Poet Dean Atta talks about the experience of writing his award-winning debut novel in verse, The Black Flamingo, and the impact he hopes it will have on readers.
Thank you so much for reading The Black Flamingo. This is my first novel, but I hope it’s just the beginning of my career in fiction. I began my journey writing poetry as a teenager, which I still do and love. Writing a novel was a big challenge for me because I’m dyslexic. I can’t speak for all dyslexic people, but I often feel lost and confused when reading novels, so I had no idea I would be able to write one myself.
The verse novel style that I wrote The Black Flamingo in helped me a lot with writing the book because I could craft it as a series of poems. I turned to a number of recent verse novels for inspiration, such as The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Moonrise by Sarah Crossan, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. What I love about all of these books is how the poetry and its proximity to the main character lets you jump straight into the emotion of the story.
The Black Flamingo is a story that is very close to me. I am black/mixed-race and gay like the protagonist Michael, and I also have some experience as a drag performer. However, this book is not an autobiography or a memoir. I enjoyed creating the characters and relationships in this book and when writing it I experimented with different dynamics between each of the characters. I wrote many chapters that are not in the book, which helped me to understand the characters better and write the most compelling, page-turning story possible.
I’ve been hearing from many of you that you read the whole book in one sitting, which is really cool for me to hear as someone who has never read a whole book in one sitting before. But what I will say is go back and spend a bit more time with passages you particularly enjoyed. I hope you might find layers of meaning within the book, some of which might not have been apparent on first reading.
What I enjoyed most about writing the book was changing Michael’s voice and expanding his vocabulary as he grew older and more confident. Michael learns a lot about race, sexuality, nationality and belonging. I intended for Michael’s story to be a happy one, a fairytale of sorts, with the hope that if you, as a reader, have ever felt like you didn’t fit in or didn’t have people around who understood you, this story could serve as an example that, with time, we do find individuals and groups that love and accept us for who we are. But most importantly this begins with self-acceptance and self-love.
The Black Flamingo is unflinchingly political, but I wanted the story to also be warm and human. It’s about people who make mistakes and learn from them. Not just Michael but also his mum, his best friend, Daisy, and even his bullies become better people by the end of the book.
Ten years ago, Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, launched a project called It Gets Better on YouTube, where prominent LGBTQ+ people make videos to tell younger people that ‘it gets better’. It had a really positive impact on me back then to see happy and proud LGBTQ+ role models. I’d like to add to this message: not only does the world get better at accepting and loving LGBTQ+ people, we continue to get better at accepting and loving ourselves.
The Black Flamingo is available to buy now. Find out more here.