I never used to enjoy reading poetry. It would remind me of the days in school where we would endlessly have to annotate and break down somewhat miserable poems. In fact, the only poem I can remember resonating with in school was one called ‘Half-Caste’ by John Agard, a poem that tells the reader that mixed race people are much more than just being mixed, and are certainly much more than the derogatory term ‘half-caste’. The poem really meant a lot to me as a mixed race reader when many people would look at me and be desperate to know my heritage before knowing me as a person.
When I found out about a new poetry novel called The Black Flamingo, I was incredibly excited. Not only does this novel follow a young gay man coming to terms with his identity and sexuality, it also has him understanding his mixed heritage. This made me eager to read it even more – would I be met with those same feelings of recognition as I had when reading Half-Caste?
This is Michael’s story.
Join him as he enters the world, with tiny feather eyelashes. Travel from school to college, where he discovers his flock, and comes to terms with his identity as a mixed-race gay teen. At university, take a seat in the audience and watch him find his wings as a drag artist, The Black Flamingo.
The answer is yes.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta well and truly hit me in the chest with some of the chapters and verses. As a teenager and now into adulthood, I often get asked the question “Where are you from?” followed by the startlingly rude “No, where are you really from?” – as if the only thing of interest to those asking the question is not who I am as a person, but the fact that I am brown.
Where are your parents from? Where are your grandparents from? Surely you can’t just be British? Are you Spanish? Are you Turkish? Are you Arab? Is your dad black? Are you half-caste?
Yes, these are all questions I’ve been asked before, and no these have never been prompted. These are the questions that all came rushing back when Michael was dealing with instances of his race being questioned in the book, and similarly when questioning his own race. He often struggles with the idea of not being “black enough” or not being “Greek enough” when he thinks about his race, which is something that really struck a chord. To have these instances of internal struggle being laid out on the page is something that I feel will be incredibly affirming to other readers like myself who have gone through similar thoughts in life.
Michael’s journey throughout the book is written with such care and the attention to detail is brilliant. The pages go completely black when there are darker scenes being discussed, or when something hurtful happens, but even though there are many of these pages and there are things like racism, homophobia, internalised homophobia, sexism and violence all touched upon in the book, The Black Flamingo is still a read of joy, and your heart will swell with Michael’s journey as he discovers himself internally and externally.
There is power within these pages, and as the book goes on Michael grows and blossoms. As he finds himself in his university Drag society, he comes to realise that he doesn’t have to be defined by his race or sexuality, but he can make his own definitions through his drag character. The book starts out with Michael as a fledgling with crooked feathers, but at the end he has truly spread his fully-formed wings with pride, and shaken off many of his troubles.
I was lucky enough to attend the book launch of The Black Flamingo, and to hear some of these verses spoken out loud with passion and spirit, including the remarkable poem I Come From, a poem midway through the book where Michael discusses his identity. I got chills listening to some of the poems, and had tears in my eyes as Dean Atta discussed his dedication for the book to his late grandfather and how the idea for the book came from a real moment between them – now captured forever within the book itself. It was wonderful to hear some of these verses read out, and should there ever be an event with the author, I would urge everyone to attend.
The Black Flamingo is a book about identity and about becoming exactly the person you want to be. It is beautifully constructed, and Dean Atta has created a book that I am certain will affect many readers with just how raw it is. I don’t think that the book could have been written in any way other than poetry, as it really allows us insight into Michael’s mind and life in a more personal way, as if we are truly an observer rather than a reader. The poems come to life and quickly get rooted into your heart, which isn’t hard when every verse is drenched in emotion.
Final thought: A beautiful book of growth, acceptance and self-discovery. 5/5