Speaking Up

Elizabeth Acevedo and Dean Atta

Dean Atta loved ‘Elizabeth Acevedo’s brother,’ and she in turn loved ‘his uncle.’ That’s their fictional family members. I reckon these two could easily have chatted to/interviewed each other in the Speaking Up event on Thursday. As Elizabeth said when her awards were listed, ‘this isn’t awkward at all!’

They are both debut authors, writing in verse. Elizabeth won the Carnegie Medal this year for Poet X, while Dean’s first book has only been in the shops a week. I’d like to think that’s why I’d not heard of it, or him.

I like the sound of it, though, and The Black Flamingo looks fantastic in pink. It features a black, gay character, who never got that Barbie he wanted at six. And when he’s an adult he starts doing drag, just like Dean. The idea behind the black flamingo is that colour doesn’t matter. Dean read short extracts from the book, covering several age stages of his character. Elizabeth kept nodding and murmuring her approval throughout, which proves how differently a novel in verse comes across.

Elizabeth Acevedo

In Elizabeth’s reading she gave her character Xiomara a rather different accent than I’d been expecting. Done like this it would make for a great audiobook. She said she’d had no choice about writing poetry, having been ‘forced to sing to plants’ at the age of five, and realising the following day that she didn’t remember what she’d made up, because she couldn’t write. ‘Poetry is being aware of your thoughts.’

She said she used to be so nervous reading in front of people that her hands shook and she couldn’t see what was on the paper, which led her to learning the words by heart. This made her confidence grow. Elizabeth pointed out that you can look at global leaders and see if they read poetry. Or read at all. Empathy makes us human.

Dean Atta

Dean said it was important for him to have a gay main character. He had read books featuring black characters before, but felt that Poet X was special. His next books are two picture books, written for his nieces. And he’s been inspired by his mother, and by Maya Angelou. Teachers can help with confidence boosting by sharing their own problems, such as dyslexia.

Elizabeth’s inspiration comes from hiphop; people who don’t conform. Her next book will actually be in prose, as it was written before Poet X. ‘Big prose,’ she calls it. Reading a lot could help make boys softer [in a good way].

The final question from someone in the audience was a request for Dean to come to her school and do a workshop. Let’s hope he does!

(Photos by Helen Giles)

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