The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
(Hachette Children’s Group, 2020)
The Black Flamingo follows Michael, a Black mixed-race boy, through his adolescent years. We see him navigate his racial identity and queerness through the relationships with his friends and separate families. This is by no means a tale of misery, trauma and teenage woe; nor is it unrealistically positive. There are heart-breaking moments for Michael but also plenty of joy and growth as he settles into his identity and moves towards finding a place in the world where he can flourish.
The exploration of the specific intersections of being of dual racial heritage and Queer makes this book very special, but for me what makes it utterly exquisite is the fact that it is written in verse. The experience of being Black and Queer and black and white can be difficult to articulate, especially for those of us that grew up isolated with these facets of our identities. The poetry in The Black Flamingo has a way of capturing in a single line the tiny, almost undefinable moments that make up a lifetime of awareness that there is something a little ‘other’ about oneself; long before an age where we can explore or settle on labels.
A novel about teenage identity could easily have been all self-absorbed soliloquy (no shade to those books – if The Black Flamingo was that, I would’ve devoured it in an afternoon too!) but there are so many other characters who, even the ones who only appear briefly, add to the story’s depth. Michael’s various relationships feel so vivid. The experience of hopping between different social norms and traditions is very relatable to any child of separated parents, but particularly children of two different cultures, and is captured brilliantly through moments like mealtimes and bilingualism. His relatives are flawed in their own ways whilst being multifaceted enough to elicit empathy and compassion (even on the occasions they behave in upsetting ways). Michael’s mother was one of my favourite characters. She walks the impossible tightrope of keeping balance between loving and supporting her child whilst aching to protect him from a less understanding world. Michael is proudly aware from early on that his mother doesn’t subscribe to patriarchal gender norms: When his friend boasts that her dad buys her mum Versace dresses, Michael announces:
“My mummy buys her own dresses”.
I was especially touched by the role supportive teachers play in helping Michael form his identity. For example, the teacher who, after noticing the poems about his crushes in the back of his maths book, gifts him a notebook to write poetry in.
The Black Flamingo is the representation I needed as a young person and I know this story will benefit Queer, young people of colour of this and future generations. However, it was just as relatable and affirming to me reading it for the first time in my thirties. I think it’s essential reading for anyone mixed-race and Queer. No one is too old to enjoy the comforting, easy quality of the words and the accompanying calming illustrations throughout.
It’s rare that one book can teach so much about a complex intersection of identities, but The Black Flamingo manages to do just that. Although as a Black mixed-race, Queer person the book was so relatable that I felt at times like Atta was writing about my life, Michael’s story will and does appeal to people of all backgrounds. We can all see ourselves in the story of a teenager trying to fit in at school, navigating romance and sex for the first time, the highs and lows of complex adolescent friendships, and yearning for the approval of family. Through exquisite, unpretentious, accessible poetry, I’m willing to bet that Dean Atta has given all our teenage selves a moment of being seen, affirmed and celebrated.