Hadley Stewart catches up with poet and author Dean Atta as he prepares to release his new book, The Black Flamingo.
For anybody who is familiar with Dean Atta’s poetry, flamboyant and fabulous might be two words used to describe his craft. When his first novel, The Black Flamingo, struts out onto the Young Adult bookshelf, readers won’t be left disappointed. This coming-of-age novel about Michael Brown, explores the journey of maturing through self-discovery and transformation, as he navigates some of the most challenging years of a queer young person’s life. Add in the fact that Michael is also black, and the intersection between race, sexuality and gender opens up conversations in both his head and with his friends and family. “It is about an actual boy, not a flamingo,” Atta laughs. “Just in case there was any confusion!” But not only is this novel an exciting read for young adults, the publication of this book seems timely given the recent rumblings about the teaching of LGBTQ+ people in school classrooms.
It’s sunny when we sit down on deckchairs on the Barbican’s lakeside terrace to discuss The Black Flamingo. “For the tape,” Atta declares slipping on his sunglasses, “the sun has just come out!” Born in London, Atta in fact spent some time living in the Barbican; yet it was his Cypriot roots that lead him to the idea for his first novel. “I was in Cyprus a few years ago and there was a sighting of a real black flamingo,” he tells me. “Everyone was talking about it when you went to the beach, shops and bars. I just thought, that’s so cool, that this bird had become the talk of the town.”
Similar to the black flamingo spotted in Cyprus, Atta says he too was made to feel different during a previous trip to the country. “I went to visit my family in Cyprus and somebody had referred to my sister and me as “the black ones” in the family,” he shares. With Jamaican and Cypriot heritage, Atta says that he does not feel Greek Cypriot, nor Jamaican, whenever he spends time in either country. And despite being born in London, he is still sometimes made to feel like an outsider. “In England, everyone asks me where I’m from,” he says. “It’s that idea of standing out from the crowd that made the black flamingo really speak to me. Then, in terms of sexuality, flamingos are flamboyant and fabulous and I just thought that it was kind of a good metaphor for being gay.”
As a gay man of colour, Atta has also faced racism from within the LGBTQ+ community. “When I was growing up, I can remember going to clubs and being the only black person there. Or you still see things on dating apps when people say “no blacks, no Asians” and things like that,” recalls Atta. Does he feel like when people ask him about where he is from, that this is from a place of racism? “If you are a person of colour, it is suggesting that you can’t just be from here,” he replies. “I don’t know everyone’s intentions when they ask that question, but that’s certainly how it feels.” In fact, Atta says that he would encourage others to think more carefully when asking that question, especially given that it can have such a negative impact on the person being asked. “It feels like I’m being told like I don’t belong,” he admits. “I’m not saying any one individual is doing that, but when it starts to build up, it starts to feel that way, and that’s really difficult.”
Although Atta has written and published one short story, poetry is very much where his heart is. His collection of poems, I Am Nobody’s Nigger, was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that Atta took the decision to write The Black Flamingo in verse, rather than dipping his nib into the prose ink. “Poetry is what comes naturally to me,” he beams. “For me I wanted to play with that form, and tell that story over a longer period of time. The main character starts at 6 years old and finishes at 19 years old, and you kind of go through the most important poignant moments in his childhood.” The pace of the story then slows down as the main character gets older and begins to write his own poetry. “It’s almost like you’re looking into his notebook,” Atta explains. “You get some really privileged information into this character’s life.”
This maturing of the main character was something that Atta was conscious of when writing The Black Flamingo, wishing for the development of the character to be reflected in his writing. “The character also grows up through this book, and people have really picked up on the nuances of how he matures in his speech and his vocabulary,” Atta tells me. “That was really important to me, for it to sound like the character growing up.”
The book is aimed at secondary school children, yet YA books with a queer character of colour and drag queens seem to be few and far between on school bookshelves. “There are a few memoirs by drag queens that are coming out, but a specific novel aimed at children, there aren’t any that I know of,” says Atta. “My editor at Hodder Children’s was really up for doing something that wasn’t represented in children’s books. They were open to me telling an authentic story, and trusted me with it.” Authentic is indeed how many will describe this story, for Atta does not shy away from dissecting the intersection between race, sexuality and gender, whilst making such ideas accessible to a young readership. “I’ve done it so that when there is a conversation about these topics between two characters, one character will know about the concept and the other one won’t, so that was a way of introducing these ideas that I thought worked quite well.”
Atta often visits schools to deliver workshops, so I was also interested to hear his thoughts about the recent protests outside some primary schools in Birmingham. “I’m super angry,” he begins and says that he too was involved with the No Outsiders project. “We need to open up the conversation around family; not just same-sex parents, but all the diversity of family is important.” Atta says that these conversations do not solely benefit LGBTQ+ young people, but that all young people should feel they have the tools to understand wider society. “I just think that be it about gender, or sexuality, it’s very confusing if you’re told binary things, the nuclear family, and heteronormative things. If you don’t think that fits you, that can be really painful. And even if it does fit you, it can be really confusing if that’s what you’re taught and then it’s been hidden from you.”
What next then for Atta? Like any writer when asked this question, he isn’t giving much away. “I am working on a children’s book next, but I can’t say too much about that,” he smiles. “I’ve got two nieces and I want more books for them, which reflect them, our family, and show gay uncles. I’ve learnt so much from them, and they’ve rejuvenated my childishness.” Atta admits his journey to today hasn’t always been smooth, yet he does acknowledge that he is writing from a different place. “It’s been a pretty surreal year,” he reflects. “For a while, I didn’t want to dream too big, I just wanted to get through each day. I just wanted to feel comfortable enough. Whereas now I want to do big things and make a difference.”
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The Black Flamingo is available for pre-order. You can also follow Dean Atta on Twitter (@DeanAtta). Photo credit: Thomas Sammut.