"Ambivalent" is the considerably understated way Stephen Kelman describes his feelings about the publication of his book next year. Pigeon English (March), one of the most eagerly anticipated debuts of 2011, had fairytale origins.
Plucked from the slushpile at Conville & Walsh in Kelman's last attempt to get published, the acquisition of Pigeon English quickly became a two-week beauty parade among 12 publishers, with one supplying pigeon-shaped biscuits. "A couple dropped out quite early on when it became obvious to them that they wouldn't be able to afford the book," says Kelman now. "That was the first weird thing that I heard in a succession of weird things." In the end it came down to Penguin and Bloomsbury. Kelman says deciding between the two was a tough choice but he felt more comfortable with the "family" atmosphere of Bloomsbury. "The passion of everyone I met just came out, plus they had Haribo, which was nice and plays a role in the book."
The novel is narrated by 11-year-old Harrison (or Harri) Opoku, newly arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister. When a boy is stabbed and police appeals fail to garner any response from the community, Harri decides to investigate the crime himself. However, the reality of London and its teenage gangs is a contrast to the protective world Harri's mother is trying to bring him up in.
It's difficult to read the book without thinking of the 2000 murder of Damilola Taylor by a teenage gang, something Kelman accepts was an influence in writing the book. "He was the first one who inspired the story but since then there have been so many more stories like that and that's the thing that convinced me— 'hang about, this is something that needs to be told. It's still going on and it doesn't look like it's going to stop'.
"Every week there's another victim, another story you can draw on, another family you can pay homage to in a way. Without aggrandising the book too much, that was one of the reasons for doing it to pay 'homage to the children and the families, bearing in mind I had grown up around and still know some who could have gone down that road. On either side— could have been a victim or could have been a perpetrator. I did feel drawn to the subject for that reason."
Finding a voice
Kelman says he had little trouble finding the voice of his 11-year-old narrator from Ghana. "I did feel from line one that Harrison was sitting on my shoulder, guiding me along." His world is one of tricks, mantras and lists (among the wars he details are "Dell Farm Crew vs Lewsey Hill Crew" and "Aliens vs Predators") but Kelman chooses to hold the adult characters, particularly authority figures like teachers, at arm's length in the narrative. He says he did this to avoid the book becoming too preachy; the dangerous world these children grow up in is the fault of adults in general.
He says: "While we are not in a position to change or affect the environment that we bring our children into, the community is all in it together and the children are the victims of that but can be the beneficiaries of that. It's up to the adults who they are going to be. Nobody escapes blame but I don't want to pin blame on one 'villain'.
"There are forces at play that the adults don't have any control over either like social deprivation. Crime is spurned by a lot of the community and adults are trying to do their best in difficult circumstances. But at the end of the day, if you don't blame the children, and you can't, who can you blame?"
Kelman describes the period between the book's feverish acquisition and its forthcoming publication as "a very comfortable bubble". But what of the pressure?
"I have had people in the industry telling me certain things I am happy to take on face value because people have been very genuine and very forthright. I have no reason to mistrust anybody. But I do realise once it gets out to the paying world, it might be a different story. It's a good thing in a way because it keeps my feet on the ground and keeps my own expectations limited." He pauses and then adds, laughing: "It's going to be an ambivalent time."
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