Michael waits in the stage wings, wearing a pink wig, pink fluffy coat and black heels.
One more step will see him illuminated by spotlight. He has been on a journey of bravery to get here, and he is almost ready to show himself to the world in bold colours...
Can he emerge as The Black Flamingo?
Friends, I feel ashamed. This book has been sitting on my TBR shelf for over a year now and it's taken me until July to finally read it (and another two months to finally review it!). I'm a terrible human, I know. But the joke is on me because this is one of the best books I've read this year and oh boy, what a fool of a Took I am for waiting this long to read it.
What's it about?
The Black Flamingo is a coming-of-age story that charts the life of Michael Angeli, a half-Greek-Cypriot, half-Jamaican boy growing up in London. Told in verse, the reader follows Michael as he navigates life as a mixed-race gay teen trying to find his place in the world.
So in one of my last posts I admitted I wasn't a big fan of poetry. Well folks, what a turn-up for the books 2020 is proving to be, because in just over four weeks I've read three verse novels and guess what? I loved them all. Prose before hoes? I don't think so!
(Disclaimer: I don't really think poets are hoes. I just liked the pun too much to not include it. Sorry, love you x)
There's just so much I loved about this book.
Michael Angeli... more like ANGEL! 😍
Okay so Michael is one of the most endearing characters I've come across in YA for a long time. He's expressive, honest, intelligent, and - most importantly - unashamed of who he is... even if society's mixed messages make it hard for him to work out exactly who that is.
As a child, Michael would rather play with a Barbie than an Action Man. He'd rather take singing classes than play football. And while his mum is happy to let Michael indulge in whatever makes him happy, six-year-old Michael is about to learn that society has certain expectations when it comes to gender. Rules that, for some reason, only seem to apply to boys:
Anna gets Phoebe, my old Barbie doll,
and my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Anna gets my dungarees
and all my other old clothes, too.
I notice when Anna plays
with my Turtles, no one asks her why.
I notice when Anna wears
my dungarees, no one comments.
I'm glad she is free to play
and dress however she feels happy.
Michael has to learn the unspoken rules of gender, and for a boy in touch with his feminine side, that's not a particularly easy task. Watching Michael navigate school and struggle with crushes on other boys was something I related to hard and Dean Atta does a great job of capturing the confusion that is adolescence for boys who don't "do" masculinity the way they're supposed to.
One of the things I really enjoyed about The Black Flamingo is that you get to see Michael grow from a young boy into an adult. Most YA tends to focus on the coming-of-age period - the transition from teenager into young adult and the turmoil and freedoms that come with it - but with The Black Flamingo, we see Michael's entire life unfold before us. I can't think of any other YA book off the top of my head that charts a character's growth all the way from childhood and I think it worked really well here, creating a sense of intimacy between Michael and the reader. Michael isn't some detached unrelatable protagonist - we know exactly who he is because we've witnessed the people and events that have shaped him as a person. And while I loved getting to see Michael grow into this confident, beautiful glittery butterfly, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of sadness at seeing him transition from boy to man. Because when you see a person's entire life mapped out on the page, you can't help but notice the moments that, one by one, extinguish their childhood.
Like the first time you're told you can't play with a certain toy or hug certain friends because that's not what boys do (even though you've always done these things and they make you happy). Or the moment you realise your happy family is just an act and that adults aren't always dependable. Or the moment you're confronted with racism or homophobia for the first time and all of a sudden your very right to exist is called into question and placed under threat. Then there's the moment you get into your first fight (because again, that's what boys are supposed to do), the moment you discover your family don't have as much money as the other kids at school, the moment you discover what sex is, the moment you actually have sex for the first time.
Each of these moments chips away at childhood, bringing an end to the the innocent, care-free naivety that goes with it. Seeing Michael become disillusioned as his innocent young mind is filled with society's toxic expectations made me grieve not just for his but for all of our childhoods. But that sadness gave way to triumph as I watched Michael take those lessons of what it means to be a man only to raise a middle finger to the world and disregard them entirely.
"Men are sandcastles made out of pebbles
and the bucket is patriarchy: if you remove it,
we fear we won't be able to hold ourselves
together, we pour in cement to fill the gaps
to make ourselves concrete constructions."
Michael is the teenager I wished I could have been. He's self-assured, comfortable in his own skin, and not afraid to show the world his authentic self - even if it might cause him problems. There's a scene where he walks up to a boy in school and hands him a letter openly declaring his feelings for him in front of all of his classmates. I remember reading this scene and feeling sheer panic because this would have been, without a doubt, my teenage self's worst nightmare. Scribbling down my feelings for a boy in my class and having it make its way around the school. I'm getting sweaty palms just thinking about it. And here's Michael not only writing a love letter to a boy, but hand delivering it to him in front of everyone. Seriously, the balls on this guy. I simply can't imagine being so comfortable in my sexuality as a teenager and I'm not going to lie, there was a part of me that kind of envied Michael for his unwavering ability to own who he is. As a teenager, I was riddled with anxiety when it came to my masculinity. I went to a rough school with some pretty violent guys and I was constantly on my guard around other boys, trying my hardest to fit in and not become a target. Was I walking manly enough? Was my voice deep enough? And don't get me started on the gross straight boy clothes I'd wear on non-uniform day just to blend in 🤮. Policing my gender was a daily routine that left me feeling exhausted and anxious so it goes without saying that Michael is my hero and I'm so glad that The Black Flamingo is out in the world showing teenagers that they can live their truth no matter what anyone else might think.
Aside from exploring sexuality, The Black Flamingo also deftly critiques racism and provides an insight into what it means to be Black and mixed race in the UK. There's a particularly powerful scene where Michael and his uncle are pulled over by the police and once again Michael finds himself learning a lesson about society and the status quo that must be obeyed. Except this time it's not about being a boy or being straight, but rather about being Black:
...this is what it's like
to be black in this country
or anywhere in the world.
They interrupt our joy.
Our history. Our progress.
They know they can't
stop us unless they kill us
but they can't kill us all,
so you're living your life
and suddenly interrupted
by white fear or suspicion.
They fear sharing anything.
Our success is a threat.
It's a poignant scene and one that sadly seems to be becoming increasingly relevant with each passing day. While The Black Flamingo is ultimately a story of Black joy, Atta is not afraid to skirt around the issues so many of us would rather turn a blind eye to. Because like it or not, this is a part of Michael's daily existence just like it is for so many others and we can't afford for these issues to be brushed under the carpet. In another scene, Michael's friend Lennie explains how society's racist attitudes are so pervasive they can even create unconscious internalised racism:
When a black person says
they're only into white people
that's internalised racism.
When a white person says
they're only into black people
that's fetishisation, which is also
a form of racism. If their skin
or radicalised features matter more
to you than the person within,
that's racism. I can't be your friend
without calling this out. Your ignorance
may be innocent but the racism is real.
I want both of you to think about how
what you said might make me feel.
The Black Flamingo grapples with some big ideas but it educates its reader through empathy and solidarity. There is so much to take away from Atta's poetry, each of his points so beautifully articulated yet thoroughly accessible. I say it a lot in my YA reviews, but The Black Flamingo is absolutely a book I wish I had read as a teenager. I truly think this book will make a meaningful difference to so many young people's lives and it makes me hopeful for the future knowing that voices like Atta's are not only available to young people, but so positively sought after. Young Adult literature is a changing landscape and books like The Black Flamingo are leading that change. So here's to Michael Angeli, Dean Atta and a generation of teenagers who will know themselves and each other better than any of us who have gone before them. We have so much to learn from you all, and I wait with anticipation to hear what you have to say next.
Have you read The Black Flamingo? Did you have a favourite verse or scene?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
If you enjoyed The Black Flamingo, here are some similar books I'd recommend: