Books change the way we think and act: Stephen Kelman

Three questions with Booker prize nominee author, Stephen Kelman

Q. When you began writing Pigeon English, did you imagine it to bring in such critical acclaim and praise? Who was the inspiration for its protagonist, Harrison Opoku?
A. When I began writing Pigeon English I had no idea what the reaction might be. I was focussed on telling the stories of my characters as truthfully as I could. I think that’s all an author should care about; and, I was particularly concerned with this because I was writing a story based on real-life events. The main character in Pigeon English — the young boy Harri — was inspired by a boy called Damilola Taylor, a ten-year-old Nigerian immigrant who was killed in the UK some 10 years ago by getting stabbed by two other children for no other reason than for being different than them. Unfortunately, his was the first high profile case in what became an epidemic of child-on-child violence in the poorer urban areas of the UK. I wrote Pigeon English partly as a tribute to Damilola and all the other children who had lost their lives in this epidemic, and to explore the reasons why this was happening and continues to happen!

Stephen Kelman

Q. Tell us about of how you stumbled upon Bibhuti Bhushan Nayak, to write Man on Fire. How did you do your research for the book?
A. I came across Bibhuti Bhushan Nayak completely by chance. He was one of the subjects featured on a documentary about India that I saw on television back in England. He was demonstrating one of his records and I was immediately intrigued by his story. He seemed like a great character for a book. I got in touch with him and we began emailing each other. I learned all about his life and his view of the world, and in 2010, I visited Navi Mumbai to spend some time with him and his family. During that trip I came to know him well — our friendship has since become strong, and I have just returned from visiting him again — and I was determined to tell his story to the world. Bibhuti has a unique perspective on life and he is an inspirational force in the lives around him, and this is what I hoped to capture in Man on Fire.

Pigeon English
Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman, Bloomsbury, Rs 499. Available at leading bookstores.

Q. Your stories tell the triumph of human spirit each time around; how important is it for authors to continue telling these stories to today’s generation?
A. I think that being an author provides a unique opportunity to spread a positive message throughout the world. Books have inspired me, and with the stories I write, through characters like Harri and Bibhuti, who are forces of good in the lives of those around them, I aim to inspire readers to discover and develop the better parts of their nature. Books can reveal injustices and also suggest ways in which those injustices can be fought and perhaps, defeated. They can change the way we think and the way we act. The young generation is faced with unprecedented challenges and difficulties in today’s world, and they need a reliable and relatable source of moral strength in order to meet those challenges. A book can lift their spirits and inform their view of the world more powerfully than almost any other medium, and if my books can help them, I think that is an achievement to be proud of.

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