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Stephen Kelman
What was your inspiration for Pigeon English?
Damilola Taylor was the inspiration for the novel Ė I remember being profoundly saddened and outraged by his death, and by those of all the children and young men who have fallen to this type of crime in the intervening years, and felt compelled to write about it. Damilolaís was the first case of this kind to provoke a national response: he was portrayed as such a bright, sensitive, compassionate boy who showed all the signs of going on to become a great man who would do a lot of good in the world, and the idea of all that promise being so senselessly ripped away really struck a nerve with me. At the time I was still living on the council estate where I was born and raised, a place that was full of potential Damilolas and potential Preddies, Iíd lived with them all my life, and I wanted to explore the conditions that might create them. Could an inherently good kid, when catapulted into an environment thatís full of new dangers and temptations, find a way to navigate through them without becoming corrupted? What would he make of our society and what impact would our society have on him?
How did you achieve the distinctive voice of 11-year-old Harri?
I was lucky that I was living in a very diverse neighbourhood, and I was surrounded by kids who might have been Harri. On my daily travels I was able to eavesdrop on their conversations, absorb how they spoke and what they talked about. I could also revisit my own memories of being an 11-year-old boy and what it felt like to pass through those rites of passage that all boys of that age pass through and which are still universal today. So it was a combination of good fortune and imagination Ė and being able to slip into the skin of another person, who on the surface is so different to me, and then finding the common humanity within him, is for me the greatest privilege and pleasure of being a writer.
If a) the pigeon and b) Harri could suggest a way to tackle knife crime, what would they say?
Iím sure theyíd both say the same thing, only in different ways. Theyíd say that the bigger person is the one who is not afraid to love.
In one review, it said the novel "is too conscious of the gulf between its subjects and its inevitably middle-class readers to be truly convincing". What would your response be to that criticism?
Everyoneís entitled to their opinion, and I take this as a fair criticism of our disposable society and the education system in this country as much as a criticism of myself. I just tried to portray the world I knew; unfortunately itís a world in which kids are not encouraged enough to read for pleasure, so I suspected that the book would more easily find an audience within the middle classes than within the community it represents. Thatís a shame, and something Iím keen to do whatever I can to help address. But Iíve had letters and emails from readers within this type of community, and have met many more, whoíve seen their own lives reflected in the book, so I think itís doing a fair job of reaching those places.
In Pigeon English, there is a lot alluded to that Harri might not fully understand. Do you think dramatic irony is heightened by a child protagonist? If so, what is the impact for the reader?
For sure. Itís the gaps in Harriís understanding which the reader is forced to fill in that allows them to engage in the questions being raised without feeling like theyíre being hit over the head. They get to see things from a different perspective, think about things in a new way. Harri doesnít have any agenda, he doesnít bring any preconceptions or filters, he just says it how he sees it. I think as adults we can all learn something from him.
Along with PIGEON ENGLISH, TINY SUNBIRDS FAR AWAY and THE HELP were both bestsellers. It is clearly important that writers think beyond their own race and gender, but can you comment on the publishing success of white writers with non-white protagonists?
Itís not only important that writers think beyond their own race and gender, I think itís essential that weíre able to work with complete imaginative freedom. There should be no boundaries or constraints placed on the creative process; as I said before, I think the greatest pleasure and privilege of writing is the opportunity it provides to discover stories and share lives beyond the borders of our own experience. Cynics will say that the success of white authors writing non-white protagonists is simply a response to the need of white middle class readers to have their exposure to the exotic sanitised through the comfortable, familiar filter of a white author. I hope thatís not the case. I donít think itís any more difficult for a non-white author to break through than a white author; my own experience, having taken a route to success thatís on the face of it quite different to the accepted route of many successful authors Ė no training, background or connections in publishing or the arts Ė should suggest that the playing field is levelling out. One way to ensure that this trend continues is for more non-white writers to pick up their pens in the first place. A good story is a good story, no matter who itís written by or for.
Can you tell us a bit about your next novel?
Iím working on my next novel now. Itís in part about a friend of mine, Bibhuti Nayak, who is a journalist in Mumbai. In his spare time he breaks world records in bizarre feats of endurance; he hopes to set his next record by breaking 50 baseball bats over his body. The book follows the relationship that develops between his character and that of an Englishman who has gone to Mumbai to die; they meet each other accidentally and a strange, beautiful friendship ensues that may or may not end in an act of brutal violence. A feel-good tale with a modern twist.
Stephen Kelman

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