Birmingham Lit Fest Presents….

In this week’s episode, artist and cultural critic Gaylene Gould interviews debut author Paul Mendez about his novel Rainbow Milk. Join Paul and Gaylene for a fascinating discussion about the rich history of black British writing, representing
the Black Country accent on the page and the intersections of identity, alongside a wonderful reading from the novel.

Show Notes

In this week’s episode, artist and cultural critic Gaylene Gould interviews debut author Paul Mendez about his novel Rainbow Milk. Join Paul and Gaylene for a fascinating discussion about the rich history of black British writing, representing
the Black Country accent on the page and the intersections of identity, alongside a wonderful reading from the novel.

The Birmingham Lit Fest Presents... podcast brings writers and readers together to discuss some of 2020’s best books. Each Thursday across the next few months we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions
about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Join us each week for exciting and inspiring conversations with new, and familiar, writers from the Midlands and beyond.

Take a look at the rest of this year's digital programme on our website: https://www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org/.
For more information on Writing West Midlands, visit https://writingwestmidlands.org/

Follow the festival on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @BhamLitFest

Credits

Curator: Shantel Edwards (Festival director)
Guest Curator: Kit de Waal
Production: 11C/ Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands

TRANSCRIPT

Kit de Waal 

Welcome to the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…podcast series. I’m Kit de Waal and I’ve worked with  the Festival Director, Shantel Edwards, as Guest Curator of this year’s podcast series. Each Thursday  across the next few months we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful  discussions about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. In this week’s episode, artist and  cultural critic Gaylene Gould interviews debut author Paul Mendez about his novel Rainbow Milk, a  coming of age story that starts in the Midlands, via Jamaica, and follows ex-communicated Jehovah’s  Witness Jesse McCarthy as he grapples with racism, the legacies of the Windrush and his sexuality.  Join Paul and Gaylene for a fascinating discussion about the rich history of Black British writing,  representing the Black Country accent on the page and the intersections of identity, alongside a  wonderful reading from the novel.  

Gaylene Gould 

Welcome to Birmingham Literature Festival. I'm reviewer Gaylene Gould here with debut novelist  Paul Mendez to talk about his book, Rainbow Milk, which made this year's Observer top 10 debut  list. Hi, Paul. 

Paul Mendez 

Hello Gaylene, how are you? 

Gaylene Gould 

Good, thank you. Good, good. Yeah, great to actually kind of meet you virtually. I reviewed this book  for Front Row, and I was saying how like, that can be quite onerous, you know, because you have to  read a whole book and then hopefully like it and I really loved it. So, it's really wonderful to get to  meet you. So, Rainbow Milk, it's a semi-autobiographical novel, following the journey of a character  called Jesse McCarthy, who's a 19-year-old, de-fellowshipped Jehovah's Witness from West  Bromwich. And we follow him as he moves to London and explores his sexuality through  prostitution, amongst other things and through to becoming a burgeoning writer. So, there's real  shades of James Baldwin here, and Giovanni's Room is indeed referenced in the novel. So, tell us a  bit how this story grew in you.  

Paul Mendez 

Well I have a different answer now to what I would have said in answer or in response a couple of  weeks ago, even because I've just re-read Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, which was Baldwin's fourth novel, published in 1968, just after the start of his political downturn, his unjust critical downturn as far as I'm concerned, because I think his later novels are pretty much his best work. But I read Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone when I was 20 years old. My trajectory was  very different from Jesse, Jesse was disfellowshipped at 19 and then move straight to London,  whereas I was disfellowshipped at 17. And when I was 19, moved to Kent to study an engineering  degree at West Kent College, a partner College of Greenwich University. I didn't stay on the degree  course for very long, I think I quit after about nine months. But in the summer of 2002, I was living  with some fellow students or photography students, actually not engineering students. And it was  sort of my first time living away from home, it was the first time living with creative people and one  of them pushed Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone into my hand and it was the first time I've  ever read a book by a black author. It was the first time I'd ever read a book by a black queer author,  focalising a black queer protagonist. And it had a huge impact on me, but one, which I sort of put  down, put to the side and forgot about, but it's only when reading it back now, 18 years later, that I  realized just how much of an impact that book had on me in terms of my life choices, in terms of you  know, I studied acting very much like the protagonist, Leo Proudhammer, he studied acting with a  method school and becomes a successful Off Broadway actor in New York. I became a waiter and  sort of, you know, expanded my sort of social kind of contacts, I suppose, and social environment  through working in restaurants, and samplings and cuisines and just meeting you know, a whole cast  of different people, and of course, explored my sexuality. So, Leo Proudhammer, the protagonist of  Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone is bisexual, or identifies as bisexual and I came out as  bisexual I think a year after reading, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. And so even just in  terms of the subject’s dealt with, but also in terms of the way the book is written, the way Rainbow  Milk is written, the different sort of devices I use in telling the story, so much of it reflects back to  that book. So I think, it just goes to prove how important books are, and reading is, to a formative  mind. As I said, I put that book down, forgot about it and some 5 - 10 years later started reading  other Baldwin novels, such as Giovanni's Room and Another Country, which I've referenced briefly in  Rainbow Milk, but I think the most important of his books to me was Tell Me How Long the Train’s  Been Gone

Gaylene Gould 

So that's a great answer. And also, like you're saying, it really shows how novels and books work, that they have a slow, transformative process on you, you know, and you really kind of get a sense  of that in this novel, that there is something that is kind of, there is a journey, there's a journey  that's taken not just through the character, but that you take us on, getting us to sample our own journeys, I guess. So, the book spans miles and time so it's predominantly set this century, in the  2000s, but it begins in the last, particularly the 1950s with the arrival of Jesse's ancestor, Norman  Alonzo and his wife Claudette from Jamaica, arriving in Bilston, in the West Midlands. So why was it  important for you for the book to start there? 

Paul Mendez 

So what we think of as the Windrush generation now they're dying off, sadly, you know, the  Windrush itself, that famous disembarkation in June 1948 at Tilbury was 72 years ago now, and so  many of those people that have passed on, and I think it's incredibly important for us to be retaining  those stories and retaining that history, a lot of people from the Windrush generation, you know,  when I say a lot of people I'm only really talking about, from my grandparents perspective, that's  what I can know for sure. But they came to the UK to start a new life, to leave behind Jamaica and  the Jamaican way of life, and to start a new way of life here in England, and one which they hoped  would foster new opportunities for their children and grandchildren. And, you know, it was all about  looking forward rather than back. So, when I asked my grandparents, when they were alive about  the past, they were very circumspect, they either said that they didn't remember or changed the  subject. And I don't know whether that, you know, being a Black British person, I kind of understand  the sudden sort of sensibility in terms of avoiding certain subjects, because they're traumatic. So I'm  kind of wondering whether that was the case with them, whether they were suffering trauma, so  didn't want to sort of reflect back on their, on their lives in the 50s, 60s, 70s, living as black people in  the UK and being trail blazers in terms of, you know, being the first black people to, in huge  numbers, and all over the country live here amongst white working class people. You know, I grew  up in the Black Country as well, born in the early 80s, and suffered lots of racism. And that's, you  know, me being a third-generation immigrant. So I'm kind of wondering now, like, what did the first  generation have to deal with, and we have examples in the fiction of Andrea Levy, Sam Selvon,  George Lamming et al but I think every generation needs to find out a fresh what it was like to be a  Jamaican or Afro Caribbean, or African immigrant to the UK in the 1950s and 60s, because it was just  a completely different world. And it just seems like what we've seen happen this year in the United  States, for example, and with Black Lives Matter, sort of freshly at the top of the agenda all over the  world, it does seem unfortunately, that each generation needs to find out a fresh why, or you know  that white supremacy exists, that racism exists and is as strong and as is as insidious as ever. So, you  know, just in terms of retrieving and rehabilitating the experience of people in the 1940s, to 60s, so  that we can learn from that, and so that we can sort of see over two or three generations, what has changed and what hasn't changed, it really just sort of does explain Norman’s story in the 1950s,  really, I think does explain a lot of what Jesse's experience subsequently is 50 years later. 

Gaylene Gould 

And there's also something around, just hearing you say that, respond to that, it's making me think  about the way in which shame played a part in both, in all of those generations, you know, and that  sense of like, you were saying, the characters who arrived in the 50s, that there was some kind of  circumspect relationship to the past. And was that to do with trauma? And was that to do with  shame, and there's something there's a kind of echo of that, that kind of shrouds the whole novel,  there's almost like a colonial shame, you know, that all of the characters in a sense are experiencing,  which is quite, quite interesting. Yeah. 

Paul Mendez 

Yeah, I think so. Um, yeah, you know, Jamaica, in my research, I discovered was in a really sort of  bad state in terms of the economy, in terms of prospects, you know, this is pre independence.  Nobody knew what was going to happen if Jamaica became independent from Great Britain. It was  sort of devastated by so many hurricanes as well over the course of the 1940s and 50s, I think the  1944 hurricane in particular was incredibly damaging. And that's something that Norman would  have lived through. And that's indeed something that Norman mentions that sort of devastated the  crop of the island and it sort of put the economy back five years, rather like what we're going  through now, I suppose in terms of the Coronavirus, but obviously, you know, Britain being a much  more sort of advanced capitalist, I suppose state. But Jamaica just had such an unenviable  intersection of issues at that time, that perhaps, it did foster a sense of needing to escape in people  and because of the colonial education that Jamaican children receive, you know, they look at Britain  as being, you know, almost utopia or paradise, you know, the sort of Jane Austen-isation of the  British education system in the colonists fosters this kind of this feeling that, you know, the mother  country is the place to be the person that you want to be. And yeah, I mean, that just sort of makes  the disappointment that they found when they got here, just even more profound, really. And I  think, because of the sort of situation of this kind of colonial imposition and the education system  that affects Jesse, and that affected me, you know, I grew up in a very sort of white working class  area, the BNP was very sort of prominent in my area, during the time that I was growing up, you've  got this sort of toxic situation where, you know, Thatcherism is kind of choking the Black Country of  its livelihood, the indigenous industries have been crushed, the unions have been put down. People  are out of work and people don't necessarily have the empowerment to change, to find new industries and new reasons to be, and that then reflects back on the racism that I grew up receiving.  But at the same time, like I said, at the top of the conversation, my education was based almost  entirely, or actually entirely on the writing of dead white men. And as someone who was raised with  the Bible, and someone who was, you know, very literate from a very young age and very interested  in books and writing, it again, sort of adds to this sort of sense of shame of being actually a black  person. But if I'm not seeing black people writing anything, who do I think I am, you know, and so it's  kind of very complex, and sort of something that I'll probably be unpacking for a long time. But there  is a sense of shame that is imposed on us as black people, that we have to apologize for our  blackness somehow, that our blackness is somehow if not wrong, then it maybe is unhelpful to us,  let's say. And then it's something that we need to overcome before we can learn, before we can  express ourselves creatively. And that's what I've tried to sort of expand on in the book. 

Gaylene Gould 

And I think it that's, again, another great kind of way of framing Jesse's journey, you know, from the  East, the West Midlands, I say, the East Midlands, because that's where I'm from, and had a similar  upbringing to yourself in terms of, you know, what you describe is exactly what I, what I've  experienced, which is rarely documented, you know, in Black fiction. So, it's often this sense of kind  of urban, the urban centre of London, which is, yeah, which basically kind of presides over the whole  of the black experience. So, I think there was something very special about you documenting that  historic presence of black people in different parts of the country. So, let's speak a little bit more  about that, I mean, you really, there's lots of things that I think that those people who aren't from  the Midlands will be able to pick up and grasp. And one of those things is the delight in the language,  the vernacular, and I think your ear for spoken language, spoken word generally. So that's, I had to  read lots of passages in your book out loud, because the way in which the characters spoke that and  you've got, you know, people from West Midlands, from the Caribbean, from Australia, from  Europe, and you capture it completely, you've got such a great ear for it, so I wondered whether you  could read something, possibly that kind of helps the audience get a sense of that sound? 

Paul Mendez 

Sure. Um, yeah, I mean, there's probably no better place to read from then, I guess, the very, very  beginning of the book. So yeah, the first section of the book is narrated in first person by Norman  Alonzo who, as we've outlined, is a Jamaican immigrant to the UK. This is July the 20th 1959. And he  just, to give a tiny bit of background, is a fit ex-boxer, he is now 33 years old, he has two infant  children Robert aged almost three, Glorie almost 10 months and he is at home looking after them because he cannot work, he has come across an unexpected illness which has rendered him disabled  yeah, that's all I need to say by way of introduction. So, July 20th 1959.  

This the best summer since we come to England three year ago. It hot, not hot like Jamaica but I  don't feel a cloud pass the sun today, and no rain has fall for a long time now. I stand on my front  lawn and breathe. The bush are strong with plenty of fragrant roses. My son Robert love to totter  round with the watering can, that almost as big as him. I can hear how much water he is pouring on  each root. I don't know how he can’t feel the cold water dribbling on his foot. Strong little man. He is  going to be tall; already he is quite up to my knee. Glorie want to help but she's too small, and I have  to listen for her all the time in case I trip up on her or she scratch herself on the thorn. 

‘Not too much, son,’ I say to Robert when I can hear the water start to puddle. ‘Move to the next  one.’ 

‘Allo, little man, am you helpin’ ya dad water the garden?’ Mr Pearce, my neighbour, make me jump  as he walk up his path. 

‘Say hello to Mr Pearce, Robert.’ 

‘Hello,’ he say, all quiet. 

I say ‘Good afternoon, Mr Pearce. How are you today?’, knowing he will just go on and on about his ailment. 

‘Oh, I int too bad, you know. Same old aches and pains. Me arthritis ‘as been playin’ me up summat rotten but I can't complain. Ethel int well herself, with her legs. Cor wait til your lad’s big enough to  run down the shops for we. Anyway, it's a bit hot for me in this heat. It's alright for you, coming from  the West Indies.’ 

‘Not really,’ I say. ‘My body used to the cold now.’ I have hardly any sight left but I know Mr Pearce never leave his door without his flat cap, old work coat and boot, though he must have retired from the gas work ten year ago.  

‘You must’ve heard all that that's been happenin’ down London with all them White Defence League  rallies. We was ever so sorry to see they’d painted them Keep England White or whatever it is on  your door. Me and Ethel was talking about it the other night and we both agreed that we don’t mind  you being here at all. We’m all the same, int we, white or coloured or not. I should not be still here in the sun, like what the doctor said, because my head start to throb and  darkness falling on my eye, so I step closer to the house, into the shade. 

Gaylene Gould 

I can catch you on audio later, and you can read it the whole thing to me, sounds amazing, amazing.  There is something though about, you know, you never hear, it's rare to hear England presented in  this way. And it's you know, the majority of England is quote unquote, regional, right. The majority  of England is made up of communities that’s really eloquently described in your book. The other  thing that I think is really interesting in your book is that it spans 60, 70 years and along the way it's  punctuated by these major global and political milestones. So, Jesse's sexual awakening comes on  September 11, the Twin Towers come down and through to Brexit as well. So why was the  backdropping of the book against those global markers important for you? 

Paul Mendez 

Well, again, my trajectory, personally, was different to Jesse’s. But I wanted Jesse to, obviously we  all know where we were and what we were doing, who we were with when the story broke of the  September 11 attacks, and I look back at my life and I kind of wonder whether I would have left the  Jehovah's Witnesses’ if it wasn't for an external situation happening that sort of caught me off guard  and that I didn't sort of know how to respond to, know the way I should respond to it. And I wanted  to give Jesse a jolt and a shock, and I don't know that it would have come without him seeing  something like 9/11, something that was so completely out of his frame of reference in the home of  a gay couple. And that would have been his first experience of gay men, of sort of time being in their company. And I think they just would have blown his mind completely, and I think it would have just  made him sort of see a completely different reality. And that would have been very much on his  mind, sort of five days later, when he meets up with another brother in his congregation, and just  has a completely sort of different take on things, you know, Fraser’s from South London, he's moved  up to the Black Country with his family, his dad's a doctor he’s got a job as a GP in a Black Country  surgery. And he doesn't really know why he's there but actually, in the event has found, because  he's dyslexic, and likes to work with his hands, he's found a job as a fabricator. And so he's sort of quite sort of relaxed and comfortable there. But much more sexual than Jesse is used to from a  Jehovah's Witness. And so you've got this kind of like cocktail, I suppose, of provocations, to Jesse's  sensibilities. And it just sort of makes it so much more appealing to the reader as well, if, you know,  we can, like I said, we can all identify with, with 9/11 being this thing that we all remember, this  thing that sort of sticks out to us, this thing that sort of provoked us, this thing that changed, all of us, none of us were ever the same again, after seeing 9/11. And I think, the fact that Jesse saw the  Twin Towers come down at the same time as seeing two men hold on to each other, and affirm their  love for one another, their need for one another, for comfort and support, I thought that it would  just be a really, really great way to sort of show Jesse actually, that the heteronormative idea of love  that he's been raised with isn't necessarily for him, because of what he is inside. And that it is okay,  that he will one day, find someone to love and to be loved by. And so, it was just an interesting  juxtaposition as far as I was concerned, and hopefully it comes off. 

Gaylene Gould 

It certainly does. And also, what you draw in Jesse as a character is, he’s a kind of, I mean, you're  rooting for him the whole way and you're completely, I felt this great sense of protectiveness  towards him because you see someone who's yearning, really, and he is yearning for this tenderness  and he is yearning for a kind of love that he's not getting from home and is not getting from his faith.  And it's only when he comes out into his full sexuality, and begins to explore that, do you see him  yearning in another way. So there's something, there's a real bravery in the writing of this book, one  being able to reveal the inside of a faith like Jehovah's Witness, which we rarely get to explore, for  those of us outside the faith, but also through this very intense, you know, sexual series of sexual  experiences that Jesse has, especially as he enters the world of prostitution. So, I'd love to know,  there's a question I often ask artists and writers about how you prepared yourself in a way for that,  especially the fact that you were a Jehovah's Witness yourself. What did you have to do to prepare  yourself to go, I'm going to be as honest as I can about this experience. 

Paul Mendez 

Rainbow Milk
was something I was challenged to write as a novel after spending 10 years or more,  just writing sort of life writing, I suppose for myself. So I'd spent 10 years just being absolutely  honest about my experiences of how my upbringing, upbringing as a Jehovah's Witness and  subsequent journey into sex work, how that affected my mental state. I feel like I mean, someone  asked me yesterday, did you ever do therapy. And while there have been occasions that I probably  should have done therapy, I'm probably alive today and I'm probably happy today because I've had  access to language and I've always written and I've always been able to explain things to myself, you  know, I can write very quickly, and I can just ask myself 100 questions. I can sort of write about how  I'm feeling, and I can be absolutely honest. There's one moment about sort of seven or eight years  ago, while I was kind of maybe going through quite a tough time, and I sat at my laptop, and I wrote  for about 15 minutes, I am such and such I am such and such, I am such and such, and it was this long, huge outpouring of anger, frustration, upset, fear, and sort of self-loathing and all of these  things, but it just made me feel so much better to just be that honest about myself. And so, I guess  when I'm sort of translating all of those feelings and processes into the art of fiction, I'm not thinking  about an audience in particular, I’m not thinking that I'm being courageous or being brave in front of  anyone, I'm only writing for myself. Because, you know, it's, that's the language that I've sort of  created for myself, to have myself as my own audience. I think, Toni Morrison said, you know, I don't  write for an audience I write for myself, and I think I'm a good reader. And I sort of take that from  her really, but, you know, I mean, as you said, you know, there are so few instances of infection of  regionality, of Jehovah's Witness culture, of sex work from a black, queer perspective, black male,  queer perspective, you know, these are all sort of, you know, pretty much almost firsts in British  writing. So, you know, I have to just be honest, and it's not even really, you know, in a sense, I've  been preparing myself for it, unwittingly, I guess for over a decade, but it has been couched in sort  of self-care. I mean, the original reason for writing in the first place was to chart the mental  processes, emotional processes I went on from being baptized at the age of 16, I was baptized at  Wolverhampton Wanderers Stadium, Molyneux Stadium in 1998, and it was the International  Convention of Jehovah's Witnesses, there were over 23,000 people in attendance, you know,  delegates from Nigeria, Norway, you know, all over the world, as well as the, the local district of  congregations. And I got baptized in a pool in front of all of these people are on a bright, beautiful  summer's day and that's where I was at 16 and I thought that that was going to be my future, I  thought that I was going to be a Jehovah's Witness for my whole life, and that I would see Bible  prophecies being fulfilled, etc, etc. A year later, I was disfellowshipped and thrown out on my ear  and not allowed to communicate with or be communicated with by any Jehovah's Witness anymore,  I'd lost my entire centre of gravity at the age of 17 and had to find a new path. And then five years  later, at the age of 22, I find myself living in London, I've had to quit drama school because I can't  afford to pay my fees, because I've sustained an injury in a sexual assault, because I'm a rent boy.  And I’m like well, how the hell did that happen over the course of six years. And it was only through  writing that I was able to explain all of that myself and see what the processes were, and also to  write a new path for myself going forward so that wouldn't make the same sort of downward spiral  of mistakes that, that had bought me there so yeah, writing Rainbow Milk, you know, I've left a lot  out, I haven't gone into you know, it's not a primer for what it is to be Jehovah's Witness or a primer for what it is to be a sex worker. It's a fast narrative thread that in 350 pages, takes in as you said,  like over 70 years of history, takes in so much of British society, of Black British society, of cultural  London, etc, etc. It does so much. And, you know, in order to sort of preserve this sort of speed of  narrative and the sort of freshness, there are certain things that I had to leave out. So in the end it, you know, it was a joy to write this book, it was a joy to write it as fiction, it was a joy to sort of  create a framework through which lots of subjects could be spoken about lightly, but profoundly  enough so that they have a little bit of weight and gravity, but nothing with more weight or gravity  than anything else. That's what I hope to achieve anyway. 

Gaylene Gould 

It's also a really interesting exploration of black masculinity, and of course, black masculinity,  sexuality, you know, and the thing that I really learned as a black woman reading this book is how  tortured it is, tortured it can be in terms of a space of desire, and also this idea of a kind of  counterfeit identities. You know, like, Jesse is called, at one point, a black boy trying to be a white  boy trying to be a black boy by a group of Asian and white boys who are trying to be black boys, you  know, so this kind of concept of, this sort of layering of this performative, these performances that  are going on, but also, you know, the kind of, the deep insecurities that also comprise the  exploration of that identity. So, I don’t know if you can speak to that a little bit in terms of your kind  of, whether, again, that was a conscious journey that you were taking in this book to explore black  masculinity in a very particular way or whether that was just part of Jesse's identity, therefore, his  journey. 

Paul Mendez 

I think, the latter, you know, it's always something that's going to be at the top of my, almost  everything I say, will be filtered through that tension in terms of being a black male, looking in the  mirror and seeing a black male, but not really fulfilling other people's ideas of what a black male  should be. And that's something that I've lived through my whole life. You know, like I said, earlier, I  grew up in a white working-class area, where the British National Party were, it was a stronghold, Sandwell was a stronghold for the BNP until the early 2000s. And I was sent to a secondary school.  First of all, I was head boy, my primary school but despite, you know, despite is a strange word, but  you know, being one of only two black boys in the whole year, you know, it was 60% white, 40%  Asian, and then me and this other black boy, but I was chosen as head boy. And I think, at that age,  you know, I saw Steve McQueen’s Year Three, and I've read in an interview that he’s saying, you  know, year three, when kids are sort of seven, eight years old, that's when they start to become  aware of race and class and gender, and all of those sorts of things. But, you know, being 10 years  old, and being appointed head boy, you know, for me, you know, people could have said, you know,  you're not privileged or underprivileged, because you're black, and I'd be like, well, actually, I'm  head boy, so, you know, that doesn't make any sense. But then my parents sent me to a secondary school that was failing miserably, that had the sort of worst reputation for expulsions, teenage  pregnancies, you know, violence amongst students and violence against staff. And you know, the  worst exam results in the whole borough of Sandwell which is already a very troubled and very  deprived area. Simply because four other Jehovah's Witness kids were starting the same time. So I  had to sort of conquer a lot of, of, you know, racism, overt and covert institutional, you know, from  being you know, top of the class at primary school, from being head boy I was suddenly sort of seen  as a black boy, a teenage black boy. And because my parents have both grown up, in similar  situations, as well as, as second generation, West Indian immigrants, for them, I feel now and I'm  aware now that they exhibited internalized racism in the way that they raised me. So both my  parents are black, the adoptive father, kind of white adoptive father character in Rainbow Milk is an  invention by me to explore in a more sort of easily digestible way for readers in terms of explaining  how difficult it is for a black child to be raised in this country, in this still majority white country, and  that's still a very majority white working class area, how difficult it is for a black child to be raised  with a black male identity and to see and trust himself as a black man. Especially when, like we've  said, the education system prioritises an exclusively white male idea of life. You know, all of the  literature I studied at GCSE level for English, Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, JB Priestley, Tennessee  Williams, F Scott Fitzgerald. You know, the poetry was all you know, Seamus Heaney, and Coleridge  and Wordsworth and Byron and Shelley, you know, these are all pure, pure, pure, pure dead white  men, you know. So, again, you know, you're just not sort of empowered as a black child to, to feel  like, you know, you have a legitimate place in life and so you ingratiate yourself to whiteness, and to  white masculinity in particular. And Jesse also is obviously Jehovah's Witness and all 10 elders in his  congregation are white men. You know, whether they're bricklayers or whether they run a  stationary firm or whether they’re a painter and decorator, they’re still elders. And so as far as he's  concerned, they’re the intermediaries between himself and God and so he feels the need to, to  ingratiate himself to them, he feels the need to want to become like them or to become one of  them. And I think as he grows older and realizes that that's impossible, that he's never going to be a  white man, the only way to sort of ingratiate himself is to become, is to be sexually attracted to  them and to be involved with them sexually. And that sort of feeds back into the level of honesty,  and explicitness in the sex scenes, you know, Jesse's not a normal, in inverted commas person, you  know, he's been through so many things, he stands at a very unique intersection. And we've not  seen sex like that before, they we don't see in films or on television, young black men, from that  background, having sex with older white men, it's just not something that we have the visual  apparatus for, so it is necessary. As it is necessary to sort of write you know, about what it's like to  be a waiter in a restaurant, you know, we didn't see that even. So, it just sort of became very important to explore that in detail. But again, like I said, at the top of this answer, this very long  answer, that will be something that I will always be writing through, like this idea of black identity  and how it is a black masculine identity and how it is so often dictated to by the, you know, what bell  hooks would say is the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist, patriarchal lens. 

Gaylene Gould 

Yeah, and I think, it's interesting where Jesse ends up on that, because it is it's really uncomfortable  following him, because you can see what's happening. And, and black people who have grown up in  this country, on some level have been complicit in that, because for all of the reasons that you say,  we've had no choice but to be complicit in that. And you're very honest, in the presentation of that,  but it's quite interesting where he ends up when he goes to Somerset. I don't want to give away too  
many spoilers, but he ends up at the house of Nicholas St. John, who's the editor of a character  called Owen in the book. And I think at that point, you see, this is for me, where I begin see this maturation in Jesse, in terms of having really honest conversations about his relationship to white  men, but also the complexity of that, you know, there's a character who talks about the rage and the  anger that that can bring up in you. But then Jesse's honest, and he says, yeah, but, you know, how  can I hold both of these things? How can I? How can I hold my race and also hold my attraction? You  know, and actually there's been a lot of love and care that I've had from white men in my life too, so  there's a kind of, there's a wonderful kind of place, I think that the book arrives at, which is about  going it's complex, you know?  

Paul Mendez 

Exactly, yeah that’s very interesting, you know, part of me thinks that Jesse should fall in love with a  black man at the end and that that would be some sort of validation, or some sort of, I suppose that  would be the Hollywood resolution, that Jesse, or like an ideal Hollywood resolution, that Jesse sort  of comes to terms with his blackness and the way he demonstrates that is by entering into a loving  relationship with a black man, I really wanted to do that. But then I noticed, I didn't know what else  to do with the character of Owen, once they've had, you know, Jesse and Owen have this long, and  sort of very romantic engagement, which comes to a, you know, I don’t want to sort of give anything  away, particularly, but it comes to a break and I just thought it was so sad to sort of leave it like that.  So I sort of resolved it in the way that I've resolved it, but I think what Jesse sort of achieves as a  person who's now in his, early to mid 30s, is a sense of belonging within a community that is about  art and literature, and not necessarily about sexuality. I don't think Jesse would find more  affirmation within an exclusively black queer environment than he does within a mixed gender, mixed sexual orientation environment where everyone actually is creative and invested in, you  know, their place in cultural history. Yeah, so whilst having probably a much more acute sense of  dismay at white supremacy and, you know, the domination of white masculine culture that  continues into the 21st century, whilst being very aware of that, more so than ever, he's also much  more aware as a grown man, that it's important to feel loved. And that's what Jesse realizes at the  end of the book. And that's what, you know, a black woman character tells him at the end of the  book, that it doesn't matter who you're with, it's whether you feel loved or not, whether you can  love and, and again, that I think that is, that is the important thing. You know, we can all sort of read  books, and learn about, you know, we can all do the work in terms of learning about black history  and learning about colonialism, sort of empowering ourselves as black people. But at the end of the  day, it doesn't matter what the identity of our partner is, as long as we feel loved. And I think that's  what Jesse, that's the conclusion that Jesse comes to and I think that’s how he sort of resolves this,  this pain, I suppose that he's had to live through all his life, based on his racial and gender identity. 

Gaylene Gould 

And as a reader, I'll happily let you know that for someone who felt very protective and worried for  most of the book about Jesse, I didn't at the end. I felt he was in a really, exactly the way that you  describe, a really loving place and the complexity of that loving place, like you were saying, it's cross  gender, its cross race, it's cross age, it's all kinds of people in there who have somehow offered him  something that's real, you know? And so, yeah, it's definitely not a Hollywood ending. I mean, I've  got a couple more questions, one is about family because this is very much a book about family,  actually. And there is again, not to give any spoilers but there is a there is a lovely returning in the  book, to home, to home in some sense in returning back to the West Midlands. And I think it does,  in a way kind of counterpoint these two experiences of family, the kind of generous experience of  his creative family, but also how brutal the family that he came from, was for him from his  experience. And I wondered about that I felt like the character of the mother, particularly who  embodied this, this kind of abusive brutality, and I wonder about, from my experience reading the  book, there was a sense that, I felt that some of the generosity given to the other characters wasn't  necessarily given particularly to her or that sense of home. So, I wonder what you thought about  that? 

Paul Mendez 

Well, the ending was supposed to be Jesse returning to his parent’s house, to show them the person  that he's become, despite the way that they raised him, but I just knew that it wasn't going to end well. And, you know, there's something to be said, I think, for not automatically appeasing abusive  people, for sort of coming to a place, like I think Jesse comes to place where he is happy,  comfortable, confident, and feels loved. And so why would he go back, and risk being rejected again,  I just didn't want him to do that. I didn't want to go through that as a writer, I didn't want to write  that down, I didn't want to because, you know, I just felt that the conclusion would be inevitable.  One thing I didn't want to do with Jesse is to make him sort of like rich and successful, and you  know, having done all this stuff, he still works in a restaurant, albeit a nice, good restaurant, you  know, but he’s, you know, he’s comfortable, like, he shares a tiny flat with his partner with no air  conditioning, that’s kind of, you know, fetidly hot, almost like today, in the summertime. You know,  it's kind of, it's not the sort of rags to riches story, necessarily. But inside the person that he feels  that he is, is just someone who is successful, because they've found love, and because they have  found purpose, and because they are now sort of thinking creatively, and they've shaken off the  shackles of this kind of very strict religious upbringing that was so hypocritical to his finding, and he,  you know, I think he wants to go home to just kind of maybe reconcile with them. But then I think he  probably thinks if they didn't want me before, or if they didn't think I was good enough before, why  should they now and I don't want people to, I didn't want to legitimise this idea that people needed  to become rich and successful, in order to gain their parent’s approval or the approval of any  important people from their youth, because it's really, the only sort of validation that one needs is in  oneself. And in the minds and hearts of those who love him, who he loves. So, yeah, I just don't feel  in life that we should be appeasing people who have abused us, and people have told us that we're  not good enough. Because when we, you know, because we are good enough, because we are good  enough now. I don't think people who have told us that we're not good enough deserve that, that  validation from us. And so, I mean, it's, I felt bad about writing, what we would sort of, in one sense  think of as a stereotype, a black female stereotype. So often we see in fiction and in films, etc. black  women portrayed as bad mothers as abusive, as emotionally abusive, and manipulative, etc. And  that's exactly what I've done and I'm very, very sorry, that that's the case but that is the experience  that I've had. That is the experience that Jesse had. And so, we need to look beyond the sort of fact  of how this person is behaving, and actually look at the reasons why the person is behaving like that.  And I haven't been explicit about it in Rainbow Milk, but, you know, I think that the inference is  there, that the world in which we live in that is so disdainful of the black female experience,  generally can cause and, you know, I'm not trying to mansplain here, but can cause black women to  internalize that misogynoir, and to sort of, to behave in a way that is abusive and irresponsible. So, I  can't forgive my mother, I can't allow Jesse to forgive his mother until she recognizes that. And that's  something I feel that I've been privileged to recognise in terms of being able to give myself a wide education and to read a lot and to invest myself in that. That's not something that my mother has  been able to do and indeed, being a Jehovah's Witness has allowed her to forget about all of that.  And it's, again, very, very easy for my parents and for Jesse’s parents to turn around and say, well,  you know, were raised in what they call the truth and you decided to reject that and live your own  

life, you know. That's your choice and it's the wrong choice, you know, we raised with the privilege  of knowing the truth, but you turned your back on it. And so, there's absolutely nothing that I can  say, to change their mind. Nothing. You know, doesn't matter how happy I am or how in love I am or  how successful I am. I'm still, until I come back to Jehovah, I'm still living against the principles that  I've been privileged to have been raised in. And so, it's just, you know, for want of a better phrase,  it's just bad for my mental health. And I just won't sort of engage myself in that conversation and so I  didn't want Jesse to go through that either. 

Gaylene Gould 

I think that felt right actually. It felt right at the end of the novel, that he didn't, again, that would  have been the Hollywood ending. It felt right that he didn't take that journey back to his parent’s  house for sure and I think there is a kind of joyous and soothing and cathartic kind of reunion at the  end of the novel that isn’t that. My final question, unfortunately, because I'm loving this  conversation is, you know, this has been already a celebrated debut novel and we’re all very excited  as to what might come next. 

Paul Mendez 

Do you know what, I think being a Black British writer, novelist now, I think the possibilities are  endless because so much of our history has been written by other people. I'm really excited about  the second year of my MA, which starts in October, I'm studying the MA in Black British Writing at  Goldsmiths, the first course of its kind in the UK, and I'm just learning so much about authors I've  never heard of before, people like S.I. Martin, and, you know I'd never even heard of Buchi  Emecheta before and, you know, I'm in love with her now. There's just so much to learn from, and I think, I’d be very interested in writing about the Black British experience of the Black British  experience. Because, you know, we've been here as post Windrush, Black British people for up to 70  years but then you've got a generation before that, you know, people like C.L.R. James and Una Marson, who came over here in the 1930s and were sort of working for the BBC and starting  Caribbean Voices and sort of really kind of entering into a dialogue with one another that inspired  the writing of the Windrush generation. And I found out recently that, during the what we call  Windrush generation, so sort of late 40s to early 70s, over 70 books were written by Afro Caribbean authors that were published here in the UK. So, I'm just very, very interested in that sort of the mid  to late 20th century literary world, black literary world in this country. And I don't know where that's  going yet, I sort of have ideas for characters and even a family but what form that will take, I don't  know, it's just very, very early days. 

Gaylene Gould 

Really, really exciting. And it's, it is really exciting, Paul, I think, to have this conversation with you  and to know you're in the world, to know you're making work from someone who's a second  generation, Caribbean person, Caribbean-British person, because I think there is something about  how this story, this story progresses, how our story progresses here and I think it feels like it's in  really, really safe hands with you so I'm really, really happy for that. So, thank you so much for taking  the time to connect with us today. 

Paul Mendez 

You know, Black British writing I think is in a very, very good place right now. You know, we've got  the Black Writers Guild that's just started. And you know, that's a huge coterie of over 200 writers  and literature professionals, all of whom are dead set on increasing that number manifold. And  yeah, just creating much more space for ourselves to reach audiences and to write about Black  British life and culture, and just to write about anything that we want, but as black writers, and I  think that's incredibly exciting. So, I think audience members should put their seatbelts on and get  ready for an amazing journey into Black British cultural history being made. 

Gaylene Gould 

Definitely. Paul, thank you so much. 

Paul Mendez 

Thank you, Gaylene. Take care of yourself. 

Gaylene Gould 

Yeah, you too. 

Outro message 

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of the Birmingham Lit Fest presents…podcast. If you  enjoyed this episode, we’d love for you to tell us about it – leave us a review or a rating and find us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. You can download our latest podcast episodes,  every Thursday, from all the places you would normally get your podcasts and find transcripts of our  episodes in the shownotes and on our website at www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org . Details  about our full programme can also be found on our website. Until then, happy reading! 

The Birmingham Lit Fest Presents... podcast is curated by Shantel Edwards and produced by 11C and  Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands.



What is Birmingham Lit Fest Presents….?

The Birmingham Literature Festival Podcast - Welcome to the very first Birmingham Literature Festival podcast, bringing writers and readers together to discuss some of 2020’s best books. Each Thursday we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Join us each week for exciting and inspiring conversations with new, and familiar, writers from the Midlands and beyond.