Pack the Mystery book “Pigeon English” by Stephen Kelman to Read on Your Next Trip: A Book Review
I picked this book up at the train station bookshop while I was waiting for the train. Every now and then, I’ll encounter little things that remind me of my journey and transition from Africa to the UK and this was one of them. The book cover caught my attention at first (which I suppose is the sign of a really great book cover LOL). It was the striking picture of the boy chasing pigeons that lured me in. I actually thought there was a connection between the Pigeon and “Pidgin English” when I started reading it, but then I realised there are bits where an actual Pigeon narrates some words—funny huh?.
This book is endearing, charming and hilarious. I loved Harrison aka Harri’s character. He is a lovely but naïve boy and I couldn’t help but connect with his irrepressible spirit. At age 11, he moved from Africa to an alien country and found it to be a bewildering and hostile place. I could relate to the initial transition I faced when moving countries.
A boy from Ghana, Harri is now living in England with his mother and sister. His father, grandmother and a baby sister are left behind until the family can afford for them to come as well. This is a true reflection of what a lot of African families face. Harri is the kind of boy who is open to all experiences, taking them in and finding the good in everything around him. Harri tends to like everyone; even the pigeons who flock around the housing projects, occasionally getting inside. Where others see a mess that should be cleared away, Harri sees a friend and this reminds me of
that quote about “finding the good in every situation.”
His perception inspired me so much because, despite his struggles, he saw good in each situation. Pigeon English is definitely an excellent read. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and Guardian First Book Award so many others agree. The author, Stephen Kelman, was so generous to do an author interview with me and I’m honored to feature it here. Learn more about him and the writing of Pigeon English below.
Author Interview with Stephen Kelman
What led you to write Pigeon English?
The initial inspiration for the book came from the real-life story of Damilola Taylor, a ten-year-old schoolboy from Nigeria who was murdered in Peckham, South London, in November 2000. Two older kids stabbed him to death for no other reason than the fact that he looked and spoke and acted a little different from them. He was an intelligent, sensitive boy, full of spirit and potential, and the idea that his life could be cut short in such a senseless way affected me profoundly. I was born and raised on an estate which was very similar to the one Damilola lived in, and the pressures he faced were familiar to me. I wanted to write about the place I was from, a place neglected in fiction, and also pay tribute to Damilola’s journey and that of my friends whose parents had immigrated to the UK in search of greater opportunities, only to find that the reality didn’t necessarily live up to the promise. I invented the character of Harrison to encapsulate those experiences, and my feelings about the place that made me and the people I grew up with.
How did writing this book change you?
In the research and the writing, I learned a lot about the West African culture, its history, and of the various routes of migration from the continent to Europe, the risks and sacrifices inherent in that journey. It gave me even more respect for the parents of my friends who had made that journey themselves. But mostly I learned from spending time with Harri and the other child characters in the book, that life’s challenges can best be met with a generosity of spirit, an openness and curiosity, an optimism that the adult world had perhaps stolen from me. Even though the book
deals with a lot of darkness, through writing it I got my optimism back. That was the biggest and most profound change. I’m a more hopeful person now than I was before I wrote it.
What message do you want readers to walk away with?
That there is more that binds us than separates us. That we are stronger united than divided. That each and every one of us is capable of changing the world. Kindness is contagious; by committing as an individual to a path of kindness, we inspire others to do the same. Thus we are all a vital part of the kindness revolution.
What was your favourite chapter to write?
The book covers five months in Harri’s life, and presents his experiences, thoughts and observations as they occur. Harri is such an exuberant child that even when dark things are happening around him he still manages to be loving and hopeful and funny, no more so than when he organises a surprise present for his sister Lydia’s birthday. She is missing Ghana, and her father who has stayed behind, and Harri makes it his mission on that day to make her smile. Capturing his spirit on that day made me smile, too.
Which chapter was the most difficult to write?
The final chapter – because I had grown to love Harri so much that I found the prospect of having to say goodbye to him almost unbearable. I still miss him to this day. Luckily, because Pigeon English is an exam text on the English high school curriculum, I get to visit schools to talk about the book, which keeps my relationship with Harri alive.
Do you have a favourite writing place, playlist, or spot? If so, tell us about them…
I’m very boring: I have an office at home and I sit at a desk with the blind down and the door shut, in silent isolation. It’s the only way I can focus. I don’t listen to music while I’m writing, but each book has its own soundtrack of songs which help define its mood and atmosphere, or somehow describe the characters’ journeys. I listen to these songs when I’m first formulating the idea for a book, and throughout the writing of it, just not while I’m actually at the desk. Harri’s theme tune was ‘Little Fat Baby’ by Sparklehorse.
My readers love to travel, tell me are you a travel lover? What’s your favourite place you’ve been to?
Travel is my greatest pleasure and privilege. Lockdown has been particularly difficult for me because of the travel restrictions and I can’t wait to start exploring the world again once some semblance of normality has returned. My regular visits to India have enriched my life immensely – I have a good friend in Mumbai who I wrote about in my second novel, Man on Fire, and being with him always feels like coming home. Kolkata is one of the most fascinating cities I’ve spent time in and I’d love to go back. Galle in Sri Lanka was a standout trip for its placid beauty and relatively unspoiled nature. My wife and I have travelled extensively throughout Italy and we find Florence, Venice and Rome particularly thrilling, Lake Garda and Lake Como especially restful. But New York City is where I always feel like the most complete version of myself. The energy of the place is unique and that sense of possibility enlarges my spirit. We go every year, and we’re always talking about moving there. Maybe one day!
Grab a copy of “Pigeon English” at your favorite local book store, library, or on Amazon here. And follow the author on Instagram at @stephenkelmanwriter