A look at Benjamin Zephaniah

Among the plethora of head-shaking, finger-pointing and retrospective self-absorption which followed last autumn’s Jimmy Savile revelations, one reaction stood out as the refreshing and incisive antidote the country so badly needed. On the Question Time panel on the evening of 12 October was poet and author Benjamin Zephaniah, who recalled in the past having been sat on his Mum’s sofa when he saw the breaking news surrounding the emergence of Savile evidence, only to get up from his seat and declare: “I knew it!”.

Benjamin ZephaniahPhoto: Flickr / Pogus Caesar.

Of course he knew it. We all kind of knew it – and yet it never seemed possible to articulate what Zephaniah had done: that treating anyone as untouchable, as the BBC had done Savile, is a dangerous game to play. Only someone with the casual audacity, the intuitive desire to pursue injustices and inequalities where and when they appear, could get away with that on national television.

Zephaniah turned 55 last week, and yet for the untempered idealism which continues to resonate through his work, he could easily be half that age. The breadth of range in his texts, a mix of children’s poetry, young adult novels and a variety of politically themed writings, alongside his passion for public speaking, have seen him recognised as one of the country’s most distinctive writers.

As an impassioned and left-leaning political voice, not unlike this year’s most famous decliner of an honour by royal appointment, Danny Boyle, Zephaniah has often spoken of his desire to remain true to his principles and reject prestige throughout his rise to fame. It is that same magnanimity which led him to reject the offer of an OBE in the Queen’s 2003 Honours List. For Zephaniah any association with the British Empire would be totally out of the question, as he told the Guardian:

“Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word “empire”; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised…. Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.”

Zephaniah’s righteousness might be grating if it was without the heart and eloquence with which it manifests itself in his literature. His 2001 novel, Refugee Boy, for example, is as powerful an expression of the difficulties faced by Eritrean/Ethiopian families fleeing persecution as one is likely to find on a child’s bookcase – or indeed an adult’s.

That isn’t to say that Zephaniah’s work is exclusively grounded in the emotionally weighty, however. Read the title poem of his 1999 publication ‘Talking Turkeys’ and you’ll soon realise that his motivations (without giving too much away, Zephaniah is an honorary patron of the Vegan Society) are as much supported by a capacity for buoyancy and wit as they are gritty realism or pathos.

It’s an encouraging thing that we have writers like Benjamin Zephaniah in this country. It’s encouraging that from Reception to Sixth Form, undergraduate to post, we could all learn from something he’s written or said.


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January 2022
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