they were preoccupied by. Also I guess it was largely a leap of the imagination where going back to my own childhood and trying to recall the way I felt and the way I thought about certain things. 11 year old boys….. they like to impose an order on their world –diagrams and the languages they use in expressing their identity.
TMO: Is this rooted in how you saw and related to the world around you as a kid?
SK: I guess I relied on the memory of being myself at that age ……I just felt from early on a natural affinity towards the character and I suppose for that reason it wasn’t as difficult as it might have been. That’s one of the great things about writing from a child’s point of view it’s almost an acting role rather than a writing one. You step in there and look at the world through those younger eyes and you find quite quickly I think that it takes you back to a more simple way of thinking and you’re then able to strip away some of the bullshit.
TMO? You have been criticised by critics such as Rachel Aspden in the Guardian for being a little over-earnest in your writing from the point of view of the child. She even says that ‘Harri’s voice feels laboured and faux-naïf’. How do you respond to this or indeed criticism of your work in general?
SK: That’s the first time I’ve heard that one actually! Well I think there has been this whole sort of mini-debate about whether the voice can really be authentic when it’s aimed at a middle-class readership-a white liberal readership. Obviously I hope that my book will be read by the kind of people that it represents but unfortunately we live in a society where those kinds of kids aren’t really encouraged to read for pleasure. I was always aware that it might find an audience more easily within a white middle class community than the one it was portraying. All I can do is try to portray my characters as realistically as I can and, as I say, I was living in that environment. I was one of those once upon a time, so it felt real enough to me. I’ve received lots of feedback from people within that kind of community. I’ve met lots of people from all around the world-not just in this country- many of them felt the book reflected their own experiences.
TMO: I’m keen to talk a little about the title that you chose for the book which sets out from the start as a linguistic (pidgin English) affirmation. It seems clear from the outset that language itself is an essential element in the novel. Would it be fair to say that it’s almost its own character in the book?
SK: I think so yeah. I think when you’re dealing with an environment which is diverse and which is filled with people that have maybe recently emigrated from all over the world and the one thing they are all trying to do is to integrate and to get along; not only are they using language as a means of almost shortcutting their attempts to integrate with each other and fit in but at the same time they are also using language to differentiate themselves from the adults to express their own identities [like the slang they use]. It’s all a way to impose their own identity in an environment which in many ways they have very little control over. I mean these are kids who have little say in their destinies. They’re trying to make as many of their own rules as they can to feel a little bit of control. The way they talk to each other is one way of doing that. It’s a very protective bubble.