Benjamin Zephaniah on Windrush Child: 'We have to learn from the past'

Published on: 29 October 2020 Author: Emily Drabble

Benjamin Zephaniah's Windrush Child is part of the Voices historical fiction series. He tells us about the book and why it's so important to learn your history, and learn it right...

Will you tell us what Windrush Child is about?
It's about a boy called Leonard, who comes to England to meet his father. He's living in Jamaica, and he knows his father is in England but he's expecting his father to come back to Jamaica. One day his mother says, 'No, we're going to join Father in England'.

He's a little bit upset about this - he wants to stay in Jamaica. He loves Jamaica. He loves playing out in the wild, he loves all the animals, he loves the way things grow all around him. He wants to grow up there with his father. But, okay, he has to go to England. So he goes to England and he grows up there, like many people of his generation did.

It's not until he's in his 70s that he plans to go back to see his mother who has moved back to Jamaica, and take his child - like many Caribbean people of his generation - that he realises that under British law he's illegal, an illegal immigrant with no legal right to stay in the UK, even though he's lived in England since he was ten years old.

The other books in the Voices series have been about a long time ago - Roman Britain, the First World War. This feels closer to home - in fact, this book ends in 2018. Will children find it odd that an important part of history is two years ago?
They might do. The thing about Black history is that we're making it now! There are many things that I've done and I haven't realised I've made history until I read a newspaper article about it and they say, 'Benjamin Zephaniah is the first Black person to do this.'

There are kids reading this book who will do something and be the first Black person to do it! The history of Black Britain is being made right now. We have to be really aware of this.

In the US, Black people have been enslaved for longer than they've been free. The Windrush generation marks a particular moment in Black migration. There were Black people in Britain before Windrush. But if you think about the Windrush generation, it wasn't that long ago. There are still people alive who were on that ship, and their children are about my age.

My mother was walking down the street one day in 1950s Jamaica with her sister and saw a poster: 'Come to Britain where the streets are paved with gold', similar to Leonard's family story. My mother said to her sister, 'Do you fancy going?' And my Aunty said, 'No. It's too cold'.

And that's the difference between me and all my cousins in Jamaica! My mum moved to England. So when I see my cousins in Jamaica, living this rural life, coping with hurricanes and getting killed fishing... it's just one decision my mother made that split the difference.

What kind of research did you do for the book?
Most of the research wasn't so much about Leonard and his mother. There's a scene in a shop where Leonard and his mother experience racism - well, that happened to me and my mother.

My mother was in a shop and a woman came in and said, 'You're not going to serve that darkie before me, are you Mildred?' And the shopkeeper said, 'Oh no of course not, come here darling' and served the white woman first. I remember looking at my mum and saying, 'Mum, is that right?' And my mum said, 'Oh, don't worry, she's in a bit of a hurry and it's her country.' I felt something deep inside that wasn't right.

When I started this story, I knew what the beginning was going to be, and I knew what the ending was and I had a good idea of the middle as it was kind of my story, too. Where I had to do the research was what was going on at the time with Jamaican independence, what Manchester was like at the time, what the trains looked like, did trains go from Southampton to Manchester?

I've never done as much research for a book as I have with this one. I couldn't write a book about Manchester at this time and not, for example, mention the plane crash with the Manchester United players. It was hard work but I had to get everything right. That ship had to sail on that day, land on that day. That was difficult but I enjoyed it - it made me feel like a real researcher!

Is history served well by fiction?
Well, I like all my fiction books to be relatable and everyone who's been around to say, 'Yes, that could have happened to me or someone I know.' Maybe in the future I'll write something which is absolutely fantasy, but I like there to be a real truth in my fiction, so I like you to feel it's real and it could happen.

Because what happened to Leonard in the book has happened to so many people. People that have died in the process of going through all this. They've lived in this country for so long and then the country tells them they are not wanted.

There's one very sad story of a guy that was sent home to Jamaica and at the time the government said something like, 'Don't worry, we're only deporting criminals and rapists.' And some people in Jamaica read this and beat the man to death because they thought he was a criminal or a rapist. So, yes, I like there to be real truth in my fiction, and if it's historical, I want people to get a real feel about what was going on at the time.

In Windrush Child, you show the thread of history going way back, to the Arawak and Taino people who lived in Jamaica for thousands of years before Christopher Columbus 'discovered' it. How important is it to learn your history and to learn it right?
I was influenced a lot by the Rastafarian movement and a lot of our history came through the music, those of our teachers. I grew up thinking that Jamaica was a Black country and Black people originated there. My mum, because she was so British and had such a colonial education, she went along with that. She didn't think to dig any deeper.

Then I realised there were a whole lot of natives who were wiped off the map so the British and the Spanish could put Black people in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. So the Arawak people were gone. The first time I heard that was on a record by Burning Spear, Winston Rodney. He sings, 'Christopher Columbus was a liar.' And I thought, 'What does he mean Christopher Columbus was a liar? Everyone was telling me he was a hero!'

I learnt so much through music. And at school I wasn't that interested in British history, I really didn't learn much. It didn't engage me because it was all about the kings and queens and who killed who, and who ruled over who.

Then I realised I was really interested in the people they were ruling - the working classes, the normal people of the country, their history. Not all of them were involved in slavery - some of them were anti-slavery, some of them had to struggle against their own rulers. The suffragette movement! I'm fascinated with those things.

I realised that I know so many white people that don't know white history. They only know the history of the kings and queens and who ruled over them. And sometimes I find myself getting really excited telling them about uprisings in Scotland, in Wales, the Chartist movement. I find it fascinating and I find so many people have gone through a full education, they've gone to university, but they don't have an understanding of white history.

So, is there a problem in the history curriculum that's taught in schools and should we be decolonising or changing the curriculum?
This question is really important because I do know lots of teachers who are aware of this, but the law says they've got to teach the curriculum. I have a poem called 'Civil Lies'. It's a student writing a letter to teacher, saying, 'When I started to think, universities were built, when I sailed down the Nile, civilisation began, I'm so advanced when it comes to time there are 13 months in my year' - this is referring to Ethiopia where some places still have 13 months in the year.

It goes on about African civilisation and ends with the line, 'So teacher, do not say Christopher Columbus discovered me, check what I was doing before I suffered slavery. Yours sincerely, East Africa'.

And teachers tell me that they love that poem because it's not on the curriculum to say, 'Let's go back and look at African civilisations, to look at Timbuktu, or Alexandria where the first universities were built'. But if they look at my poem, they can say, 'What is he talking about?' Then it's a way in to talking about it - 'What does he mean? What are these references to Timbuktu?'

At the beginning of the book you have an author's note saying that some readers are going to find the language in this book difficult. Did you think it was important to include those horrible words and was it difficult to write?
It's really important. I haven't gone as heavy as it could be. But I had to give young readers a flavour of what it was like.

If you're going to read this book, you're going to read some truth.

I can't dumb it down so much that people don't call people names. I grew up with this mantra, 'sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me', and I thought, 'Names do hurt me'.

How important do you think it is to understand history in order to understand today?
Well, if you woke up in a hotel room, you'd be very disorientated if you didn't understand how you got there. We are here now. If you don't have a sense of how you got here you can be very confused. You can be confused about identity, sexuality and all kinds of things if you don't have a sense of how we got here, right or wrong.

You can't go back and rewrite history. Even when we talk about Black history, it's not all rosy. Black people have had their dictators, their massacres, their atrocities. We have to be honest and open about it.

The past is a different place, we're here now. We have to learn from the past. We shouldn't repeat it - we have to take lessons that we learn to move forward, and that's why history is important.

You're dyslexic and you were basically thrown out of school at 13. How did you become a world famous writer and performer from that start?
Well, I just had a lot to say and I wanted to go out and say it. And first of all, I started off doing it with poetry. In those days there wasn't the internet, kids couldn't entertain themselves on the phone or computer. If you wanted fun you had to go out to the streets, the youth club, play table tennis, meet girls.

So I'd be at the youth club and they'd say, 'Benjamin's got a poem', and I'd perform it in the youth club. People put down their snooker cues and table tennis bats and listen to poems. When I was in school, if I wanted to impress a girl, I'd perform a poem about her.

I felt I had a lot to say and started doing poetry and then my poetry editor suggested I write a novel. I thought, 'I'll give it a go'. And then I wrote Face, which is a book that's had a life of its own.

I always tell people with dyslexia, especially children, that it's not a mark of your intelligence. You can be full of stories - you just have to find a way of telling them. And now we have lots of technology and teachers, professors at university that are aware of dyslexia and can help. So dyslexia shouldn't hold you back. We now know that some of the brainiest people around have or had dyslexia, including Einstein!

What do you most want children to take a way from reading this book?
I want them to understand that something that can seem like it's history - that's actually happening today. There are people like Leonard, in Leonard's situation, who are alive today - in Manchester, in Birmingham, in the towns and cities around us. They haven't got justice; they are still struggling to get citizenship. Some of them are actually in the Caribbean, some of them are African. So that's happening right now.

I want young people to connect with other young people, but also - and I almost feel like I have to whisper this, as it says on the front cover that this book is for young adults - I want adults to see what it's like for young kids when they are going through things.

There's always an element of that when I'm writing my young adult fiction - adults should understand what kids go through, too. This is what I wanted to do with Face and all my books - with Refugee Boy especially. Everybody was talking about refugees and giving statistics and I thought, 'What's it like to be a child going through this?'

With the Windrush generation, we see all these elderly people, but what was it like when they were kids? When they started kicking a ball around, their first dates... What did they think when they first arrived of this change of weather and atmosphere? What's it like going into a class, when you're the only black kid, when your accent is strange? When the food is strange?

How urgent do you think it is to change what young people are taught in schools beyond Black History Month?
I am kind of critical of Black History Month. It was my friend Linda Bellos that started it when someone came to her with the idea. Her vision of it is quite different to what it is today. People can wish me a happy Black History Month as if it's Christmas or a birthday, and it can be tokenistic. People who apply for grants are told, 'Can you apply in Black History Month?' Or people are told, 'We'll do that in Black History Month', or 'We've done it in Black History Month so we're not going to do it in February'.

Someone tweeted: 'I've tried to get Benjamin for Black History Month and he hasn't replied;. And someone gave this great reply, I don't know her but she tweeted: 'Did you try him in January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, November or January?' It is a bit of a ghetto.

The reason why I think it's urgent is not just about Black history. We've got to get that out of the way. We've got to understand that Black history is the history of all of us. I think we don't hear much about Irish history either. We're never going to get it all in but we should have a general history of all of us.

And then do you know what we've got to get on with? Saving the planet. I mean, we've really got to put away this racism and deal with the future. We're here now. We're in whatever country we're in, the legacy of slavery, colonialism, the potato famine, all kinds of things got us here. Now, let's learn from history and move forward. This is urgent.

Black and white people have to learn to live with each other and all that stuff, but we've got to have a planet to live together on! So it really is a matter of life or death.

I can understand why people don't have that view because most people have never been to Antarctica. Most people see a bit of climate change in the weather we're having but they've never been to Antarctica to see the ice cap melting, to see dinosaurs coming up from the ground because they've been buried in ice for thousands, millions of years and now they're coming out.

It was an interesting survey to look at the culture of climate change deniers. They looked at the people of the Caribbean islands, the Fijian islands, the Hawaiian islands and they couldn't find one climate change denier! Why? Because they see it happening in front of them. So this really is a matter of life and death. It's really urgent that we deal with the past so we can get on with the future.

Is there hope for the future?
One of the most moving things I saw was on a Black Lives Matter march in rural Lincolnshire, where there were very few Black people in it, and there was this girl with a banner - it said: 'Black Lives Matter, come on Dad, don't you get it?' This young girl saying to her father who's obviously a racist, 'Come on Dad, these people matter'.

One of my students said, and this may sound a bit harsh, but I'm repeating what she said - she feels she's waiting for the generation of people stuck in their old ways to die off so the young people can rise up and truly be diverse and inclusive.

Young kids growing up now don't even intellectualise about multiculturalism. They eat Jamaican food, they eat African food, they eat Polish food. They speak English with African words, Polish words, Jamaican words, they listen to music from Latvia, from Africa and it's just natural. They're citizens of the world - they make friends online all over the world.

I do find some kids are way ahead of where I was when I was their age. I look at Greta Thunberg - I've seen kids being passionate about something, but what really inspires me about her is she tells adults to look at the science. I find that amazing - she's done her research and says, 'Don't follow me, don't make a cult around me'.

There's also a Somalian version of Greta who doesn't get so much publicity, and a young girl and boy in India. These kids have come, saying, 'Go look the science. And if you don't act like adults, we will.' We have to have faith that the younger generation will grow up and change things.

Read our review of Windrush Child

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