Dean Atta is a Greek-Cypriot Jamaican-British poet who was named one of the most influential LGBT people in Britain by the Independent on Sunday. Weaned on spoken word and online poetry culture, Dean rose to internet fame when he wrote a poem titled “I am Nobody’s Nigger” following the death of Stephen Lawrence. Following in the footsteps of names like Jacqueline Woodson and Elizabeth Acevedo, he is now one of the YA authors making poetry cool again through #ownvoices verse novels. His debut novel, The Black Flamingo (2019), follows his explosive poetry collection—I Am Nobody’s Nigger (2013)—and tells the somewhat autobiographical story of a Greek-Cypriot Jamaican-British mixed-race queer boy as he leaves school and goes to university. There Michael struggles with romantic relationships and defining the boundaries of identity, finally finding himself in drag culture.

Dean met me over Zoom to talk about the craft of verse novels, building traditions, and accessibility in literature. On an early morning in late June, he is bright and bubbly, talking effusively about his writing and bouncing between topics with that palpable joy that is so characteristic of his work. His forthcoming novel, Only on the Weekends (2022), is another such story about teen Mackintosh, a young queer boy negotiating what it means to move to a new place and what it means to love.

Jane: The Black Flamingo reflects your own life experiences. Michael is a mixed-race queer boy who dabbles in drag. What advice would you offer to those writing autobiographical fiction?

DEAN: It can be triggering to find fiction in difficult parts of your life. Your life is real and complicated. Fiction is sometimes simpler. If you’re still processing what you’ve been through, that can be a challenge. When I was writing The Black Flamingo, I was seeing a therapist and that helped me to separate, you know, fact from fiction. I talked to him about my real-life experiences that may have inspired the story. I was also working with an editor, and they looked at those things inspired by my real-life experiences and said, “well, that doesn’t seem plausible.”

Life is complicated, but a book can’t always be as complicated as life. Sometimes you just have to simplify things. You might think it’s necessary to have all this family or that big friendship group, but you might have to cut characters. In telling a story, you might need to focus on specific family members or friends; you might need to make a composite of different people in one character. So, if you are drawing from your real-life experiences, make sure you’re up for playing a bit of mix and match. Take the good bits that are going to work for a story, and some things you’ll just have to leave out maybe because they’re boring, or maybe because they’re unbelievable. That doesn’t invalidate what really happened in your life. And remember, your life isn’t just you. You’ve got to think about the impact it will have on family and friends when they recognise themselves in your stories. You might need to have a conversation with them about it, or you might need to make peace with yourself.

We all write inspired by our own life in some way. There’s always going to be a reason you chose to tell a particular story. You tell it because it matters to you, somehow. It’s always coming from a place within you that cares. And that’s probably somehow related to something that happened in your real life.

Jane: You said in an interview with Audible that though The Black Flamingo may be based on your real-life experiences, it’s also a much happier story. It’s set in a time that’s more accepting. Your forthcoming novel, Only on the Weekends (2022), sounds like a fun story about people just living their lives. Do you set out to write queer Black joy stories?

DEAN: Those are the stories that are missing. We have a lot of tragic stories, and we have a lot of important, necessary stories about the pain and the trauma. But I think the stories about joy and love are equally important and necessary. I wanted to start my career in fiction writing with queer Black joy stories because I didn’t have them growing up. I want them for young people now, and that means I have got to write them. Maybe in the future, I’ll help others to write their stories. You know, I’d love to be an editor one day. But right now, I’m writing the stories I need to write. 

Writing takes a lot out of you. To find joy for your characters you must make sure you’re finding joy for yourself. You’ve got to feel that joy in your own life to authentically put it into your characters. There’s a lot of self-work that you must do alongside writing. 

“We all write inspired by our own life in some way. There’s always going to be a reason you chose to tell a particular story.”

Jane: I’m so glad The Black Flamingo exists. It’s beautifully designed and reading it is an engaging, multimedial experience. Tell us more about how this experimental beauty came to be.

DEAN: I’ve always collaborated with different types of artists. I’ve worked with musicians, putting together my spoken word over music—both produced and live music. I’ve collaborated with filmmakers to make spoken word films. For The Black Flamingo, I did quite a bit of work with an artist called Ben Connors. At first, we thought it might be an illustrated poetry collection told from my perspective. While I was still working on the collection, we did a residency at Tate Britain where he illustrated my poetry as a mural. People would come into the space we created to see our work-in-progress. We ran poetry and drawing workshops. I also did a drag performance of The Black Flamingo in that space and elsewhere, like London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern. I also did a couple of cabaret events around The Black Flamingo and salons for Black queer writers. I always knew that The Black Flamingo had many possibilities. When my agent started sending out the collection of poetry, a lot of responses came back. One idea was to turn it into a children’s picture book, to focus on a younger age group and tell a simpler story riffing on the motif of the ugly duckling. Rather than changing into a swan, the black flamingo would accept that they’re different. Another idea that was pitched to me was to tell it as a memoir. 

And then came the idea to turn it into a verse novel for a teenage audience. That really appealed to me because I do so much work with teenagers. I got a contract for it. What I didn’t know at the time was that publishing doesn’t often take illustrator-writer teams. They got a new illustrator and I had to part ways with Ben on that project. Anshika Khullar has done an amazing job, and I think the fact that they’re also a queer person of colour brings a certain level of understanding to the work which people can feel. The Black Flamingo was their first illustrated novel, and it has given them even greater exposure. But, you know, it was a revelation for me to know that despite having started the project with someone else, I wasn’t in control of how the book would be produced. The illustration, the design, and to a certain extent the cover are other people’s jobs, even though my thoughts and feelings were considered. What I provide is text and then go out on the road to promote the book. I think it’s important for would-be writers to know that there are certain things you might have to give up control of and compromise on, particularly with a major publisher. I was coached through it: my agent, friends, and other writers who’d had similar experiences were all helpful, giving me insight and perspective on the process. My friendship and relationship with Ben survived, and Anshika is another great collaborator that I’m truly grateful to have worked with. I hope we get to work together again. But when people ask me about the design, I really can’t take any credit. It wasn’t my doing. It’s a team effort and I call the people that worked on it the Dream Team. From the illustrator and designer to the editor and the publicist, it was wonderful to have so many passionate collaborators. Working with the right people is so important.

Jane: The passion shines through. The physical book is stunning. We know now that you did not set out to write a verse novel, but you’ve often talked about finding inspiration in other verse novelists like Elizabeth Acevedo and Jason Reynolds. What is it about this form of storytelling that draws you?

DEAN: It’s freeing. The episodic aspect allows you to play with time and space, and even with characters (if you need to). Because it’s concise and tight, you get straight to the point; you get straight to the heart of the matter. You don’t necessarily have to set the scene: you can use a few words to let people know where you are. You can even do it with the title. Initially, The Black Flamingo was a series of individual titled poems, but in the end, we scrapped the titles and chose to have chapter headings. There are standalone poems in Michael’s notebook. They’re presented on lined paper and have titles to distinguish them from the narrative verse. Some verse novelists choose to make each page its own distinct titled poem. Others focus on the prose-like narrative flow and break the text up to look like a poem. The space on the page can do a lot for the eye and pacing. Line breaks can create suspense and double meaning. When you present something as a poem, people read it differently than they would a chunk of text. People expect certain things from poetry. You get to use more imagery and metaphor than you would in a prose novel without making people feel lost. This also means that you can go between the real and the imagined very, very quickly without the reader wondering what’s real and what’s not. Different people do it in different ways. You get to play around and it’s fun.

“You get to use more imagery and metaphor than you would in a prose novel without making people feel lost. This also means that you can go between the real and the imagined very, very quickly without the reader wondering what’s real and what’s not.”

Jane: It’s a very fluid reading experience and, I guess, in that sense, also very accessible. Your poetry collection, I Am Nobody’s Nigger, showcases the possibilities of spoken word for those who don’t feel accepted in other cultures. What does accessibility in literature mean to you?

DEAN: When you pick up a poetry collection or verse novel, you don’t necessarily need to read it from beginning to end. Some people have read The Black Flamingo in one sitting. Some will take their time with it. Reading habits are interesting to me as someone who’s dyslexic. A verse novel is the same size as a novel, but it takes you on a journey in fewer words and gives you space to breathe. I need space. I need poetry. I don’t often get lost when I’m reading poetry, but I do get lost—and sometimes overwhelmed—when I’m reading prose. I’m not a quick reader. With verse, I love being able to read one or two pages and pick up right where I left off much later. And it’s so rich in imagery and story that a few pages will give me something to mull over for a little while. When writing The Black Flamingo, I took care on a word-by-word and line-by-line level to make sure it could be appreciated both as poetry and as a well-paced story that makes you want to know what happens next. There are distinct sections of the book I often see come up on social media, parts of the book that make people stop long enough to take and post a picture online. It’s often the black pages with white text. Maybe people stop because they look good, or because they look different. Maybe it’s because they’re the sections that deal with hard-hitting issues like race. It happens when the police stop Michael and his uncle, or when Michael suffers racist remarks from his friend and must stand up for himself. The final performance is also on a black page with white text. That was the designer’s choice. All these show that certain parts of the book do stand out more than others because they have a message that can exist outside of the story. These are moments for people to take pause, reflect, and share. Highlighting a section of prose and posting it online would not have the same impact. Instagram poets tap into something that people have been feeling. I had that experience with some of my poems, like I’m Nobody’s Nigger tapping into a collective consideration of how we use words.

For me, accessibility is the fact that you don’t have to read the whole book to have a good experience with it. The fact that we recorded the audiobook was very important to me as someone who is dyslexic. Often, the best way for me to read a book is to have the audio playing and read along with a physical copy. I prefer to have both because I really like seeing physical books and how they’re laid out. It influences how I read and receive it. But if it’s a very long book, I’ll get the audiobook [laughs].

Jane: I completely agree and often find myself complaining about the postmodern taste for complicated, purposefully obtuse prose.

DEAN: I don’t think people make work inaccessible on purpose. I think that, perhaps, they are trying to outdo themselves or impress people like them. The people you’re writing for are the people you’ll reach. Not all books are for everyone. And that’s okay. Some people enjoy books with tons of specific references to things you might only learn about on a certain university course or if you live a very particular life. I’m all for books that don’t explain themselves. With Black and queer stories, there’s something to be said for not explaining ourselves to a white or straight reader. You decide how accessible you want to be. I could write a book that would only make sense to someone who’s Black and queer. But I choose not to do that. I want a window for people to understand what it is like to be Black and queer. I’m not going to provide a glossary or footnotes, but I do want to be accessible. I take these cultural and historical references, these words in another language, and think to myself: how can I explain them without explaining them? You weave it into the story. One character might ask, and another might explain. It puts it across for those who didn’t know, and those who did know get to see it in a different way.

I make a choice to be accessible, and not just for reluctant readers and dyslexic people. I make a choice to let white and straight people in to hear a Black queer story. I could choose not to. Okay, maybe not with my current publisher: they are a business and want to appeal to as wide a readership as possible [laughs]. But if I were with a smaller publisher or was self-published, I could write stories that are very particular. Stories that only Black queer people would get, and maybe only Black queer British people. I do want to reach the world, and the world is made up of all sorts of people. If you give them a way in, I think they’ll appreciate Black queer stories.  

“I could write a book that would only make sense to someone who’s Black and queer. But I choose not to do that. I want a window for people to understand what it is like to be Black and queer.”

Jane: I certainly hope so. The question of audience is essential. I really loved how you ended the book with practical advice on coming out. I felt how very powerful it would be to have that as a kid. What made you want to start writing for a YA audience?

DEAN: Working in schools, working as a spoken word educator, working with First Story, working with an amazing man called Peter Kahn who set up the Spoken Word Education Training Programme. He works at a high school in Chicago, teaching poetry and running a spoken word club. He understands the power of poetry and transforming the lives of young people by giving them the confidence to be better communicators. I experienced this first-hand as a young person writing poetry. I felt I was listened to in a way I wouldn’t be otherwise. Whether it’s a big room full of people, or a small room in the basement of a cafe, or even going viral online, people love poetry. I knew they don’t always necessarily realise it, but people love lyrics, song, and rap. There’s poetry in all of that and I draw inspiration from those things. The young people I work with love being given permission to write their story through poetry. So, I thought, I didn’t get the chance to write a novel when I was a teenager, but I could write a novel about a teenager. I never thought I would write a novel. I thought I was going through life one poem at a time. That was until my editor gave me The Poet X and I was like, huh, yeah! Had there not been Elizabeth Acevedo or Jason Reynolds or Sarah Crossan, I might have not seen the possibility. It takes role models to show you that it can be done. Bernardine Evaristo has also written a verse novel and is a great campaigner for Black writers. Because, you know, as much as there were other verse novels or epic poems in our British heritage—think Ulysses and the Canterbury Tales—they’re not about a boy like me. They’re not going to show me how I can tell my story. You’ve got to see contemporary writers doing it. I appreciate history, but I also need living examples, and if they happen to look a bit like me, that helps as well [laughs]. 

I’m just on the continuum of writers. I hope that I will inspire other writers to do similar things. That would make me very happy. Before I published my debut collection, I didn’t know how books travelled. Now, I know the potential of a novel. A book can reach an exponential amount of people: it can be borrowed from the library, it can be bought, it can get to other countries where they have laws against LGBT people. Those people might not look things up on the internet because the internet can be monitored. You can put a fake cover on a book, smuggle it in your suitcase, and pass it around. I’ve heard of such things happening with my books and others. Books are super important for people to see possibility, whether it is in a different country or in a different generation. People in their fifties and sixties have messaged me saying they loved The Black Flamingo. Even in the UK, it wasn’t possible for them to read books like that when they were younger. And that’s wonderful too—for older people to read the book and feel a sense of relief and gratitude that their struggles weren’t in vain.

“Before I published my debut collection, I didn’t know how books travelled. Now, I know the potential of a novel.”

Jane: I really like what you said about how it’s important to build a tradition. We appreciate everything you do for Black writers of all ages, particularly through the Scottish Black Writers’ Group. What do you hope participants will gain from the group?

DEAN: The Scottish Black Writers’ Group is something I set up with the Scottish BAME Writers Network and Scottish PEN in October 2020. That was at the start of Black History Month, but it was never just going to be for one month. We said we’re going to meet every month without fail. We’ve been doing that since. We’ve had so many great writers come along and share their wisdom. It’s predominantly space for Scottish Black writers, but people are joining us from everywhere in the UK. Every session follows a similar format. First, we check-in and everyone who’s in the space introduces themselves. Then we have a guest speaker who’s usually a published writer or creative. We’ve had Patrice Lawrence, Alex Wheatle, and Delia Jarrett-Macauley. We’ve also had Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé during the publication week of her New York Times-bestselling Ace of Spades. We talked about her book, its success, and the challenges in getting there. Most of the guest speakers talk about what it is to write, how they approach research, working with editors, marketing their books, and even how to deal with their books getting picked for TV and film. We end with a Q&A and people always ask frank questions. You know, the nitty-gritty of navigating the world of writing as a Black writer subject to racism. We follow a safe spaces policy: nothing said in the space is to be said outside it. After that, we will have a break and when we come back, I will set a question for us to discuss as a group. What is it to be Black and Scottish? Does it matter where a story is set? What is it to have a seat at the table? What is it to be part of a community? People have been really open about the challenges they’ve faced, even with other people of colour who can still be anti-Black. So long as you’re Black, you can come. And that includes mixed-race people. I, myself, am mixed race. I was surprised when a few mixed-race people asked me if they could come and I was like, yeah, I’m mixed race and I’m putting it on! [laughs].

It’s the third Thursday of every month. For the next three months, we’re working with the National Theatre of Scotland. That’s exciting because, so far, we’ve worked with people who publish books. We’re looking at new ways of getting our words out there. At the end of this year, we’re going to be working with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I think we’re also going to put in a funding application for Creative Scotland because the project was born out of necessity: we wanted to create this new space but didn’t have the budget for it. We started at a time when white organisations were looking for what they could do to support Black people. It’s good when they put their money where their mouth is. It builds bridges. In every partnership we do as the Scottish BAME Writers Network, we hope to build lasting relationships between the writers and those organisations. We don’t always want to be the middle person. We want people to feel empowered and equipped to work with other organisations, knowing we’ve sounded them out and made sure they’re okay to work with. That’s a big part of every partnership and my role as co-director of the Scottish BAME Writers Network.

Jane: You’re doing essential work. You seem to be constantly writing and I’m really excited for your next novel, Only on the Weekends (2022). How does it speak to your previous work?

DEAN: I love love! I love loving and exploring love. In Only on the Weekends, the main character—Mackintosh—is dealing with love in lots of different ways. He’s got a single father who he loves, but feels, sometimes, that he’s been forgotten because his dad’s job is a priority and means they must move cities for work. Now, Mackintosh only gets to see his boyfriend on the weekends. I moved from London to Glasgow and decided that would be what happens to the main character. The story hinges on that move, meeting new people in a new place, and figuring out your identity in a new context. I’ve had a lot of fun writing Only on the Weekends and I’m very happy with it. I tried to be funny, but we’ll see whether people find it funny. There are also, of course, poignant, hard-hitting moments. But like The Black Flamingo, I wanted to assure everyone that everything is going to be okay.

DEAN ATTA was named as one of the most influential LGBT people in the UK by the Independent on Sunday. His debut poetry collection, I Am Nobody’s Nigger, was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. His Young Adult novel in verse, The Black Flamingo, won the 2020 Stonewall Book Award, and was shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, YA Book Prize and Jhalak Prize. Dean is based in Glasgow and is Co-director of the Scottish BAME Writers Network. You can find him on Twitter or on his website.

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her on Twitter @verybookishjane.

“I’m writing the stories I need to write”: A conversation with Dean AttaThe Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
Published by Hodder Children's Books on 8 August 2019
Genres: #ownvoices, Coming-of-age, Debut, Literary fiction, Novel-in-verse, Queer, YA, Black British
Pages: 360
Format: Paperback
Buy on Mahogany Books
Goodreads
four-stars

A boy comes to terms with his identity as a mixed-race gay teen—then at university he finds his wings as a drag artist, The Black Flamingo. A bold story about the power of embracing your uniqueness. Sometimes, we need to take charge, to stand up wearing pink feathers - to show ourselves to the world in bold colour.