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Interview with Paul Mendez

Rainbow Milk, Paul Mendez’s debut novel, explores lived histories at the intersections of Blackness, the working class, British Empire, queerness, masculinity and an insular religious community. These contradictions crash into each other, sometimes across space and time, across generations or within a single life: Mendez traverses the long duration of Black relocation from Jamaica, and the promises made to the Windrush generation by Perfidious Albion. In its engagement with colonial history, Rainbow Milk embeds us in lives and loves held up by place, work and everyday sensuality. The soot of Birmingham’s 1950s industrial landscape and the rhythms of Brixton’s streets in the 2000s are brought alive in this novel of three generations of Black men, centred around the young Jesse and his search for self-realisation. The novel plays key moments (an evening or a weekend) from these lives, as if dropping a needle onto a vinyl record to find their time-grooves.

 

Rainbow Milk speaks in a variety of Black voices which Mendez performs with the experience of having been raised as a Jehovahs Witness to give Bible readings. The reader senses the intricacy and fragility of everyday exchanges, and Mendez brings his experience as an actor and performer to his craft as a writer (Mendez also recorded the audio book for his novel). I spoke to Paul Mendez via video call as 2020 was closing. We were both keen to see the back of it, but kept returning to the activity and activism which gives us cause for hope in the present crisis, from Michaela Coels I May Destroy You to the many waves created by BLM.

 

Q

The White Review

— At the heart of Rainbow Milk is a sense of the fracture between generations, between Norman and Jesse as grandfather and grandson. This fracture is part of both queer and Black experience, can you tell us how you approached writing this relationship?

A

Paul Mendez

— As third-generation black British people, and descendants of the Windrush generation, were not often heard from, and certainly not in terms of our relationship to previous generations. Andrea Levy did a lot of work in this respect in her first four novels: reading Small Island was the first time that I ever engaged fully with that heritage. Id ask my grandparents: what was it like when you first came to England? Why did you move to England? Why didnt you move to America? Theyd worked industrial jobs all of their British lives, but it wasnt until my grandmother died last year that I discovered she was a Sunday school teacher in Jamaica and played piano in church. She was a farmers daughter and cycled around everywhere. I couldnt imagine my grandmother doing that because in the UK, her jobs were always in factories she worked in a brick making factory for years. In the Black Country, there used to be quite a scene of women running kilns or being the brick makers. So she was part of this all-female team, making bricks. She told me that it was her favourite job, which was a great surprise to me. And shed also worked in a screw-making factory for a long time. One of my aunties, when I was preparing the eulogy for my grandmothers funeral, told me that my nan was always afraid she always had perfect nails of iron swarf from the screws getting under them and into her skin permanently. Even this wasnt the grandmother that I knew.

 

I realised that that generations stories are very different to what we think they are, which makes me question why they would be so circumspect about their past. I think its because they moved here with hope that we would be British, be English. They were taught the standard British colonial education, which said basically that Britain is the greatest country in the world and every other country, nation, language and culture slots in somewhere below. Britishness is everything that you should ever aspire to attain. So when they left Jamaica behind, they left it for good. My grandparents went back for six-week periods once every ten years, but they went back as proud British people. There was a real desire to forget who they were, and to instil a Britishness in us, their descendants, that would make us not even ask questions about Jamaica, that embarrassing small island that they left.

 

So for me, it was really important as a third-generation person to say, well, actually I am very British, and yes Ive forgotten about my heritage as you wanted me to, but thats actually not what I agree with and I do want to re-engage with that heritage. And thats kind of what Rainbow Milk ostensibly is about: one of its subjects, anyway. About that real sense of being blind, almost, in terms of your heritage, and finding the ways to be able to see it again. Of having the privilege, and the knowledge, to be able to go back and knit those stories and histories together.

Q

The White Review

— Even myself, as a first generation immigrant — I don’t have any connection to this island, I came here when I was seventeen and neither of my parents are British — but I can see, the longer I spend here, the more distant my heritage becomes. It’s a very strange experience. And I can’t even imagine what it would be like passing my mother’s culture on to my children.

A

Paul Mendez

— I think language is really important here, and thats one of the reasons I wanted to present Normans narrative in Jamaican Patois, or at least a readable version of it: to preserve that voice. And for me, as a writer, to show that I understood him enough to be able to hear his voice in Patois. Language and food are the two main ways in which my grandmother transferred that heritage to her children and grandchildren. We ate Jamaican food at her house every Sunday for the first nineteen years of my life, and I always knew what I was going to get when I went back. So its one of the things I most miss now that shes gone: the food, because I just couldnt possibly recreate it. But language is extremely important.

Q

The White Review

— One thing that fractures elicit is a need for healing and rethreading. This is part of Jesses search for ancestry, trying to understand the gap his absent father left, and how generations of Black men have negotiated masculinity in a white mans world. Do you see this work of healing as something that an individual has to do, ideally supported by a community?

A

Paul Mendez

— Everyone needs people around them who they trust and who they feel comfortable being themselves with. I come from a Jehovah’s Witness background and I come from a Jamaican background: gays are still persecuted in Jamaica, and homosexuality is anathema to Jehovahs Witnesses. I knew that I was gay from a very, very young age, but spent perhaps the first twenty years of my life doing whatever I could to hide away from that and not to be seen. And getting older and finally coming out, I was prepared to live the rest of my life without seeing my family ever again, if need be.

 

That, in turn, was almost twenty years ago, so look how much things have changed Im now totally out to my family. But in the meantime, I did have to find people to look after me emotionally and do the job that my parents and extended family should have been doing. Ive been incredibly lucky that I was able to find a chosen family, but thats not to discount all the time Ive spent alone, being the only person I could confide in or rely on. Books certainly helped, there. And albums. I wouldnt be the person I am today, or even be alive, if it wasnt for The Writings On the Wall, Heart and Soul, The Line of Beauty, Notes of a Native Son, Lemonade, The Life of Pablo, Against Nature, In Search of Lost Timethats just off the top of my head.

 

I had dinner with an old school friend last year and she congratulated me on news of my novel. She was in my English class and she was like: Paul, you could have done this when you were sixteen. Whats taken you so long? She knew nothing about my family life, or the strictures of my religion. My world and my life are so different now: I guess I pretty much am the same person that I was when I was sixteen, but I live in a world thats more conducive to my survival and development. I’m not a Jehovahs Witness anymore. Jehovahs Witnesses dont trust fiction; you study the Bible and you study Bible publications. And I wanted Jesse to really embody that journey of being the same person at the beginning as you find at the end, its just the world changes around him and makes him able to negotiate it on his own terms.

Q

The White Review

— In the novel, I felt the strength of digested experience: being able to orient yourself in relation to your own experience, but also in relation to other people’s experiencesand not only those for whom you feel an affinity.

A

Paul Mendez

— I suppose fiction is unlike other art forms. You often do need a bit of distance, a bit of maturity and a bit of age in order to look back, to reflect, to have an overview of the world, to convince the reader that you can be trusted to show them a transparency of the world they live in. So my school friend was right: perhaps I had the technical ability to write a memoir, say; I could put words and sentences together when I was 16 years old, but would I have had the insight into generational change in terms of the way a persons life changes around them, in terms of the way the world changes around a person? I couldnt have written a novel. I didnt have the distance from my own stories, from my own intersections, in order to write a novel when I was even in my late twenties, early thirties. I had to wait. And I suppose the real challenge will be, now that Ive written a semi-autobiographical novel, to actually depart from the material that affects me or involves me personally and write within a fashioned framework. Or maybe not even go as far as that, but try to find some distance or some area between the two.

Q

The White Review

— Going back to your grandmother, Im interested in this fairy-tale of the White Working Class, this tale of exceptionalism and nationalism which constantly erases the stories and lives you write about. I am interested in how you trace the history of the Black working class, going from heavy industry in Jesses grandparentsgeneration to Jesses sex work and hospitality work at the turn of the twenty-first century.

A

Paul Mendez

— People of colour, queer people, working-class people dont always have the choice to live the life that we want to lead, whether thats for socioeconomic reasons or religious reasons or anything else. But simply because we cant always live the life that we want to lead, that doesnt mean that our lives are not for something.

 

I think someone like my grandmother would be a really interesting character to look at in a novel. My grandmother left two children behind in Jamaica to move to England and married my grandfather, who she met here, even though theyre from the same region in Jamaica; she started a new family and never sent for her first two children. And my experience of her is of a very loving, maternal person. What must she have been through to realise that she couldnt send for her first two children and her eldest son died, I think years and years and years ago, decades ago. She must have carried that around with her forever. She has another daughter who lives in the States who none of us have met. Its extraordinary to think what goes on behind the scenes.

 

Fiction, when you only have a few sketchy details about something, can be used to fill in the gaps. Youre capturing stories, youre resurrecting stories, almost, and giving us something to learn from, giving ourselves a history. Because, as Black people, history is always being written by others. You go back far enough, and in the Caribbean, until 1841, plantation owners didnt even have to record the names of their employees. So its really hard to trace family before that. Beyond that, youve still got these concentric circles of separation from your heritage. So its really important to me to look to that generation and keep their memory alive. Because I think were still living with their legacy: you see with the Windrush scandal that even now, even when we think that we live in a more equal world, the powers that be are still finding ways in which to discriminate against us insidiously.

Q

The White Review

— I feel its related to this constant re-inscription of the White Working Class that we’ve seen in the last five years

A

Paul Mendez

— The white working classes are only ever mentioned as a silencing riposte when people of colour express grievances at systematic discrimination. When we talk about race, when we talk about health, socio-economic and socio-environmental inequalities regarding the African, Afro-Caribbean and South Asian diasporas in this country, for example, thats when some people will turn around and say: Well, the white working classes…’ They suddenly care about the white working class when we start talking about ourselves as Black and South Asian people. I really feel like that’s super insulting to white working-class people.

 

White working class people are tricked, I suppose, by the media and often the governments around them mainly into retaining a particular position which makes them easy to control. Theyre told theyre white, just like the rulers, who dont treat them the same at all.  And this isnt profound, this has probably been said a billion times and far more eloquently than I can. But what weve seen with the major shift rightwards of the white working classes, since the referendum, they just basically sort of fed into Boris Johnsons hands in terms of the way they voted. Because he put on a hi-vis in a car factory in the North and told them hes one of them. Well, of course he isnt. He couldnt be less like them or have greater disdain for them.

 

Some people have been left completely without a future in this pandemic. I was working in the hospitality industry full time until 2018. If I was still there, Id be in a very, very precarious position right now. And I feel for some of my former colleagues and the people who work in that industry now. There was an item on Channel 4 News when the tier system after the November lockdown was announced, where a chef in Manchester was really holding back the tears. Every time the government says they’re going to review the restrictions, those chefs all go back to work for 7 a.m., they open up the kitchen, they do all the prep. When we go to a restaurant, what we’re eating is the result of about three or four days of prep, when it comes to taking in the raw ingredients and all the processes that have to go through in the kitchen until it gets to our plate. Three or four days. Its not the twenty minutes its been since we ordered it. So they go back to work, they open up the kitchen, they start doing the prep, they start taking deliveries, they make orders, they prepare to open their restaurant on the Friday night or whatever, and then the government announces that they cant open. And so all the food that theyve started preparing, they have to give it away, or dash in the bin. And its heartbreaking for them. I could really feel the rawness of his emotional response. Ive never heard the phrase ‘mental health’ used as much by the general public as Ive heard it this year. Mental health, even five years ago, nobody talked about, particularly men. Now everyone is owning the fact that their mental health has been absolutely dragged here, and the worst thing is, nothing can be done about it until Covid has been dealt with.

Q

The White Review

— One of the questions I had, reading your novel, was: how do we lift up this country after it has debased itself so much? I feel your novel is partly doing that work by talking about all of these different experiences in a totally intersectional way: theres no need to say This is a working class novel, this is a queer novel, this is a Black novel.

A

Paul Mendez

— Its all of those things! One of the things I’ve realised since publication is that Rainbow Milk is a story of someone discovering their own politics and shifting from right to left. I grew up in a majority white working-class area. I didnt grow up in a Black area. I didnt really know many Black people when I was growing up. I was meant to feel both ashamed of my Blackness and ashamed of not measuring up to othersideas of what a Black male is supposed to look like, speak like, act like and do. It wasnt until I got older that I realised that the British National Party, which plays into this kind of narrative of white working class people being forgotten was huge in my era, which makes a great deal of sense.

 

But my politics, my personal politics, even though Jehovahs Witnesses are apolitical and dont vote, the politics within me were influenced by the environment in which I was raised. So I was very right-wing, and it struck me during the recent election in the US that, as a teenager, I probably had more in common with today’s Trump supporters than I did with the world I inhabit now. As a Witness, I was anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-feminist. Thats the person that I was until relatively late, until my mid-twenties, when I started really questioning things and reading James Baldwin and Andrea Levy. I started to realise that I didnt have to be the person I was raised as, and I think its key that we get to see from people in fiction that there is a journey from any kind of indoctrination to being someone who actually can think for themselves. And I think people are scared to do that. Theyre scared to be potentially ostracised from their communities and families.

 

I could’ve very comfortably stayed a Jehovahs Witness because its a wonderful familial space, as long as you stay invested in the doctrine. You’re in a multicultural family, everyones your auntie and uncle, and it’s all great. But the minute you step away from that you get kicked out, and thats what happened to me, thats what happened to Jesse. And I had to go through a terrible time, but Im so glad that Im not still there because Id be on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of whats happening in the world. Well, the good things that are happening anyway. I wanted to show that wherever youre coming from, you can end up in a place where you can live your life and be happy with who you are as an individual.

Q

The White Review

— Writing sex is a vital part of the novel. Jesses closet and unspoken fantasies are very delicately written, but they little prepare us for his crash-landing into Londons gay scene. We share in his surprise at how intense and wholesome it is to be a sexual being.

A

Paul Mendez

— I just wrote the sort of sex that I know. I didnt want to be embarrassed about sex or be coy about it in any way at all. And I think that Jesses identity and what he was going through facilitated that, because he suppresses all of this desire for so long until finally he is in a position to actually act out his desires in the way he sees fit. And I wanted him to experience that in real time, and for us to experience that with him. Partly because we dont see black boys, in particular black gay boys, having sex very much. We can accept their presence if theyre camp or wear directional fashion or drag or are a sort of agony or angry eunuch. And I didnt want that to be the case for Jesse. I wanted him to be very, very visible and very open and honest and sensual. The way he experiences sex is the same way that he experiences food, is the same way that he experiences foreign accents, etc. So it was important to keep the voice very consistent in that way, especially with sex. Sex is a language. It doesnt need overblown, florid poetry.

Q

The White Review

— Reading your novel made me think of writers like Jean Genet or James Baldwin, whose writing about sex work was deeply shocking at the time. And Im just thinking theres a lot of people who would, if they read your novel, definitely be shocked by the visceral detail of the gay sex and the everyday vulnerabilities and power struggle of sex work. I think of this as a gift: does writing still have the power to help puncture prejudice?

A

Paul Mendez

— I think, if its a gift, its because it humanises sex work and shows the reasons why people might choose to engage in it. For some people its not a choice, we have to remember that, but Jesse makes the decision to do it. Thats how he sees that he can de-indoctrinate himself whilst exploring sexual pleasure on his own terms. And its him recognising that he is beautiful and desirable and sexy and that he can make money out of that. I dont think thats shocking.

 

Genet and Baldwin are writing from the Forties to the Seventies. I suppose its our fault, for being so coy about it and seeing it as a shameful thing to be or to be involved in, that we havent seen more of sex work in storytelling. So I just want to see more. More writing about sex work, more writing about trans sex, more writing about all kinds of engagements between humans that happen behind closed doors, more about drug use and addiction, more about mental health, all of these real-life subjects that still arent within the realm of normalfor the majority. You know, if we want to have a new normal, I think the new normal should be lifting up the carpet that all of these things have been swept under for so long and allowing them to rise up and enter our lungs. I think thats the way forward. To understand all aspects of humanity in the dark and the light.

Q

The White Review

— Ive heard that youre adapting Rainbow Milk for TV. Can you tell us about writing the script? Will you be able to expand some of the characters and the situations?

A

Paul Mendez

— Well, we havent started the screenplay yet, were still at the stage of delineating the character arcs. I think it will be a different format to Rainbow Milk. When I was writing the novel, with the opening section of five being Normans POV in the 1950s and the rest of the book being Jesse in 2002 and 2016, I didnt ever consider integrating the two stories together. I always wanted Normans story to be self-contained, for Jesse’s to be self-contained, and for there to be a dialogue between the two implicitly rather than explicitly. I ran out of deadline space to write Robert’s story in full, so, necessity being the mother of invention, the novel became about how Norman and Jesse created Robert between them. But with TV, you have to think differently. It’s been really useful to work with great producers, to see just how things could be supported differently in terms of a visual medium. We know that what I did in the novel won’t necessarily translate directly to TV, so it’s a case of finding what in the novel can be reshaped to create visual tension. All stories, really, are just points of view; someone else might see it and say it very differently.

 

One of the ways in which I accessed characters for the novel was to improvise them as an actor and get into their voice and into their mannerisms. There are so many characters I created while I was writing Rainbow Milk who didnt make it into the book, so Im wondering if I might find a space for them in the TV series. Were thinking six to eight hour-long episodes, so there’ll many more opportunities to look at the people around Jesse when he’s not there, like his mother, like his boyfriend Owen, like his friend Ginika. I’m still learning new things about the book and my characters, despite the fact that I’ve written it myself. Its a strange position being the hired writer of my own adaptation.

 

I havent watched much TV over the past few years, but I picked up a little bit this year with Unorthodox, Normal People, I May Destroy You and Small Axe in particular, getting into what TV is now and reflecting on what I would class as the glory days of TV in my lifetime, the late Nineties/early 2000s with the classic HBO stuff like Sex and the City, Oz, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Queer As Folk on Channel 4. Now I’m looking at where I stand, building the foundations of a TV sensibility and responding to what’s going on now. I May Destroy You completely blew my mind. It seemed to come from nowhere. I didnt know anything shed done in that series was possible on television. So the scene where Kwame goes to that guy’s flat… Id never seen anything like that on TV before. You look up at the BBC logo in the corner of the screen and youre like, oh, my God, this is insane – the Queen’s own Beeb totally down with fully penetrative, glistening, black gay sex. We were negotiating with production companies at the time I May Destroy You was on, and because Rainbow Milk is so sexually explicit and so visual in that sense, I was really worried about these very polite, very white, production companies potentially diluting the content for TV. But when I saw I May Destroy You, I thought, we can do this, we can go deep. I’d never seen black men fucking on TV ever in my life. Black queer men are always desexualised – I remember that US series Noah’s Arc, in which they substituted ‘dick’ or ‘cock’ with ‘unit’, and barely showed us so much as an ass cheek. And so, in a sense, you kind of work based on the parameters you assume the status quo will set. You write what you think people are going to be able to take; you internalise their perceived homophobia and racism. But when you see someone else doing it, it makes you think, I can be myself, I can do that. Its quite a thing to be shown that you can be yourself when you’ve spent so much of your life pandering.

Q

The White Review

— I remember that scene from I May Destroy You vividly and I read Rainbow Milk around the same time, so it felt like it was part of the same moment that we’re living in.
A

Paul Mendez

I May Destroy You came out in June, Pride month; with George Floyd’s murder, Breonna Taylor’s murder and the Central Park incident in the news at the same time, nobody could use the excuse that they didn’t have time to look. Black and queer people mobilised this year in a way that was noticed by the mainstream and by the hegemony more than ever. The Black Writers Guild started this summer, and I was very privileged to be part of the founding group of writers who sent that open letter to publishers back in June to challenge them. This is just the start of a challenge to wider society to really do the work. This is about equality across the board, inside and outside publishing. Every time we meet, I’m flabbergasted at the amount of work that’s going on behind the scenes. So it just goes to show that the events of 2020 weren’t just a moment. And that’s why I’m optimistic, actually. We have the confidence, now; we have the power as individuals and as collectives. I think that enough people are now aware of what the status quo is, of how insidious it is, of how self-serving it is. Look at what we’ve done to our country in terms of Brexit and the slow Covid response; look at the health inequalities that they’ve raised. We’re supposed to be a developed democracy in 2021, but some of our responses have had a distinctly head-in-the-sand ailing dictatorship feel to them. We’re supposed to be world leaders in this, that and the other, and yet UNICEF are giving us aid because we can’t apparently afford to feed our children. You get people like Jacob Rees-Mogg saying: oh well, that’s just a stunt to show us up. Marcus Rashford took it upon himself, at the age of twenty-three, to challenge the government against allowing children to starve. It’s insane, really, what rulers feel they can get away with under the idea that Britain is still this great country – and it can be and it’s got great people in it – but it’s actually very, very broken. We’ve got a lot to fix in this country. But I do think that we have the right people here to do that. I refuse to be negative about it. In fact, I’m optimistic.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Rastko Novakovic is an artist film-maker who has authored over 50 works. He is a committed trade unionist and dancer of queer tango.

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