LONDON — Life on a bleak London housing project, seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old Ghanaian boy who’s just arrived in the city, provides the backdrop to Stephen Kelman’s debut novel, “Pigeon English.”
One of two first-time novelists shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, which is being awarded tonight, Kelman has garnered much buzz both on account of the book’s gritty subject matter and because it’s had a winding road to publication.
Before “Pigeon English” was released earlier this year, the 35-year-old Kelman had worked in a warehouse, as a care worker and as an administrator in local government. After deciding in 2005 to focus on writing, his finished novel was picked out of a pile of unsolicited submissions by Kelman’s now agent, and last year sparked a bidding war among publishers before being published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. earlier this year and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the U.S. Kelman describes his Booker nomination as the stuff of “daydreams.” “One of those things that any aspiring writer would daydream about is to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but obviously I never in my wildest dreams imagined it would actually happen,” he says.
The novel, which is written in its protagonist Harrison Opoku’s Ghanaian-inflected London slang, tracks Harrison’s naïve attempts to uncover who was behind the fatal stabbing of a local boy. Kelman creates a London where violence is frequent and casual, and marauding teen gangs have more authority than the largely absent adults. “When kids have an absence of [parental] examples and that kind of structure, then they tend to go off and create their own rules,” says Kelman. But the book isn’t all gloom, as the dispiriting events are seen through Harrison’s perennially optimistic, wide-eyed take on his new life.
Alongside taking his cues from his own upbringing on a similar housing estate in the Eighties, Kelman was inspired to write the book following the killing of 10-year-old school boy Damilola Taylor, a recent Nigerian immigrant, on a south London housing project in 2000. Kelman’s look at the forces brewing behind gang violence also foreshadowed the uncomfortable handwringing in the U.K. this summer, when disaffected youths looted shops and buildings in a series of riots in cities across the country. “I certainly wanted to show in the book some of the conditions that can lead to that kind of thing,” says Kelman. “Our advertising, our media and our pop culture like to encourage kids to believe they can have what they want when they want…but when they’re not given the tools to go out an earn those things for themselves…then obviously there’s going to be a great feeling of resentment and frustration.”
While Kelman doesn’t want the book to be limited to one audience at the expense of another, he says he’d be “very proud” if teens similar to those he writes about picked up the book. “I certainly hoped that those kind of kids would see their own lives reflected in the book in a way that fiction doesn’t [often] represent them too well,” says Kelman.
The book has also attracted attention from the film world, and is set to be adapted for television by Scott Free Productions and the BBC, who are currently scouting for locations in London and plan to cast local children in some of the roles.
And though it’s traditional for the literary cognoscenti to gripe about the Booker nominations each year, this year’s crop of shortlisted novels has attracted particular barbs for being “readable” rather than “literary.” But Kelman, who’s just finished the first draft of his second novel, says he’s simply enjoying the ride. “Chances are, this is the only time I’m going to get to experience this kind of thing, so I’m just going to enjoy it and make the most of it,” he says.