Stephen Kelman's debut novel and Booker prize longlister
Even before Stephen Kelman’s debut novel, Pigeon English, was published, it had generated a lot of attention for (need this be repeated?)being plucked out of “a literary agency’s slush pile”, sparking a “bidding war” and being eventually bought for “a high six-figure sum”.
Since its debut earlier this year and its recent inclusion on this year’s Booker Prize longlist, reactions have only intensified. This is part due to the fact that it addresses that bothersome issue of child gangs and knife crime that has recently plagued the UK’s inner cities; part due to the proliferation of the “child protagonist” genre made popular by books such as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night Time and Emma Donoghue’s The Room; and also because of widely divergent views on whether it deserved all the pre-publication hype that it enjoyed.
The novel, by chronicling the experiences of its 11-year-old protagonist, Harrison ‘Harri’ Opoku, a Ghanaian boy newly arrived in London, tackles themes that are relevant to today’s urban society. In the words of Benjamin Evans of The Telegraph UK, it is “a novel that is close to understanding why children are murdering other children on our streets.”
The Guardian’s Alex Clark sees it as a novel that passes a strong message about how it is “the lot of most children to see more than the adults in their lives”, and conversely how absent and self absorbed adulthood and its many distractions can render us. Its great achievement, many will say, is de-isolating urban crime and installing it in a place where ethics and iniquity, love and hate coexist: the real world.
Less favourable reviews have a gripe with certain elements of Pigeon English. To some, the 11-year-old perspective and voice of Harri appear “faux-naif”. For many others, it is the overly eloquent addresses by Harri’s guardian pigeon that rankle. A few more insist that the appeal of the young person’s perspective is wearing thin, and Pigeon English is effectively just another The Curious Incident (down to the amateurish murder investigations).
There is however an important demographic from whom feedback on the novel has been lacking: the African immigrant reader that Harri represents. Important because it takes a bit more to win them over – they start the novel most probably taken aback by the prospect of being depicted by a white man.
David Njoku, a Nigerian writer, and winner of the 1995 BBC short story prize, admits: “I came to Pigeon English with a lot of baggage: What gives this white man the right to tell our story? We Africans harbour a secret suspicion that (whites) do not truly regard us as equals. At the end of every expression of respect or admiration – or even of polite greeting – we hear an unspoken snigger, as if we are secretly being made fun of.”
Another reason why the African reader’s critique is vital to discussions on Pigeon English is that they know what it feels like to be Harri- thrown into the deep end of a new culture. Also, Kelman adopts African beliefs, sensibilities and patois; and the book is, to a large extent, a fictional adaptation of the story of a real life individual, the Nigerian boy, Damilola Taylor.
Stephen Kelman explains his reasons for introducing slight distinctions between Harri and Damilola Taylor: “I didn’t want to make the parallels between my fictional story and real events too close.” What informed his choice of a Ghanaian protagonist was among others, the fact that “there is a growing presence of Ghanaian immigrants in the area in which I lived during the writing of the book, and I was able to draw on that for inspiration.”
It must have been a useful resource for a writer who has never visited Africa, but yet had a “story that won’t stop nagging” to tell about Africans, to have neighbours who call scary things “hutious”, admonish each other to “advise yourself” and tease their friends as being “dey touch”. But the major consideration was access to the character: “Ghanaians (and Nigerians) share a West African sensibility that is similar in some ways, a colonial past and English as a second language.”
While, however, argots like “bo-styles”, “asweh”, “hunger idey kill me”, “gowayou” and “dey touch” might have been inserted with enough frequency to satisfy the Western reader; to West African readers their syntax have often been noticeably wrong.
And it is this that Njoku points out as the novel’s main flaw. “I struggled to find affection for this book for a long time. Being of West African origin myself, I found it very hard to get past the jarringly ungrammatical pidgin English. Yes, pidgin English has rules as strict as those of any other language.”
The internet may have afforded Kelman the opportunity – through online dictionaries and language guides – to contextualise many of the expressions he had picked up from his neighbours, but it takes a long time to understand the nuances of a language, as the novel’s lapses prove.
This begs the question: should authors even try to write across racial and ethnic demarcations without having first-hand experience of the culture they are depicting?
Nigerian journalist, Tolu Ogunlesi says writers need not be “disqualified” from writing about a place because they are not from there, and his opinion is hinged on the possibility that foreigners may acquire a better knowledge of a place than some of its indigenes. “Michael Peel (author of A Swamp Full of Dollars, a non-fiction account of Nigeria’s oil region) was a Financial Times journalist based in Nigeria. There are chances he knows more of Nigeria than I do,” says Ogunlesi.
Lola Shoneyin, author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, admires the brilliance of foreign writers in capturing the geographical ambience of Nigeria even if they unwittingly “project Western thoughts and behaviours to their characters.”
Njoku however thinks that the idea is precipitate. He explains: “I am still a little unsold on the idea of a white man attempting to see through the eyes of a black man. Far too often that turns the black man into a caricature. And our wounds from our joint history are still too sore for that. Give it another 100 years.”
That being said, Kelman does many things right with Pigeon English. What some may criticise as the overuse of the word “even” and his occasional displacement of prepositions are clever tricks by Kelman to root his first person narrative more firmly in a child’s milieu, especially that of the West African child. Also, he wisely dispenses with the clumsiness of “he said”, “she declared” by employing drama-style colons to attribute expressions to a character. This helps make the dialogue less cumbersome and more childlike.
Admirably, Kelman touches deeply on the sensibilities of the West African culture – like their propensity for superstition as depicted in Harri’s fear of Asasabonsam (human-looking vampires that the Ashanti people of West Africa believe dwell in forests, hang from trees and have iron teeth), and in his mind-the-floor-crack agreement to ensure “that the holidays will be sunny everyday.”
He also depicts Harri as less world-wise and cruel than his peers. Even while affecting a tough exterior, Harri cannot help but love pigeons, trees and his little sister; or demonstrate a feeling of responsibility to “save the day”. This, the author says, is “a response to the fact that the West is further down the road of moral corruption than the Ghana Harri has come from.” And that Africa possesses “a stronger sense of family and community (and) a greater grasp of the concept of duty”.
Perhaps it is this acknowledgment of the African value system, as well as the fantastic representation of boyhood that will make a convert of readers like Njoku, who says, “Kelman perfectly captures the thought processes of a boy on the cusp of his teenage years, at once innocent and wise. Harri is constantly discovering and immediately explaining the world around him.”
It is this remarkable adroitness of an adult in depicting childhood that Kelman sees as his greatest accomplishment. “Writing Harri allowed me to take a look at my world from a different perspective. Sometimes I think it’s only by stepping into unfamiliar shoes that we really get to examine the things that are important.”
And a Man Booker award might yet prove that he is right on that score.
First published in The Sun, Nigeria, 28 August, 2011