Despite his boisterous arrival on stage at the New York Times Theatre in Charlotte Square, poet, author, musician, actor and activist, Benjamin Zephaniah, seems modest, almost unaware of the enormity of his achievements. When asked by host Gemma Cairney about his publications, he ‘thinks’ he’s published ‘about 30’ books but doesn’t think that is very much compared to other writers. He also openly talks about the feeling that he hasn’t done his best work yet – an unfinished adult novel has lived in his head for decades.
The intended focus of today’s talk is Zephaniah’s recent autobiography and the writer tells us that he only agreed to write it on the condition that no deadline was set and there was no advance paid. The discussion then stretches into various areas of his life and his thoughts on politics, art, prejudice, and youth. The intersection between literature, music and politics is key for Zephaniah and he references both Bob Marley and Stormzy, elucidating the power of song and lyricism in changing minds and shining a light on real, underrepresented lives. He also regularly offers up personal anecdotes and stories from his early life and talks of his mother at various points. In fact, he tells us, detailing his mother’s arrival in England from Jamaica was another requirement he insisted on for his autobiography. As a child he witnessed brutal domestic violence and these shared experiences have forged a powerful bond with his mother that is at the core of his life, and often his writing.
Interestingly, when writing his first novel (Face – a young adult book about a teenage boy whose face is disfigured in a car crash), Zephaniah actively wrote against expectations and focused on a white character with little knowledge of black British culture. While the novel still explores themes of racism and prejudice, it seemed to some an unusual choice for the outspoken activist. Instead, he tells us, he wanted the attention to be on the quality of his writing.
The Edinburgh Book Festival audience is captivated by Zephaniah’s natural charm and innate storytelling power. He elicits cheers and impassioned shoutouts from the crowd when discussing race, optimism and the rise of the extreme right-wing around the world. The closing Q and A session even carries on far past the scheduled end time of the talk as listeners are eager to ask questions and engage in further discussion about the writer’s activism and hopes for the future. By the end, the audience are rapturous in their applause, knowing this event was more than an ordinary author talk, but rather a meeting with a cultural icon.