The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
Published by Blazer + Bray, 2020
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This is a coming-of-age story about the struggle to make peace with your own identity in a society so eager to pin you down with labels. We follow Michael from infancy through to his university years; a mixed-race gay adolescent born in Britain to a Greek Cypriot mother and a Jamaican father. We watch as he embraces his sexuality, reconciles his disparate heritages, and ultimately finds his own sense of community and empowerment through the world of drag.
The book is written in the first-person, and considering the vast span of the protagonist’s life that is being covered, I think Atta does a great job of having the narrative voice age-up appropriately as time passes. The book is also written in verse. While I don’t think this necessarily added much linguistically, it did give the narrative an almost diary-esque quality, helping us feel more intimately invested in Michael’s perspective. It also lends the book a lot of pace and flow, allowing for seamless jumps in time when necessary.
I really like how contemporary the book feels, not only in its pop culture references, but in the modern attitudes and opportunities it reflects. Yes, Michael still faces racism and homophobia – both deliberately antagonistic and systematic – but he is able to come out of the closet fairly comfortably in his mid-teens, and finds many people of his generation who are open-minded and relaxed about issues of gender and sexuality. Upon starting uni, he is able to try out groups specifically for LGBT and Black students, before finding his feet in the drag society, and he regularly enjoys nights out in gay clubs with both his queer and his straight friends. In this respect, I think Atta does a fantastic job of reflecting both how far we’ve come as a society, and how far we still have to go, when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
I also really appreciate the complexity of the characterisation, with Atta doing well to reflect the duality that can often exist within people – even supposed allies. For all their love and support of Michael, his mother and his best friend are not without their own ingrained prejudices to overcome.
Though I enjoyed every second I spent with it, it’s fair to say it’s not a perfect book. It indulges in the YA convention of employing one or two small twists that feel unnecessary, and when it comes to dialogue, characters definitely feel like overly-rehearsed mouthpieces for the author on occasion. I also think a couple of threads could have been explored in more depth. I like that not everything was wrapped up too neatly (this felt appropriately symbolic of the ongoing nature of navigating identity), but the foundations of a potentially fraught relationship between Michael and his father could have been capitalised on a lot more. There are definite suggestions that Michael and his mother worry about a potential lack of acceptance from his Jamaican side of the family, and with the intersection between Blackness and queerness known to throw up a lot of difficulties, I think more could have been done here.
That said, I love that this book exists, particularly for younger readers. There is a (largely justified) legacy of depressing queer lit out there, but something about this feels incredibly optimistic and charming. Atta doesn’t shy away from showing the difficulties young people often still face when confronting the realities of their own race and queerness, but he also shows how joyous it can be to explore your identity; the excitement of experimentation, the freedom of expression, and the beauty of found family. If The Black Flamingo is about any one thing, it’s about embracing your gender, sexuality, and ethnicity entirely on your own terms, and never with the aim of appeasing others.
You can pick up a copy of The Black Flamingo by clicking here.