The Black Flamingo (Dean Atta)

The Black Flamingo is the first novel by Dean Atta, with illustrations by Anshika Khullar.
Finished on: 10.5.2021

Content Note: (critical treatment of) racism, homomisia

Plot:
Michael is a Greek-Cypriot and Jamaican, gay, Black boy in England. Figuring out what that means exactly isn’t easy. Throughout high school, he figures things out together with his best friend Daisy. But it isn’t until university where Michael discovers drag for himself that he really finds answers to the question of who he is.

The Black Flamingo is a novel in verse written for a younger audience about identity, race and sexual orientation. In theory, this sounds like a challenging novel to say the least. In practice, it is a wonderfully easy, touching read that challenges in such a way that you barely notice what it’s doing. It is absolutely fantastic.

The book cover showing the drawing of a young Black man wearing black feathers, cradling a black flamingo. He is surrounded by pink feathers and four pink flamingos.

I don’t read much poetry. I like it, but I’m usually drawn more towards prose. The Black Flamingo seems to be the best of both worlds to me. Atta builds the story in an associative way that works for poetry, but his verses read as easily as prose. It gives the book an excellent flow and leaves the reader to build their own connections and parallels between certain occurrences in Michael’s life. At the same time, the book doesn’t leave you without a plan to make those connections which probably would have felt overwhelming, at least to the intended younger audience.

The form, combined with Khullar’s wonderful illustrations, give the novel a very special feeling. It is something unusual, something not encountered everyday, like the titular black flamingo, and like Michael himself. There is a lightness to it the belies the serious topics that the book takes on: racism, homomisia, the difficulty of knowing where to belong when you’re mixed-race and instead of belonging to two races and cultures, you seem to belong to neither, really.

This could have all turned very heavy and didactic, but Atta always stays on point with Michael’s emotions. And so what could have turned into nothing but “teaching moments” in another writer’s hands are deeply emotional, often painful, but also joyful experiences that Michael has. They may teach us something as well, but that is not their point. They are simply part of Michael’s life and what he has to navigate everyday. They are important because they are important to him, and not because the reader should read them. And that is just as it should be.

Summarizing: wonderfully lovely and great.

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