Dean Atta (Southside) Photo by Thomas Sammut
PrideIndex continues to highlight the works of queer authors of note from all over the world. Our latest interview takes you to the other side of the Atlantic.
Dean Atta is a British poet of Greek and Jamaican descent. He has been listed by The Independent news-paper as one of the 100 most influential LGBT people in the United Kingdom. His works include “There Is (Still) Love Here,” (2022), “Only On The Weekends” (2022), “The Black Flamingo” (2019), and “I Am Nobody’s Nigger” (2013).
Here’s what Dean shared about his upbringing as a queer person of mixed ancestry, writing influences, and how he started performing spoken word.
PrideIndex (PI): Why did you became a writer?
Dean Atta (DA): I became a writer as a personal endeavor. At first, it was a way of writing down my feelings and thoughts about a lot of things to do with my identity, which were always things that I was writing about from a teenager. When I was either 14 or 15, I knew I was gay, but I wasn’t ready to come out. I am of mixed race. My mom and her family are from Cyprus in the Mediterranean, while my dad’s family is from Jamaica in the Caribbean. They both were born in London. My identity was in flux. When I was younger, my dad wasn’t around, so my Jamaican identity was more informed by other things rather than directly from my father. I tried to find my way by listening to Bob Marley, which made me feel like this is what being Jamaican means. I spent a lot more time with my Greek Cypriot family and had a sense of that identity, but I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t speak Greek, which was also something that I struggled with, feeling like I fit in with the family. I had all these things I was writing about my identity.
Writing poems was what I was drawn to, just because it was a form that spoke to me. I really loved the poetry by Maya Angelou. I discovered that my mum had autobiographies, so I liked her poetry more. I came across Gil Scott Heron and enjoyed looking online and seeing Def Poetry Jam. The spoken word poetry appealed to me. I started memorizing my poems, and from there, I got into spoken word and took to some open mics,
By the age of 17 or 18, I’d already come out as gay. My poems were a way of asserting my identity as being gay and coming out to a new audience. It was necessary to claim that I was proud of myself and my sexuality in every performance because I didn’t want to give anyone a chance to tell me I shouldn’t be proud. So that was a big thing for me and the beginning of my journey.
PI: What sticks out to me among your work is “The Black Flamingo.” What was the muse for it?
DA: I went to Cyprus to see my grandparents, and there was a real black flamingo and had a moment with my grandfather when we saw it surrounded by pink flamingos. My grandfather said, “Why would anyone care that it’s black? The other flamingos don’t care; it’s still one of them.” It can be pretty jarring when people say they don’t see color. I felt like I stood out from my Greek family in Cyprus for a long time. I remember when I wore dreadlocks and would get people on the beach saying, “Hey, Bob Marley.” It’s funny; that’s what I was going for with the look. It showed me that in Cyprus, I stood out and wasn’t just to another person there; I was an anomaly to them. And that’s what the black flamingo seemed like. That was one of the inspirations that stood out.
My sister and I are the black ones in the family. We were referred to as ‘ta mavra,’ the Greek phrase for ‘the black ones,’ which stuck with me. It’s not necessarily about skin tone; it’s about standing out from the people you’re around the most. In “The Black Flamingo,” I look at light-skin privilege and dark-skinned people being treated differently from other characters. The character of Michael has the same kind of identity as me. Michael is mixed race, Greek Cypriot and Jamaican. Still, some of his other friends talk about different racialized experiences, being dark-skinned, even lighter-skinned, and passing for white. I was trying to represent a variety of experiences of black people because there are as many experiences as there are black people.
PI: What was your muse for “Only on the Weekends?” Did you use your upbringing experiences in the book?
DA: Not really; in “Only on the Weekends,” the character of Mack is raised by a single father. I use the opposite of my upbringing. I wanted to imagine what it would be like for a father to raise his son alone. It was more a feat of imagination. Single parents have different experiences. Gender won’t be the main difference of why that experience might be more or less challenging. In the characters I came up with, the dad was very loving but also remarkably absent in the sense that he was working so hard that he didn’t spend much time with his son, but he provided all the material things for him. Mack wanted a lot more attention from his dad when it was just a bit more openness and conversations they didn’t have. It was about this father and son dynamic, which I don’t know much about because I didn’t have my dad. Still, I wanted to challenge myself to write that because I always felt those stories really affected me stories about dads and sons, dads and their kids in general reading it or watching films about that, it would be interesting to look at that dynamic. And the main thrust of the story is romance, though. It’s about this boy having two crushes, like a boy in his high school and a new boy he met when he and his dad moved to a new city. It’s a love triangle story, but the father-son relationship is also significant throughout the story. My initial inspiration was me moving to a new city, so I moved from where I was living in London, England to a city in Scotland called Glasgow. I had to adjust to a lot of new things, even though the UK is relatively small. England and Scotland are very different in lots of ways. Moving from one to the other was a big adjustment. I wanted to look at that as well. The relationship to place and moving to a new city, and also a connection to the romantic partners. Mack, the character, has too. So that was quite interesting. It’s a book for teenagers or written with teenagers in mind. It’s a young adult novel. I wanted to look at all those kinds of like new and first experiences we have as teenagers, first love, and second love, as well moving to a new place and having to make new friends and just like making mistakes. Making amends. A lot of the themes that did come up as well, in my first novel, “The Black Flamingo,” in terms of like friendship dynamics being challenged, and like, having friends that don’t fully understand you. I do a lot of visits to high schools. Kids need to have a friendship group that understands them. Sometimes you only appreciate yourself by almost navigating that kind of friendships group dynamic and drama. So that was important. As much as the family stuff, as much as the romantic stuff, the friendship stuff is essential, as well, for teenagers to read. That’s why I always include exciting friendship storylines in my novels. So yeah, the main inspiration was moving to a new city, and the rest came from being imaginative and thinking about what topics I’m interested in exploring further.
PI: What would you like readers of your books to take away from them?
DA: What would I like readers to take away? That you don’t have to know precisely who you are at a young age, you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do with your life, your identity, and your kind of purpose in life might change as you as you go on through life, your identity isn’t fixed. Even if people around you try and fix you into one kind of version of who you are, you are allowed to change your mind and change things about yourself. That’s really important. Because sometimes, even having a close family can mean that they stifle you or having kind of close friends can sometimes mean that they don’t allow you to change. It’s about setting your boundaries and lovingly telling people to like back off, give you space, grow, and change. Those are some things that I would like readers to feel that I’m giving them permission to grow and to think that it’s okay to change. We assume that we must know ourselves inside and out, what we want from life, and how we set goals or what we want to do in the world can change. That’s something I’m hoping comes across, but also that as you change, you’ll attract different people into your lives, you will find people, if you don’t have them, you will find people that love you for you and will allow you to be fluid in who you are and to, to change and grow. You will find what you want to do in life, like a purpose, that’s important to tell young people. But I think people do this work through activism, people do this work through the political system, people do this work through other forms of entertainment there’s so many ways that you can do the type of thing I’m trying to do. And I think there are so many ways for young people to see role models, so like, in terms of like, the characters in my story, like, they’re not all perfect, like, they’re not necessarily always doing the right thing, they make mistakes, and they’re flawed. And I wanted to show in my books that it doesn’t even mean you’ll always get it right to be a good person or someone trying their best. And you will still upset people. I wanted to show flawed characters, sort of, but with a good heart. I think we believe to be reasonable means we’re going to make the right choices and, do the right thing all the time, but to be good and even to try with the best of intentions, you will still mess up. That’s also an important message for my readers: you can mess up but make amends and do better next time.
PI: Where do you plan on promoting next? Are you going to be here in the US?
DA: Nothing in the diary. But we shall see, I would love to, but there’s nothing planned just now. With COVID, any plans that were there had to be put to one side. I’ve done some lovely online events with places like New York Public Library and others who have invited me, whether directly into schools, through organizations, or with my publisher. I did Epic Pride recently with some other LGBT writers. And that was really lovely. So yeah, for the most part, it will probably continue to be like, online, connecting with the US readers, but hopefully, in 2023, there might be opportunities for me to come over and, yeah, see people in person because I’ve had a few visits stateside. I’ve come to New York, Baltimore, and Dallas, Texas, and I’m super keen to come again, but nothing has been planned just yet.
PI: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
DA: I love to eat. I always look for great restaurants, and when I travel, I always look to eat somewhere nice. And I ask people for recommendations ahead of time on where I should check out for good food. I love to walk in nature, so my partner and I do a lot of like hill walking and mountain climbing. I’ve kind of in the past few years started cycling, and I like cycling especially when there are no cars around, like somewhere that’s a bit more remote where you can see nature and like feel like you’re free and feel the wind in my non-existent hair. And I like to do yoga and meditation and recently got into swimming, like wild swimming. So like swimming in the sea or a lake and that’s been really fun, and I’ll do it even when it’s cold. I’m not afraid. And yeah, that’s something that a lot of the things I like doing involves being out in nature. But then I also love spending time with my two nieces, who are four and six years old, and taking them places, whether to museums, galleries, or just to the park, and like, running around and playing with them. And they’ve inspired some of the new stories I’ve been writing. I’ve started writing children’s picture books that will be published in the future. They’re just being illustrated at the moment. But they’re inspired by my two nieces, Arianna and Andia. I love anything that’s freeing, playful, or grounding, like cycling, swimming, and playing with my nieces. I also like walks and meditation. I love to read. I’m a slow reader. I’m dyslexic, so I actually prefer audiobooks.
PI: Your performances on YouTube are outstanding. If you had to choose between either performing spoken word, or writing, which would you choose? And why?
DA: Writing, definitely. I’ve had experience as an actor; when I was a child, I did a lot of acting and loved performing other people’s words. But for me, writing is what comes first now. I see myself wanting to perform after writing it first. And so, the writing is what comes first, and if I wrote something, and people only read it on the page, or someone else was going to perform it, that would all be cool with me. It doesn’t need me there to perform it to have an impact. It has a different result if I’m there. Because I can embody it. I’m doing less and less like performances as such, like, and I’m definitely focusing on the writing on the page and the craft there. More people will probably read my books than will get to see me perform. YouTube is excellent, and having stuff online is good, but it all begins with the written word. And so that is, I think the most intimate I can actually be with you is for you to just read the words because then they kind of take shape in your mind and your voice gets added to them as well when you read them in your head or read them out loud. So that is a really cool thing. I realized that collaboration happens when someone reads your words on the page; they make of it what they will.