Interview with Benjamin Zephaniah to mark 20th anniversary of his novel, Face, 1 Feb. 2019, Birmingham

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of Benjamin Zephaniah’s first teen novel, Face. The publication date of the novel coincides with the end date chosen for our ‘Forged by Fire’ project, and it also engages with a number of issues at the heart of our project and the story is also set in London, one of our key regional centres. To mark this anniversary, Jonathan Reinarz met Benjamin Zephaniah for lunch and they spoke about the novel and some of the themes with which it engages, including burns, risk, stigma and identity.

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Jonathan [hereafter J]: Can you summarise the story briefly for people reading this blog?

Benjamin [hereafter B]: Well, it’s a story about a guy called Martin. He’s 14 years old, and he’s a pretty good looking guy. He’s got his eyes on a modelling career and so does his girlfriend. They’re the pretty kids in school. And he’s a pretty good guy, you know, a bit cocky, but a good guy. He’s not a bad guy, but he kind of gets tempted probably is the right word, he gets coerced into a car which he learns later is stolen. There’s a car crash and there’s a fire that burns his face and then he gets disfigured. And then he loses friends because he’s not the pretty guy any more. And now the kids in school, his old white friends don’t want to know him. And I guess it’s about, well, I wanted it to be about, I guess it’s identity.

J: How did you come to write this book?

B: It was my first novel. I was happily writing my poetry and then my editor left the publisher she was working at and she went to Bloomsbury. She said at Bloomsbury there was two things she wanted to do. One was to publish a book she was instructed to refuse before, it was called Harry Potter, and the other one was publish me, as a novelist, not a poet. And that was the condition of her taking up the new job. So, as soon as I said ‘yes’, it took me a bit of convincing to say ‘yes’, people started to write about this. And I could see they were all expecting a kind of Black Brixton novel, like life in the black underground, or something about racism, coupled with sexism, something like that. And I thought, I really don’t want to do what’s expected of me. And I thought, right, I do want to write about discrimination, but I didn’t want to do sexual discrimination, or racial discrimination, and I thought, OK, facial discrimination. We all have a face. And it doesn’t matter what we say, we all look in the mirror and do something to fix it, we wash it, we do something, but before we face the world, we look in the mirror and go, right, I’m ready to go now.  And, um, what happens if you lose that face. And that’s how I came to write it. I wanted to write something that was different. I wanted to write about discrimination, but I wanted to write something about discrimination that could affect anybody. Absolutely anybody, regardless of race, gender, sexuality.

J: I recently gave a talk at Painsley School in Staffordshire about our ‘Forged by Fire’ project, but I asked the Student Medical Society there to read your book ahead of my visit. I told them I was speaking to you soon, and I said I would put one of their questions to you. So, this is the question from the Painsley School Medical Society: who is Martin?

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B: Martin is a character that I know. It’s not ‘a’ character that I know. There’s lots of people I know like Martin. When Martin starts off, slightly vain, mixes with his own, um, he’s kind of lively. He’s a little bit of a…, you see at the beginning of the novel, he’s a bit of a Jack the Lad. And he’s a bit show-offish. Because he knows he’s good looking, he knows he’s got the prettiest girl in school. And, um…

J: He’s a class clown as well…

B: Yes, and I wanted to take someone like that, someone who wasn’t like me, but somebody who I know, and he wasn’t negative. I’d never call him racist, but when he’s invited to a black club, he say ‘nah’, black guys are in there, and he’s in his own little world and it’s fine, that’s the point, he’s in his own little world and it’s fine. I meet kids like that, they’re just in their world and they don’t really think about how the other half lives, it doesn’t mean they’re bad people, I mean. He’s only 14, or 15, so, that’s who he is really. He’s a kind of character that I know. And I think he exists in lots of places.

J: Do you know anyone with a facial disfigurement?

B: I didn’t know anybody with facial disfigurement when I wrote the book. I personally just wanted to do something different, that everybody could identify with. I like to reach out to a community of people that feel forgotten. The amount of people who contacted me with facial disfigurements, people that felt forgotten, said ‘do you know anyone with facial disfigurements’ because… Changing Faces, when I approached them for research, also asked, ‘what’s your connection?’ Nothing, you know [laughing]. But when I see people with facial disfigurements now, like I said, I know how to treat them, the thing is to treat them no different.

J: Was this book an important transition in your career?

B: Well, you see, there’s a West African word, and for years I’ve been trying to find the equivalent English word, ‘Griot’, have you ever come across that word.

J: Is it a storyteller?

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B: Yes, exactly.

J: I think Alex Haley’s Roots was where I first read about that and in oral history, I might have come across it.

B: So, they’re kind of poets, travelling poets going from village to village that keep the history going. But also the thing you can’t do with those people is say ‘oh, you’re a poet, or a song-writer, you’re a singer’. There is no box you can put them in. There’s no English equivalent. You can’t say bard. You can’t say troubadour, it’s not the same thing. But it’s all of those things. Alternative newscaster, you know. I’ve always seen myself in that tradition anyway, so I get asked to do, or I end up doing something that may seem unexpected, but actually I tend to take them in my stride, but I just think, I’m a creative being and I don’t know where this creativity wants to take me. And don’t get directed by the way that people sell your art. So, if people put my book in the Black literature section, don’t believe that it only belongs in black literature. Like I said, I really didn’t want this to be ‘Black literature’. I want it to kind of stand alone. You’ve heard this a million times, that writers and musicians, and whatever, don’t want to be pigeonholed.

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[Image: In 1967, Alex Haley visited the village of Jufferah in the Gambia, West Africa. The man in the white robe is Fofana, the village Griot, whose story helped Haley to establish kinship. Copyright Perseus Books Group]

J: Did you ever work for Changing Faces?

B: Yes, I became kind of an ambassador for them, and one of their patrons. They run campaigns and they bring me in every now and again. Not so long ago, for example, they had a campaign it was called ‘Face your fears’. You know, when people look at people with facial disfigurements and they look away. It asked, why should you fear this person, you know? Face them. We got  people to face anything, so we asked them ‘what is your fear?’, and my fear was maths, so I went into school and some children got me some maths to do. You know, they’re a great organisation.

J: Did you ever think about King’s Cross, New Cross, or any iconic fires when you were thinking about burns, fire, and tragedy?

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Image: King’s Cross Fire, 18 Nov. 1987. Photo by Christopher Newberry.

B: No. To be honest, I was thinking just about Martin’s journey. In fact, when I start writing, when I’m on a roll, research is the last thing I do. I want to get the story out. Once I’ve written a story then I go and get it checked out. I check out some legal stuff, or whatever. With Face, I gave it to a friend who is a fire fighter. He took it to his colleagues and they all read it. And then we had a chat. In the original draft the cars hit each other and they blow up and there’s a massive fire. And my friend said to me ‘that’s Hollywood’. Car fires don’t happen like that. Most of the time when a car fire is like that, it’s done on purpose. It’s a parked car and somebody has set it alight. He said, when cars crash now, a lot of them have an automatic system that cuts off the petrol and, if anything, there’s a dashboard fire, which is why, in the book, Martin is knocked out, and I changed that bit.

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J: I love the way you characterise the hospital experience as one of extremes. It’s either extreme boredom, or extreme activity. I want to know a bit more about Newham Park Hospital, because it reappears in Gangster Rap. I know your mother was a nurse at Marston Green Hospital. Was that part of the research?

B: It’s been a long time since I wrote that book, but there’s a couple of hospitals around East London and, in fact, not far from where I used to live, not far from where the book is set there is the best burns unit, where they treated many military people…

J: East Grinstead Hospital?

B: Yes.

J: You didn’t visit there?

B: No. But I know [the hospital experience] quite well. I spent a lot of time in hospital. My mum used to work in one, I was a sick child. Yes, so I know what hospitals are like, when I was a kid I was in and out of hospital. But, having said that, I spoke to some people who worked in hospitals and worked with burns, for example. They said to me one of the things that you really have to think about, and James [Partridge, of Changing Faces] said this to me as well: ‘when do you give them a mirror?’ It’s a really important point. They have meetings of when they give burns patients a mirror. When are they ready to see themselves. You know, if they’re really badly burnt. So, it was helpful to talk to medical experts for that. Nurse Ling is…when I was young in hospital, I got TB when I was really young. And there was a Chinese nurse there. I don’t think her name was Nurse Ling. She’d always talk to me, and read poems to me. We just had a connection. And, so, I remembered her. And although the name is invented, her character is like the nurse I remember.

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Image: James Partridge giving the John Ash Lecture, Birmingham Medical School, Dec. 2017. Photo by Jonathan Reinarz.

J: The hospital scenes really stand out.

B: To be honest, I wrote chapter 5 first. That was only because I was having difficulty getting started and a friend of mine, Philippa Gregory, the novelist, said to me, if there’s a pivotal moment, a really big moment, write that first and get everything started and then go back. I thought, right, ya, I had Martin, then I went to chapter 1 and started. And when I got to chapter 5, it needed a bit of tweaking, but it worked. And from chapter 5, I carried on. But from Chapter 5 onwards, it’s probably not the right thing to say, but it’s almost what I like to call ‘real time’. So, I’m thinking, alright, I got to this place now. Sometimes I just literally walk into an empty room and imagine there’s someone there and what would I say to them. If I’m Martin, what would I say to the doctor if I’m lying there? What it’s like lying there like that. I’ve had that experience anyway. When you lie like that in a hospital and he [the doctor] moves around like that, it’s very strange. It makes great cinema. It’s really weird when you’re there yourself. So, I didn’t really over think things too much. I just, to be honest, I’m just going to the 15-year-old me. Using my imagination to put stuff together that really rings true. That is about identity, but it’s not people sitting down and intellectualising identity. It’s really simple. You look like this one day, you don’t look like this the next day.

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Image: The Stabilisation Unit at Newham University Hospital.

J: We are doing a lot of public engagement with teens. Can you reflect on the opportunities and challenges of working with teens, writing for teens?

B: It’s getting harder as I go along. But originally I found it quite easy. And the reason for that, sorry I’m going to repeat myself a bit, when I start, I don’t go, right, I’m going to do some research on a subject and then write for young adults. I go, ‘Benjamin, when you were 13, 14, 15’, I hated reading books, I was dyslexic at the same time. If I saw a book, the first thing I saw was the size of it and that would intimidate me. So, I asked a question of myself, ‘Benjamin, what would the 14, 15, 16 year old boy, you, like to have read?’ And that’s how it starts. I go to the area that I know, East London, what are teenagers doing now, what were they doing before. Teenagers have always gone out joy-riding, although it is illegal. Sometimes they don’t know, sometimes they just kind of go along with the crowd and they don’t really mean to. Martin didn’t really want to get into that car. You know, I was the bad boy, I was the one saying ‘come on, get in the car’. I had the stolen car, you know, so, I think about me as a young person. And what would I like to have read. And that’s my proudest moment, when I see young people reading, especially when it’s not in school. I saw someone playing truant and reading it [Face]. He didn’t want to go to school to read my book. I was in Birmingham, actually, there’s a book service here, it deals with all the library books around the country, and one year they announced the most borrowed books in libraries, stuff like that, and it was Jacqueline Wilson, and then I said to one of the staff, ‘ya, I’ll never get on that list, because it’s always Jacqueline Wilson, J. K. Rowling’, and they said, ‘Benjamin, we have some figures that we don’t give to the public’. She showed me a graph and said ‘your book, Face, it was, at the time, the most stolen book from libraries. I said, ‘ya, that’s pretty cool’. These are kids who haven’t got many books and they want to keep it.

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J: People probably underestimate the teens as well.

B: When I wrote Face, teen fiction wasn’t big. Not like it is now. There were a handful of people. And I happen to remember a lot of people around me in the writing community and going to me, ‘you what?’ And when they saw Face, I mean, it wasn’t really a black book. It wasn’t a book on a subject I knew really well. It wasn’t this underground, kind of, ghetto novel. But I knew, instinctively, this was a book I’d like to read at school. This is the book I would miss school to read.  And, on top of that, I’m also aware of how teenagers can get overlooked. People don’t care about them in the way they care about babies. They [teens] want to form their own identity. Their parents watch from afar and try to give them words of advice every now and again, but there’s a lot that their parents either don’t understand, or don’t want them to go through and sometimes, kids have to go through things to learn them. So, I kind of want to give voice to that generation as well. I remember after I wrote Face and a couple of other novels, people would ask me, ‘what do you think young people can learn from your writing’? Actually, I think there is something to learn, something to debate, something to think about. I also love it when the adults read it. I don’t know if you know, but the adult version, it’s the same book, it just has a different cover on it.

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B: I want adults to read it because adults so quickly forget that they were teenagers. They remember the music they were listening to. A lot of them forget how they were trying to forge their own identities. How they were trying to find music that they wanted to listen to, not what their parents wanted to listen to. When I write a novel for young adults, I want them to go, ‘oh, ya, we identify with that stuff’, you know, the place, the cultural place, if you like, but I also want adults to say, ‘oh, so that’s what it’s like for a teenager. Ya, I probably went through that, well I forgot that.’ I mean, I’m convinced that the way that some people speak about children and young adults would be illegal in other contexts. Let me put it like this, you can’t go on television now and say ‘I don’t like black people’, you can’t go on television and say ‘I don’t like women, or disabled people’, but people think it’s funny when you say, ‘oh, I don’t like kids’.

J: That generational divide comes out in the way you write about Martin’s return to school. The head teacher wants to have an assembly to discuss the issue. He wants to do something good, and he’s not necessarily doing something that’s wrong, but Martin sees him as very patronising, he doesn’t want any of that.

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B: I think it’s because we would want to be sensitive to the needs of the child coming back to school for the first time, but the child probably doesn’t want a fuss made of them. It is a battle constantly wanting to not stand out. Wanting to just get on and do things. I’m very proud of the ending of Face. Martin has survived a lot. He’s made new friends. He’s doing gymnastics now, he’s in the team, he’s captain. Now, if this was Hollywood, he’d have to win. But he loses [laughs]. He loses, but he realises, actually, so he lost, he could have lost if he had a good face. You lose some times, you know. So, ya, he just wants to get on with it. And I don’t know if you know the theory of Safe Time/Safe Space. Let’s just say they [a person with a disfigurement] would go to collect a newspaper, they tend to go at the same time, they tend to see the same people, the same person in the shop, or whatever, and sometimes, if they go an hour later, or two hours later, they get stared at. Because the person on the road who delivers the newspaper isn’t the person who…

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J: The whole thing changes.

B: Yes, I spoke to someone about this. The lady explained to me that she does certain things at certain times because people don’t make a fuss out of her. They go into a shop because that person doesn’t look at them. If they get a new member of staff, you know, somebody told me that he used to go to this place and everyday get a newspaper and one day a new member of staff was there. When he walked in, the staff member looked at him and then called somebody else to serve him. And the boss said ‘no, you go and serve them’. It’s a nervousness that makes people do this. But there’s another character [in the book], is it Anthony?

J: The one in the hospital, who Martin befriends?

B: Yes, the one with the very bad facial disfigurement. That was kind of inspired by someone I met with a real disfigurement, but he thought he was the best looking kid on the block, you know what I mean? He has such confidence. And I wanted Martin to meet him, because, wow, he now has someone to look up to.

J: Twenty years have passed since Face was published. Is it still relevant, despite the aging technologies in the novel?

B: Technology changes all the time. One thing I don’t like doing is science fiction, well, I may in future. In my books, I don’t want it to be… is fantastic the word? I don’t want it to be overblown, unrealistic. I want young people to read it and say, ‘this can happen’. And that’s the thing I know. People come to me and they go, ‘that happened to me before, or my son, whatever’. I get that from parents a lot, and ‘I’m buying this for my son, who was a joyrider’. Sometimes it’s not necessarily burns, sometimes it’s broken bones, or whatever, and I want to know that when they read that book it’s fiction, but telling the truth. And that they don’t look and say ‘this would never happen to anyone. Kids would never do this. Kids would never do that.’ That’s the important thing for me.

J: It has clearly struck a chord. On YouTube, many kids have created short videos, summaries of Face, sometimes two minutes, sometimes shorter. You can often see the kids in the videos are from Greece or Italy, or somewhere else in the world.

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Image: From video summary on YouTube by Nicolas Porteau.

B: That really touches me. It’s really reaching people. And the other thing is that, I don’t want to sound crude, but, like, the sales of Face have not dropped, it just keeps going. Kids all over the world love it. It’s got a couple of translations as well, you know. Japanese, Swedish.

Changing Faces put me together with a woman. When I met her, she must have been 22 or something like that. We went to a couple of schools together to talk about the book. She’s an Indian girl, British Asian and we’re in a school with mainly Asian kids. When flying to India, her plane crashed and she was burnt pretty badly. Within the school, I talked about why I’d written the book, and I took some questions. Then she took some questions. One of the girls raised her hand and said, ‘after you crashed, what did your family, your brothers and sisters, your mother and you father think about the way you looked?’ And she said ‘They’re all dead, they all died in the same crash. The pilot died, everybody’. She’s the only one that lived. So, she said, ‘you know if you want to look, stare at the details of my face, that’s petty to me, that’s minor. I’m the only one that lived’. I think it was like 150 people, or something like that. So, she thinks she’s blessed. And it’s good to be alive, and you’re going to have trials and tribulations, people are going to bully us because of our race, because of our identity, because of sexuality, and stuff like that. Scientifically, it’s only proven that we live once, so we should enjoy it, make the most of it and understand others, even if you’re not like them. And that’s what my book’s about really. It’s about saying, look, you don’t have to stare. If you have a question, ask it.

J: I think that’s a perfect message to end on. Thanks very much for agreeing to be part of our project, Benjamin.

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