After leaving school at 13, dyslexic, illiterate and bored, Benjamin Zephaniah decided that just wasn’t good enough. He’s spent the past 40 years taking control of the English language, writing poetry, music, novels and using words in a unique way. Now the proud owner of seven honorary degrees, he is considered to be one of the most influential writers since the second world war.
Fiercely political, Zephaniah’s writings have touched upon race, gender, animal rights, death, illicit substances, crime and his Jamaican roots. Using his Rastafarian background to his advantage, he takes the philosophies and traditions and uses them in his dub-poetry and music. His other main focus is children, for whom he has written various novels and poems, and is deeply involved in inspiring young people to care about the words they speak and the world in which they live. You may have seen him at the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature; if not, we pinned him down to share a few anecdotes.
Obviously a lot of your work has been directed towards young people and children, and some is even written from their point of view. How do you understand how children’s psychology works?
You know, it’s interesting – a lot of young people have asked me how I understand them. I was in a situation the other day with some other writers for young people, and I was totally blown away because they said they had to do hours and hours of research for their writing. I thought: really? When I write, I just remember what it was like when I was 15. And okay, the language change can be a challenge, but I just listen to kids sitting on the back of the bus or something. I haven’t got kids, but my relatives and, in fact, all my friends are much younger than me. I can hang with people of my own age, but I much prefer to socialise with those from the younger generation. I think it’s because I have this empathy with them. Youth is a great time, but at the same time I was speaking to somebody the other day and I heard him say, ‘I don’t like kids.’ How can you say you don’t like kids? You can’t say you don’t like black people, or women, or whatever. We can’t all be black, we can’t all be white, we can’t all be female, or disabled, or straight – but we’re all kids. Yet it’s the one group of people that you’re allowed to persecute.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Well, I’m not really writing much poetry any more. But I’m in the process of writing another novel at the moment. It’s about kids and computers – angry kids and computers. I’m also just about to start working on the development of a musical about the life of Bob Marley, for the London stage. There are all kinds of things I’m doing all the
time – you know how it is.
So is this the end of poetry for you? Was that more of a passionate youth love affair?
No no – I’m feeling the urge now. And I’m also recording another album when I get home.
You turned down the OBE from Queen Elizabeth in 2003, which was considered at the time to be a brilliant and brave move. You’re also famous for your love of teaching people about poetry. So what kind of message do you want to give to your potential audience?
People who know me will kind of notice that I tell people who are nervous about poetry to come and see me. Either come to my gig, or come to my hotel room. [Laughs]
You’re going to have people stalking you now. Turning up at 3am saying, ‘Tell me about poetry!’
I remember doing a gig at Manchester University in the UK. They didn’t have any dressing rooms so I was sitting behind the stage talking, and this guy said he wasn’t coming to my gig because he didn’t like poetry. So we chatted about why he didn’t like it. And he said it was because of school, and he didn’t like taking it apart line by line, dissecting it. He read a poem and got some meaning from it, and the teacher just told him he was wrong. And then he confided in me – he told me he had some kind of relationship problem. He was studying medicine, especially about limbs and how limbs work – and he said when he was with his girlfriend, and he touched her arm, he just couldn’t stop thinking about how her arms worked, and the blood and bones inside them. And I said that is just like poetry! You’ve got to enjoy her for what she is, and not think about what’s going on… inside… too much. [Laughs]
You’re known for your political beliefs, as well as the fact you’re a vegan. Why did you choose a vegan lifestyle?
It just comes from a love of animals. I agree with a lot of people who talk about the health and planetary benefits of eating meat. But from all the s*** I suffered when I was young, animals were always my friends. They didn’t judge me for my race, or for who I was. My politics is driven by the same reason I love animals – its compassion. I hate to see people starving. I hate to see people oppressed. It’s a very simplistic thing, but that simplicity is the reason I can relate to young people.
You’re also a big promoter of freedom of expression, especially in relation to dyslexia, and your own personal experiences.
I’ve always said that dyslexia is not a measure of intelligence. They say that some of the most creative people in the world are dyslexic. But if you’ve got teachers that don’t understand it, then you’ve got real problems.
Benjamin Zephaniah’s books are available online at www.amazon.com