Dean Atta answers our questions about his debut YA novel, The Black Flamingo (Hodder Children's Books), which is told in verse and has been shortlisted for the YA Book Prize 2020.
1. Can you sum up in The Black Flamingo in one sentence?
The Black Flamingo is the story of a black/mixed-race, gay boy called Michael discovering who he is and his love for drag performance.
2. What inspired the book?
The inspiration for the book came from the sighting of a real black flamingo in Cyprus in 2015. When I heard about this and saw images, it struck me as a visual metaphor for how I’ve felt all my life being black/mixed-race and gay.
3. Which character in the book is your favourite?
The protagonist Michael is my favourite character. Mostly because the whole book is written from his point of view and I understand him best. I relate to Michael the most because I am also black/mixed-race and gay and I have done drag performance. I put a lot of myself into the character and writing him helped me to understand many things about myself and my own childhood.
4. What does being on this year’s YA Book Prize shortlist mean to you?
It’s great to be recognised alongside legends such as Malorie, and so many other incredible writers, most of whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting at events over the past nine months. As a debut novelist, I’ve found the YA community to be so supportive, the readers, the other writers, the people who work in publishing, the teachers and librarians. I think prizes are less about the competition and more a reason to celebrate each other and spotlight some great books.
5. What's the best thing about writing for young adults?
I think it’s such an important time of our lives, when so much of our character is formed, it’s really exciting writing about formative experiences and in doing so getting to see them with new eyes.
6. What was your favourite book as a teenager?
Just like Michael in The Black Flamingo, I really loved the poetry of Maya Angelou, her collected works was one of my favourite books as a teenager. However, I didn’t read many books in my teens. I found out that I was dyslexic when I was 19 and at university. My mum didn’t understand how it was possible because I had got through school with good grades and secured a place at uni to study Philosophy and English. But it made total sense to me; reading always made me tired, I found it hard to focus on a book for long periods of time and I would get words mixed up when I was asked to read out loud, even if I was reading something I had written myself. Poetry was much easier for me to read since I could read one poem at a time and get some gratification from it and spend some time thinking about it.
7. What is your top writing tip?
Reading as widely as possible will help make you a better writer. Don’t only read within the genre that you’re interested in writing. You can learn different things about craft, language and perspective by reading poetry, fiction, memoir, essays and even by studying how one particular news story is reported in different newspapers and noticing how their language and focus is different depending on their agenda. All writing has an agenda and it would be good for you as a writer to consider what your agenda is.
8. What songs would be on a playlist for The Black Flamingo?
I did make a playlist for the book and it includes: “Make Me Feel” by Janelle Monáe, “Thinking Bout You” by Frank Ocean, “Dred Loc” by Meshell Ndgeocello and “(Something Inside) So Strong” by Labi Siffre.
9. Who would you cast in a film version of your book?
I’d love Layton Williams to play Michael and Ella-Rae Smith to play his best friend Daisy.
10. Which book/film/TV show would you recommend to someone who enjoyed your book?
TV - Sex Education, Pose and Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
Films - Moonlight, Beautiful Thing and Paris Is Burning.
Books - The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and I haven’t read it yet but I’m super excited for Boy Queen by George Lester.
Find out more about The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta and read the first chapter of the book on the YA Book Prize website.
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