I was unfamiliar with Dean Atta’s work until I read Stripes’ Proud anthology earlier in the year and his contribution of ‘How To Come Out As Gay‘ was absolute standout for me. It’s probably one of the only poems that has ever spoken to me and made me cry (I’m not poetically cultured). When I saw that he was bringing out a full length novel told in verse I knew I had to have it – thank you to my friend Bella who gave me her early copy.
The Black Flamingo follows Michael a half Greek-Cypriot, half Jamaican boy growing up in London. The story starts when Michael is six and starts to realise that he isn’t the same as other boys his age and would much rather be given Barbies for his birthday than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. His white-passing single mum loves him for who he is but knows she must shelter him from the harsh realities that face can face a person of colour, especially one who enjoys things out of the norm like playing mums and dads with his male friends or going to singing classes.
As Michael grows he starts to realise that maybe he just doesn’t fit in at all. Too black for white people, too white for black people, too black to be a Greek-Cypriot and so on. He starts to close himself off from other people his age, leading to him only having one true friend and becoming the target of bullying in a school that venerates playing sports and fighting. We follow Michael right up to being nineteen has he goes on a journey to discover his true self which may or may not involve finding his wings and transforming into a drag queen known as The Black Flamingo.
This story was absolutely raw and written right from the author’s own experiences, everything that Michael went through was completely believable. I loved Michael, even when he was being Mikey to his family, Mike to his university friends or Michaelis to his Cypriot family because he always stayed true to himself. A lot of books featuring gay character go through a phase or section where they try to ignore their gay side or try to be straight but Michael knew he was gay and was not ashamed. Michael’s difficulties lay in the fact that he fell into too many minority groups to belong to even just one of them. This is what kept me really rooting for him the whole way through.
It also explores racism in its different forms and does so through some of the many pages with black ink and white writing, which is where I felt like Dean Atta was talking directly to the reader. In one particular page he describes and provides examples of both fetishisation and internalised racism (not being subtle at all) and how these can be equally as upsetting and offensive to the person of colour in which they are targeted at.
One of my absolute favourite parts of the story however is when Michael and his family go to Cyprus to visit his grandparents and it’s when the flamingo motif starts to really develop. A black flamingo flies to the island and draws a lot of media attention, everyone wants a piece of the bird that doesn’t fit the aesthetic of the ideal and acceptable flamingo. One of the only one who doesn’t care is Michael’s grandfather who simply points out that none of the other flamingos care that their friend is black so there’s no need anyone else to obsess over it. It’s a beautiful metaphor that spoke to me deeply and of course to Michael.
I’m not sure if this next part is a spoiler or not (if you’re worried that it might be then please stop reading here).
The epilogue just happens to be the same poem that Dean Atta contributed to Proud – you know that poem that actually made an impact on me? It was the perfecting ending to the book, summing up the entire message of just being yourself. If you do you then that is all that matters. Don’t worry about boxes or labels or expectations but find your true self and what works for you and that will ultimately lead to your own happiness.
Want to win a copy of this book? I have a giveaway on my Instagram! @elfcouncillor