With a career spanning nearly 40 years, Benjamin Zephaniah is one of Britain’s best-loved writers.
A poet, playwright, and author, his YA novel Gangster Rap was one of five YA novels released as a special edition for World Book Day in March. TBB interviewed the man himself about his career, writing, and involvement in World Book Day 2018.
1# How did you come to be involved with World Book Day?
For the first time, WBD has included teen and young adult favourites to be available as special editions. Every time I hear about books and literature I remember the 14/15-year-old me who didn’t like books. I felt very creative and had lots of ideas. I could stand in front of girls, ask them their name and as soon as I heard their name I would create a poem on the spot. But looking at a book, at the size of it, I thought it was hard work, then I realised I am dyslexic. It’s those people I think of. I want to show them that not only do I read books but I write them and they can too! That’s why I really wanted to get involved I am passionate about showing people that this is not an exclusive club of reader and writers.
2# Your 2013 novel Gangsta Rap is one of two YA novels by a person of colour selected, what does that mean to you?
It’s a great honour. It is important for young people who are writing to see and read authors who are like them. I remember considering not allowing my books to be taught in schools, it was after speaking to a young black kid who said to me “If your books are in schools I would go to school man.” I always remember that. I think we have got a long way to go but it’s great to see there’s a couple of us up there, I want to see more of us up there. We have got to get there on merit of course but I think the most important thing for me is that we get a lot of the history books about what it is to be British, about the history of Britain and the British Isles, rather than the colonial version of history.
3# How important to you is finding a good book and just reading?
My mother is almost 90 and has never read a book in her life, she will tell you she has read the bible but she has never read a novel or anything like that. She finds it difficult and the idea of sitting for hours reading a book is not something she was taught to do. I think it is really important as a young person to be taught to have a habit like reading that you can take into your old age. It’s difficult to start reading novels when you’re older at 40, 50. As an adult, I find reading novels difficult because I am really dyslexic but the joy I get out of them completely outweighs the difficulty. Once I get going, it’s a bit like jumping into a cold pool, the first bit is difficult but once you’re in, you’re calling to other people to come in too.
4# With so many libraries being closed down and books being replaced by other forms of media and entertainment what’s the solution?
The world of literature can be a bit of a bubble, I think it’s so important to remember that for some people books are expensive, especially now that so many people are struggling to survive. I volunteer at a soup kitchen and food bank and recently got them to start getting people to donate books. In that same area the two local libraries have shut down and I realised that the people coming in aren’t just hungry for food, they are hungry for literature and they can’t afford books. We need books in our lives, and we need to tell stories to each other and share that experience.
5# You left school at aged 13, unable to read or write due to your dyslexia. What got you involved in writing poetry and then later novels and plays?
Oral poetry, hearing poetry. My mother is full of poetry and what they call ‘oral tradition.’ Her mother used to read poetry to her and they used to remember recipes through poetry, stories about their fore parents through poetry, stories about slavery and how they survived it through poetry and song. That is the tradition I came out of. Somebody told me to start writing it down, so I did and then somebody came along and said you can do a play of that, so I did a play of it. It was all very gradual. I knew I wanted to do it and I was very passionate about the ideas I had but I didn’t know anybody in the business. So, I started doing performance poetry and things started to come to me. First and foremost I am a performance poet, then I’m a novelist, then I’m an actor etc.
6# Tell us about your novel Gangsta Rap, did you draw largely from your own experiences as a teenager for this story?
Yes, the experiences in the book in terms of the gang culture, the music, and all that stuff is stuff that I have experienced. Gangsta Rap is about kids who have been excluded from school, which was me. It’s about kids who aren’t just excluded but they have a talent and it’s just not working in the classroom. An adult sees some good in these young people and finds an alternative way to get the best out of them. I think that’s what adults and teachers should do but they don’t always have the time or the resources to do that. If teachers were allowed to be creative and there were smaller classes then children could get more individual attention. I am writing for another generation but its subject has stayed pretty much the same.
7# You’ve been quoted as saying that your “mission is to fight the dead image of poetry, and to take it to the people who do not read books” Can you tell us about the ways in which you have worked to achieve that mission?
My first book was called Pen Rhythm and everybody was talking about how it was a best seller. I was living on a housing estate in Leyton at the time and I used to have all these people congratulating me but I never met anybody who had actually read it. They were congratulating me because I was on television and because I was famous. So, I told myself I was going to take poetry into the dancehalls, into theatre spaces and put it on television, which was the first thing.
It’s not just doing the poetry; it’s not just talking the talk but walking the walk as well. So, if I talk about poverty I don’t just talk about it, I work with organisations that try to help deal with poverty. I work with World Book Day and organisations that help with dyslexia and similarly with bullying. People who don’t even know my poetry might see my work with these organisations, wonder who I am, discover I am a poet and then read my poetry. I think that happens a lot.
8# You also have a strong political voice…
Somebody once said that I am the most recognisable, most filmed and photographed poet of all time. I think that is true but not because I am the best poet, but because I put poetry on television. I have walked down the road with people who are singers and musicians and they can’t understand why I am getting recognised so much. I care about lots of issues so I do Question Time and things like that so people know me for my political stance as well as my writing and poetry.
9# What advice would you give to parents, guardians, and teachers who are trying to encourage children/young to get into literature and what are you reading at the moment?
Encourage kids to not follow trends, be original, and write from the heart and not for money. Of course, you’ll need money, but don’t let it be your motivation. One more thing, don’t forget to have a hobby, (or two), that has nothing at all to do with writing. It’s funny because I don’t have much time to read and when I do have time, I am writing my own books. There is a book I am reading at the moment called Dear World: A Syrian Girls Story of War and Peace. It’s a really moving story about a little girl called Bana Alabed, she’s been on television before because she filmed herself and her journey as a refugee leaving Syria. The book is about her leaving Syria and having to cross the world. It’s written from the point of view of herself, really, really moving piece. I have only going into a few pages of it but what I have read so far is really touching.
10# How important is an initiative like World Book Day?
I want World Book Day to be every day. There is a need for it because there is this focus on books and this focus on young people. I really like the idea that there are book vouchers and recommended books that are a bit cheaper.
Find out more on Benjamin Zephaniah via benjaminzephaniah.com
Interview by Priscilla Owusu