“The way I write, the way I see the world, is part and parcel of my dyslexia…”
These are the words of Benjamin Zephaniah, who alongside being a hugely successful novelist and playwright, is one of Britain’s most celebrated poets. Try as you might you will struggle to fit Zephaniah into any single category-but then conforming is not what he is about. Criminal, dub-artist, people’s poet, Rastafarian, environmentalist-call him what you will but one thing is for sure; Zephaniah makes his own rules.
The poet, who appeared in The Times list of the top 50 post-war writers, grew up in Handsworth, Birmingham. As the son of a Barbadian Postman and a Jamaican Nurse, he was strongly influenced from a young age by the music and poetry of Jamaica.
At primary school Zephaniah remembers being told by his teacher that not everyone can be good with words, and so he should try something else. At the age of 13 he was arrested and imprisoned for burglary.
Zephaniah recalls being informed about his difficulties with reading: “The first time someone told me I was dyslexic; it was like they were swearing at me. I had never heard the word before. It made me a very angry person.”
40 years later and he has a total of 7 honorary degrees to his name. He has also received the BBC Young Playwright Award, and been offered an OBE-something which he controversially rejected: “Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.”
Zephaniah’s political views are central to his work. His poetry begs to be voiced. With that lilting half Jamaican half brummie accent his words carry a passion and musicality that is truly unique. Meanwhile, novels like Face and Gangsta Rap reach out to teenage boys in a way that few others have been able to.
Education is a hugely important topic in Zephaniah’s writing and campaigning. He strongly feels that teachers let him slip through the net when he was at school, and is determined for children today to not suffer the same fate.
Even now Zephaniah gets an attack of nerves each time he is asked to read in public, in spite of the fact that he has performed his poetry all over the world. Big novels terrify him.
Zephaniah explains how he once “signed the rights away on a record contract because I couldn’t read…Now kids say to me that they don’t need to read or write because they can freestyle. I tell them they need to be able to read the contract or they will be ripped off. Lots of them are like me.”
If dyslexia is not picked up on early enough Zephaniah feels that a child has 2 options: to conquer their fears and flourish, or end up in prison. And having succeeded at both himself, no one can deny that this man knows what he is talking about.