Stephen Kelman; Pigeon English – More like Broken English and broken spirits

Well I have read Stephen Kelman’s book – Pigeon English and noticed that it has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.  Maybe I’m just a jealous frustrated writer or maybe I need to get real and see some of the themes he writes about of my community instead of me trying to write the decent things that do exist in places like Tottenham.  But instead, this is a book that even before you get to the end you know damn well there is not going to be good ending.

Pigeon English is about a young boy who arrives from Ghana settles in an estate that could be Broadwater Farm; a story which features black Brit-on-black African crime, a story that makes you think about the murder of Damilola Taylor, a story which makes you think what it is to be young and black in modern day London. A story about parents/adults who are not engaged with the kids.

I guess my usual moan is what would a white middle aged man know about black youth?  Okay, so the author grew up in a council estate but does that mean he has understanding of what it is like to be black/Ghanaian?  It almost seems as if there is an idiot’s guide to black people that is available somewhere that writers of a different race and colour can imagine and write what they think it must be like to be black! I wonder if I could get away with as much.

But my really biggest moan is the ending. How dare Kelman conclude the story in such a way which suggests that for the black/ethnic youth there is no hope? The actions of the looters in the recent riots in England, already tell us that a lot of the youth are not engaged in their environments so I don’t think it helps to have literature that affirms that. Instead, the book could show how overcoming ‘adversity builds character,and character in turn builds hope’.  I just wonder if a young person from a certain background were supposed to read this book, if they wouldn’t find it despondent, because I certainly did.


7 thoughts on “Stephen Kelman; Pigeon English – More like Broken English and broken spirits

  1. Interesting review – do you feel that Kelman presented the situation of the Ghanaian boy inaccurately? Or do you just feel that white writers don’t have the right to write about black characters and vice versa?

    • Many thanks for responding. Its complex! Like I said in my intro – maybe I’m whining because I’m frustrated at the fact the when black writers submit their ‘writings’ to potential agents’/publishers’ you better make sure you meet all sorts of criteria. For example I have been told several times that ‘whatever I do, don’t have black characters harming the white characters’ or ‘make sure the black characters are black and speak black!’ The black writer Yvette Edwards whose book A Cupboard full of Coats (was also nominated by this year’s Booker) was asked by her agent why there were no white people in her novel. The point is would she have made the same comments to her white writers whether or not black characters should be in their books? So it annoys me when a white writer such as Kathryn Stockett who wrote The Help has black characters that blatantly dislike their white counterpart and it is not just accepted but praised.

      Why I also say it is complex is because white authors such as Damon Galgut, Nadine Gordimer I consider exempt because their depiction of South Africa is so accurate (I have lived in South Africa) and has sincerity about how life is presented which makes me feel comfortable. South African literature mainly looks at not only how apartheid affected black people but how it had a negative impact on white people lives. I believe if a white writer wants to write a story where the protagonist is black, not only must they be honest about the character and their circumstances but they must be honest about white people and their part in the black characters life, whether directly or indirectly. But I’m not too sure if white English authors have got there yet.

  2. I used to work as an interpreter for the deaf. I remember people asking me how I learned the language. It was complex for me to explain how I knew the language and a good bit of the culture – mind you, not all about the culture as I am obviously not deaf. I went to high school with deaf kids as friends. I was invited to cook outs, camp outs, deaf get-togethers, and was part of deaf clubs galore. It enabled me to explain parts of the culture – but it is nothing like actually being deaf and living every moment as a deaf person. With this perspective and only going off of your post, I imagine that one could have some exposure to what life is like, but can’t possibly know the outcome of a life/character – especially when the outcome portrayed in the book is so very dismal. I agree that the impact that this ending on one person or another who may read this may not be the best assuming that they have no other support or encouragement or opportunities pointed out to them as being truely available to them.

  3. Many thanks for your comments. A few week ago I went to a reading of a black author. She is Black British and chooses to write about her experiences in her own community. She was asked if she had read ‘Pigeon English’. She said yes and paused for a long time, as if she really had to think about how to react to the question. Eventually she said that it was a ‘good attempt’ but Kelman needed to know a lot more about the Ghanaian experiences to justify writing such a book. It was a full audience and before I realised it people were saying how they read the book and felt the ‘language’ used in Kelman’s book was ‘imaginary’ and that at the end of the day, the book was not meant for the black community.

    Yes, I feel quite strongly about this as it makes me feel that we cannot or not allowed to even pen our own experiences and that we need someone to filter and cleanse ourselves before we make it to the page!

  4. Very illuminating review and comments. The book club I belong to – Accra Book Club – will be reading and discussing Kelman’s book later on next year – admittedly on my recommendation, which is somewhat based on the Ghanaian connection.

    • Happy New Year to you. Would like to know about the Accra book club. What sort have books have you read? Was in Ghana for the Xmas and stayed at the new Movenpick hotel. Really great and a really great firework display. Now I’m stuck in doors as currently there is a strike on. Let’s see who will win

  5. Thanks for your comments and although I have been out of the book for a while, I will definitely ask for one of the book group members to take a look at it to see whether or not copies should be bought for the group. It would be interesting to know once your members have read it, what they thought about it. Merry Christmas!

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