Frankly, I had no clue on Stephen Kelman until I searched on the internet half-way through his debut book – Pigeon English. When I bought ‘Pigeon English’, the cover said it is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011. But, my intrigue was purely for the title and the beautiful blue cover, with the picture of an elated young boy running ahead with his back on me. The shoes hung from the string above came to my notice much later, after I had read a few pages.
Come, let’s find the pigeons in the book…
‘Pigeon English’ is about an eleven-year-old boy named Harri Opoku, recently immigrated to London. The decision of the Opuku family to emigrate from Ghana was for better economic opportunities, though it lingers on illegal immigration issues and separation of families. While Harri’s mother could bring him and his elder sister, her younger daughter and husband wait back in Ghana for a probable time to unite. The neighborhood where Harri has come to live has a violent background. In childish innocence, Harri tries to play detective in a murder in his neighbourhood, which brings dire consequences for him. The story unfolds the problems of teenage gang warfare and violence in the poorer, multi-racial settlements of London.
The cover of the first edition of ‘Pigeon English’ has silhouetted face of Harri in yellow against a rose-shade background. Within this face, there is a pigeon sitting quaintly as it is attacked by another bird in the darker shade. It refers to a scene from the book and also a parallel narrative between Harri and the pigeon.
The Pigeon in the book can be seen as a guardian angel who occasionally dons the hat of a narrator to provide an adult perspective on the situation to the readers. Harri finds a pigeon on the balcony of his house and tries to feed the bird. Harri awaits this pigeon’s visits everyday, calling him his special pigeon. In Harri’s imaginative world, the pigeon is his friend who protects him.
The pigeon in the ‘Pigeon English’ title also refers to pidgin, the Ghanaian-English hybrid spoken by Harri. On a wider level, the pigeons also serve as an important symbol to represent freedom from oppression and prejudice.
The second most common image on the cover is that of shoes. Harri is the fastest runner in his school, without branded shoes. The solution Harri finds is in drawing lines on a shoe bought by his mother from a charity store to make it look like ‘Adidas’. It just melts your heart to see the efforts of an eleven-year-old trying to amalgamate in a foreign land.
The critics have said that Pigeon English has portrayed nothing new and has only carried forward the narrative of racial discrimination and poverty within developed countries. True to a great extent, but Harri’s version of his world, surviving against the odds without resentment makes for such a heart-touching read. And, as a new immigrant to London, his observations about the place, people and their lifestyle fall quite interestingly.