Paul Mendez’s debut novel, Rainbow Milk, begins in 1956 in the voice of Norman Alonso, a skilled gardener who arrives from Jamaica to the industrial town of Blixton with his wife and their two children. Norman and his family are among the first wave of migrants of the Windrush generation who traveled from the West Indies to Britain to help fill post-war UK labour shortages from 1948 to 1971. The lived experiences of the Windrush generation are defined, largely, by the imperialist and racist rhetoric which greeted them upon arrival and, as Mendez’s novel demonstrates, continues to this day. Linking the lives of three generations of black men, Rainbow Milk tells a story of love, history, trial, blackness, and self-realization.
I was fortunate to talk to Mendez about his craft, the histories of his family, and what’s at stake for him in his writing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
It’s such a pleasure to read this book, and I’m so excited that it’s being published. How are you feeling about your US debut?
I didn’t think for a million years that I would be republished in the US. I feel lucky to be published in the UK in the first place. With a debut novel you kind of think “oh it’d be nice to sell like 2,000 copies, and maybe get a review in The Guardian.” You don’t really think beyond that, so everything else has been a great bonus. US publication is more than a bonus actually: it’s kind of a dream come true. I’ve been speaking about this book for a year now, since its publication in the UK, and I feel like it has been getting a bit boring in terms of talking about it from a UK perspective. But starting to speak to American publications and, in an American context, it’s very different. I’m black British and we have a very, very different history to African American peoples, and you know most Americans don’t really know where I’m from in England. The Black Country is not a very famous place. It’s nice to contextualize that differently for an American audience—and it sort of makes the whole thing more refreshing for me to talk about.
I’m wondering if you could tell us a bit about writing a novel that’s both informed by your own experiences of being on the inside and, at other times, on the outside?
Rainbow Milk is based roughly on my own experiences. Like Jesse, my protagonist, I’m from the industrial West Midlands. From a working-class background and a black British background of Jamaican heritage, too. I grew up as a Jehovah’s witness in a very white working-class, right-wing community. And, like him, I was removed from that world and had to find my own feet. I also became a sex worker, but there are key differences between mine and Jesse’s stories. All the characters that I’ve created in Rainbow Milk around Jesse are fictional characters. They gave me the experience of fiction writing in terms of trying to work my way through a scene. Sometimes I’d be writing, and a character would suddenly come up and suggest themselves.
I think people who dismiss this book as a semi-autobiographical novel sometimes miss the point. It was interesting for me to use the cold facts, if you like, of my experience, but then to also express myself in terms of what I’m observing and the wisdom that I’ve developed over the years. To be able to look back on a 19-year-old boy’s life and, without judgement, tell their story is craft. I was free to use my imagination. I really feel that all my work is based on personal experience. Observation and imagination: it’s always going to be a combination of those two things whether I’m writing personal essays or a book review or, in this case, fiction.
Are there specific models that have informed your writing? What were your influences for writing Rainbow Milk?
Absolutely! I think I’ll start with a subconscious reference. I read James Baldwin’s novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone when I was 20, back in the summer of 2002—coincidentally when the main part of Rainbow Milk is set. It was the first novel by Baldwin I’d ever read, and it was the first time I’d ever read a book with a black queer protagonist and a black queer love story. I was raised on a white male curriculum of what was then termed, very narrowly, “English literature.” Reading Baldwin was a revelation to me. Years and years passed, I read other works by Baldwin, and I read other works by novelists and nonfiction writers which informed Rainbow Milk’s construction. And then last summer, I read Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone again, and I couldn’t believe how much the novel had directed my path in the intervening years.
There are scenes in that novel in which Baldwin takes readers through this obscure methods school with these white, Chelsea-type boys who are studying acting—to show an experience of becoming bourgeois. I went through something very similar when I started to hang around white people. I became accustomed to different things. I learned new things and I took up different literary and art objects. I was working in a restaurant and so too was Leo, Baldwin’s protagonist. And there’s a scene in which Baldwin basically allows the voices of the customers to suggest themselves, to fill the space. As a reader, you know what the atmosphere of the restaurant is like, you know Leo’s relationships with the customers, you’re immediately there. I did the same thing in the last section of my novel. I had this feeling like I was innovating by scripting a busy lunch service in a Central London restaurant. I’ve worked in restaurants for 15 years, so for me if I’m walking through the space, I’m hearing snatches of conversation, taking it all in. I’m also thinking of the kitchen, aware of the people at the door, of the drinks waiting to be served, and, all the while, of making my way through the people. I thought that was my telling, but rereading Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone made me think: it’s amazing what happens to the subconscious! It’s amazing what you take in and don’t realize is taking root inside you.
That’s the main reference for me, but, also, I would say Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2004—which was the year I moved to London and came out as gay for the first time and became a sex worker. That novel made me feel like it was okay for me to be gay and that there was a literature for me. There’s another Leo in this book too, who is also young and sexy and black and from a Christian background like me. He had an amazing sexual agency of his own and did things in his own way: making the decisions and the hiring and the firing and the dumping and the courting. I found him electrifying as a character. A couple of years later, I read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I think that was probably a bad influence on me. Nobody can do Proust. But everyone who reads him thinks they can. That probably sort of held me back a little bit in terms of being able to tell my own story, because I wanted to go into all kinds of different places that I didn’t quite have the education to justify.
We’re so fortunate, in this novel, to follow Jesse from his late teens to his mid-30s. We get to see him later in life as someone who’s asking not just the question of how to love better, but also interrogating the absence of love in his life. Could you tell us a bit about this?
My editors insisted that I explore this dynamic. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it but suffice to say Jesse survives an initial period of self-destructive behavior. We see him in his early 30s and he hasn’t, in most people’s minds, gone very far in life. He’s still working in a restaurant. But he’s happy, he has a longtime partner, they live together and they’re both writers. They have desks opposite one another—a sweet, bookish setup in a little Brexton flat. And they’re extremely happy going to the theater and living comfortably.
In many ways, Jessie is over the kind of traumas of earlier life. My editor, though, wanted to see Jesse grow up and she was right for me to go beyond a happy note and explore what happens to Jesse. Which gave me the opportunity to write about the 2016 referendum, Brexit, and what it felt like then and what it still feels like now to be a black person in Britain—especially a black person who considers themselves to have transcended many aspects of blackness that are placed on them by other people’s conception of black masculinity. In his 30s, we see that Jesse has managed to negotiate a space in which he can be black, queer, and question his status as a black queer man. And it’s a space in which he is loved in the way that he wants to be loved.
There are many different types of love in this book. I’m curious to hear about the kind of love that’s given to Jesse’s mother and to intergenerational narratives as well.
Val, Jesse’s mother, is a difficult person. Jesse thinks that she hates him since he’s a child from a previous relationship. She’s a black woman and she had a relationship with a black man. The black man leaves, and then she marries a white man and has three other children. Jesse then literally becomes the black sheep of the family, and there is a real sense of being in denial about these dynamics. As second-generation immigrants, we’re not always privy to the things that our parents have been through. We feel like we had it bad, either being bullied at school or facing racism in our daily lives; but our parents lived in a different time, they were pioneers. They were the first people born and stepping into that mind frame can be difficult. But it’s also key, for us, to understand that they’re dealing with their issues and own problems—even around issues of internalized racism. When you’re someone who has been through your own traumas and you’re trying to raise a black child, some of the things that you’ve been through can be projected onto your children. As Jesse gets older, that’s what he comes to understand.
One of the things I wanted to do with Rainbow Milk was to convey the tensions between Jesse and Val with apt description, but I also wanted to be forgiving and understanding and to suggest that there’s more to know about what that generation suffered. I can’t ask my parents—we’re not in a place to have that kind of relationship yet. This is one of the reasons why I was able to write about the previous generation. There is good material about the Windrush generation, but it’s also an intergenerational experience. I’m still in that history; I’m part of that history being created in the present. It is difficult though to understand where you are in that configuration—and harder still to negotiate. You know your parents did their best, and that they worked manual labor jobs, hoping that you would just be able to get a foothold in life. They weren’t always aware or appreciative of your individuality and your individual needs. You know you’re poor; you’re from a working-class area; you’ve got nothing being handed to you. It’s kind of difficult for them to accept you however smart you are. There’s at once a gap and a connection. And there are just so many other things too playing into a sense of a standoff between the two generations. It’s something that I have started to unpack and will probably continue to think about in future books.
The narrative in the beginning of your book begins to tell us a bit about the Windrush generation through the eyes of Norman. Why begin there?
Norman’s character suggested itself to me early in the writing process, but I didn’t use that writing until very late. Towards the end of the drafting process, I thought this is perfect: putting these two stories together and letting them tell the story of three generations of Windrush descendants. The Windrush generation is dying off now. My grandparents are part of that generation; they all came from Jamaica in the 1950s. Three of them have passed on and one remains in assisted care. The opportunities that we have left to ask questions are limited. And that’s true for so many families now. Our heritage is slipping away with them. When one of my grandmothers passed away in October 2019, she lived in a council house for 37 years and, a month later, we had to give back the keys. She’s the matriarch, she’s the stalwart of the family, and she let us stay over whenever we wanted. Her house is the place where we’ve all grown up. My memory is long in that house; all my dreams are set in that house. After she died, when we were grieving, we took what we could and had to let the rest go. The house was decorated and given to another family. It just goes to show how important it is to conserve memory. When all the concrete things have gone that’s what you’ve got left: memory.
The character of Norman is based loosely on my paternal grandfather, who died when my dad was two years old. We know very little of his life, except that he, like Norman, was fit and healthy when he came to England in his early 30s. Then, he started to develop migraine headaches and went blind. He had to go back to Jamaica to live because my grandmother couldn’t support them both here. The Windrush scandal broke at the end of 2018—members of the Windrush generation were being illegally deported by the Home Office—it got me thinking about that generation and how much we were losing them.
As a third-generation black British person, we are not really heard from in terms of our stories. Neither are previous generations. It was important for me to conserve Norman’s voice, and he does speak a lot about hope, even though he is basically about to die. He has two children and that’s where his hope lies. It lies in them. I am grateful that the Windrush generation persevered and worked as hard as they did.
What does it mean to you to access those stories? What does it mean to have those memories and create a record of them too?
There’s so much to be said. Despite the racism, despite the hardship, despite the gaps, we still have a great record of literature from the Windrush generation. I’m currently reading Escape to an Autumn Pavement, a novel by Jamaican, Panamanian writer Andrew Salkey. Salkey was born in 1928 and moved to the UK from Jamaica in the 50s as part of the Windrush generation. I’ve never read anything like this! If I had to dig, it kind of reminds me (simultaneously) of the sort of late 1950s, kitchen sink, white working-class English theater, and something like modernist writing. It’s certainly one of the earliest queer novels. And was greeted with absolute silence when it was published. It was republished by a small imprint here called the Peepal Tree Press in 2009, but it’s still not a well-known book and he’s not a well-known writer.
The second generation were busy creating their own legacy as black British people, as the first people born black in Britain. As a third-generation person, it’s my prerogative to do that too, but it’s also my responsibility to look back at the previous generations and see what they’ve done. Salkey 50 or 60 years ago was publishing the first black, queer British novel and that’s the heritage that I have. We’re able to discover those things because that whole generation came here with both hope and an education—probably a better education than the people whom they would be lumped in with upon arrival. Colonial education was excellent; they went to very good schools in the Caribbean. They came over here and were like “oh you want me to do what with a spade?” The work that they did without any real support or expectation is amazing. People like Samuel Selvon, George Lamming, and V.S. Naipaul. That’s the kind of heritage that I want to honor as well as add to.
You’ve spoken of heritage and memory and recording lived histories. How else are you exploring these ideas?
I think I was seen to be quite brave to write historical fiction as a black, British third-generation person. While there are many examples of contemporary literature set in the 1950s, there aren’t many written by a black British author—it just doesn’t seem to be a popular pursuit. I keep getting projects from different literary journals that focus on the Windrush generation. And I’m sure that’s because I also study black British literature. I’m very aware that most of academia is handled by white academics who, while experts in the field, aren’t always interested in the sociological elements of black British history and black culture. In this country, at this moment, you can count on fewer than two hands the number of black literary scholars. The course I’m in now was set up by the first female English literature professor of color in the UK. When she recently retired, she was the only female English literature professor of color in the UK. After 25 years, there was no handover, no legacy. It was just okay that one person got the title and did their thing and then, when they retired, it all went back to nothing.
The program I’m in is set up to find the next generation of black scholars of English literature. And I feel a sense of responsibility for that. I’m getting to know writers who have been unfairly shielded from me. My school curriculum went from being 100% white and 100% dead and having nothing to do with my experience…if I would have had access to Sam Selvon or Carol Phillips—writers who share my heritage and share my experience of being a black person growing up in England—my life might have been a lot different. Going back to what I was saying about James Baldwin earlier, I didn’t see myself reflected on the page until I was 20 years old. It’s important for young people, especially from minority ethnic backgrounds, to see themselves reflected in their education.
Otherwise, it’s almost like you’re living a lie, ignoring your heritage, and accepting the white mainstream narrative as your own. That can make anyone angry and very sad. I don’t want that to happen to the next generation, and I feel like things are changing. There are so many more books being published now by black British writers. It’s for everyone’s education, as well as my own benefit, to see black British history through the eyes of black British people. So much of what you read about the Windrush generation is narrated through the eyes of white British people. How does that affect the subsequent generations? How does that experience get passed down? We’re so ignorant, we live our lives ignorant of the systems around us. And it’s only through looking back and going back that we can re-contextualize and re-learn. It’s the only way we can become grounded in ourselves.
What are you working on now? Is it true there’s a screenplay in the works?
Yes! I’m working on a TV adaptation for Rainbow Milk and writing the screenplay myself. It’s a different process—a very difficult process around craft. I didn’t have a fully fleshed-out craft as a novelist. My novel started as a de facto memoir, which my editor encouraged me to turn into a novel, and I had to do whatever I could to make that happen. I was lucky to be able to hit on a couple of technical pursuits. I can’t wait to write my next novel and develop my skill further.
By Paul Mendez
Published June 8, 2021
Clancey D’Isa is a Daily Editor at Chicago Review of Books and the Marketing Director for the Seminary Co-op Bookstores.