Benjamin Zephaniah's first novel explores the links between appearance and identity. Michael Thorn comes face to face with the author who says his writing has developed 'out of a series of capitulations'
Face is not a poet's novel. Not one of those weird flights of fancy a la Bob Dylan's Tarantula. Not an exercise in evocation rather than narrative. It is a strongly plotted story for teenagers, expertly constructed, containing as much psychological tension as the work of established children's novelists such as Malorie Blackman.
Zephaniah's career has developed out of a series of capitulations. "At first I was an oral poet," he says. " I didn't want to write my poems down. Somebody said, 'You're gonna die and they'll go with you.' I wrote them down and they were just poems. Then someone came along and said, 'Do us some children's poems.' They said, 'It's another market.' I said, 'Don't care.' They said, 'Look, kids like to have a book of their own.' I said, 'OK.' They asked for another one."
When he was first approached to write a novel, Zephaniah said: "No, I don't do them." Fellow-poets asked him: "What is it with these publishers? We're poets and that's it." He felt he knew nothing about the way novels worked. He had only ever read one, a novelisation of the kung-fu action film Enter The Dragon, which he had bought because he was a fan of its star, Bruce Lee (he is himself a qualified kung-fu instructor). A long battle with dyslexia has encouraged him to favour poetry over prose.
I talk to Zephaniah at Newham Parents' Centre, a landmark bookshop in east London which is aptly sited just past the junction of Green Street and Barking Road, scene of the road crash that forms the pivotal point in the novel. After giving his autograph to a girl doing work-experience in the bookshop, he talks in a starkly-lit side office.
His editor sent him novels to read, to help him get started. He says: "I read Junk, by Melvin Burgess because I was doing something with him in Ireland, and I read Anne Fine's The Tulip Touch. But then I thought, 'No, what people like about my poetry is that it's original,' so I stopped reading and just started. I don't really know styles, I don't like to bog myself down too much in studying and knowing what I do. I just do it."
The first third of the novel has the compelling momentum of an educational video warning of the dangers and consequences of joy-riding. After the crash, during which the main character, Martin, sustains facial injuries, the book develops on several levels. There is the matter-of-fact account of Martin's rehabilitation. Then there is a floating metaphorical layer relating to his "losing face", "saving face" and reading people's reactions at "face value". And, in dealing with those reactions to his new appearance, Martin, a white boy, is forced to confront a sense of estrangement and discrimination.
It is consciously a book about a white character. "I remember once being in a debate and saying I'd love to do a book about racism with no black characters in it - it was an Equity debate with lots of black actors and they were going, 'What! We need work man, you gotta get your brothers and sisters work.' "But I didn't want to do something that was really obvious - I wanted to take a guy who had hardly ever come across any prejudice - someone who had the possibilities of being Mr Average, working-class, slightly ignorant."
The idea for the book came to Zephaniah after he stopped at a set of traffic lights, looked across to the driver of the car in the neighbouring lane, and saw Simon Weston, the facially-disfigured Falklands War veteran. "I was so taken aback by his face. I remember staring and feeling guilty afterwards. I know what it's like if I go to some villages around Britain where they don't see that many black people. I walk into a shop and people look at me, or I walk in the park and get three or four kids gawping. I thought I should know better. I wasn't being nasty to him, it was just seeing somebody who looked so different.
"After that I started to notice faces a lot more. There are thousands of people with facial disfigurements. Somehow we don't see them, or when we do see them we have different ways of reacting, including being too nice."
Once he started the book, Zephaniah found writing easy, and was reluctant to set it aside for his frequent international trips. "I remember writing right up to the moment I had to leave the house, with bags packed downstairs. I just didn't want to leave it, I was on a roll. Once I was home it took me a long time to get back into it. I couldn't write a little bit for a day or two then go away again."
The use of real street names is another deliberate feature. Zephaniah wants local eastenders to be able to recognise the world of Face as their world. "It comes out of that whole Rastafarian thing. the music was very political and if you were coming from a people that had no voice it was seen as your duty to use your three minutes (as a performer) to say something about the community you live in."
Zephaniah does this in spades in his poetry, a factor that ultimately removed him from the reckoning for Poet Laureate. He has recently written poems on request for the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, the M25 three campaign (against the conviction for murder and robbery of three black men), and the Museum of London. "I think that speaks for itself," he says. "Am I a laureate or what? I'd rather be that kind of people's laureate."
In schools, Zephaniah is known as the dreadlocked rapping rastaman who has produced poetry collections called Talking Turkeys and Funky Chickens. Now we can come to know him as a novelist who not only "hears the music, and sees the visuals" but records them in a prose that quietly oozes integrity and compassion.
'Face' is published by Bloomsbury Children's Books (pound;4.99)