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Baker's Dozen

Beauty From Trauma: Paul Mendez' Favourite Music
Paul Flynn , October 7th, 2020 08:40

Pop is all over Rainbow Milk, the Gordon Burn Prize-nominated debut novel by Paul Mendez. Here he tells Paul Flynn how a love of Marvin Gaye, Beyonce, Solange, Joy Division and Missy Elliott gave him a clearer understanding of his sexuality and racial identity

On his first run of promotion for a startling debut novel, Rainbow Milk, author Paul Mendez said his book could only have been written and published to land at the start of a new decade: the 2020s. “Rainbow Milk is about being a Black queer man in Britain,” he says now, sitting in the window of a quiet Hampstead café. “It’s a book about Black intersectionality.” Released in April this year, the story already feels like a modern classic. During Black History Month, we will find out whether its nomination for The Gordon Burn Prize turns into a first major award. Many blanched at its exclusion from the Booker Longlist. Outside, the Heath has the dusty summer glow of an amateur watercolour, while reminding us its thickets contain some of the secrets Mendez casually explodes in his beautiful first book. Rainbow Milk is motored by the multiple engines of sexuality, race, religion, class and music. It braids narratives of a Windrush generation immigrant (Norman Alonso) with a 21st century sex worker, disfellowshipped from the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Jesse McCarthy) together into a perfect knot. They share a thread of hometowns in the depleted West Midlands, where their stories eventually resolve. Mendez excavates Jesse’s intersectionality to draw a whole swathe of new, universal human truths which prick the reader in unusual places.

Perhaps to remind us of the importance of music to his book, Paul is today wearing a t-shirt with a print of Henri Fantin-Latour’s ‘A Basket of Roses’, the painting Peter Saville deployed to artful effect on the jacket of New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies. As on the pages of his book, Mendez’s conversational metre on music is expert and personal. One of the loveliest curiosities of the book is his shoehorning unusual pop suspects into the literary canon. A whole chapter is framed by one particular mix of a Sugababes song. Jay-Z’s masterful The Blueprint arcs a foiled, closeted teenage seduction. When his hero crashes into love in a sweeping, cinematic Christmas Day centrepiece, it begins with his discovery of Joy Division and ends with him enveloped in the tough comfort of Mary J Blige. In Hampstead, I’ve never heard a gay man distil the potency of Beyonce’s raw power better than Mendez. And I’ve heard a lot try.

When Rainbow Milk hits, it hits with a specific emotional acuity which feels both fresh and familiar. There is a lot of very real and recognisable sex in it, mostly between Black and white men, a new accent for British fiction. “In a way,” he says, “my responsibility – even though I can only see this in hindsight – was to honour the objectification of the white body from a Black male perspective, which I have certainly never read before. Sex has always been from their perspective.”

Much of the book is drawn directly from Mendez’s life. “I’ve created a character who’s very different from me while living some of the same life,” he explains of Jesse. Paul is also a disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witness and former sex worker. He grew up in the West Midlands and, like Jesse began his early catering industry working life behind the counter of a Wolverhampton McDonalds. There’s some fun to be had for London-literate readers working out what the real versions of the fancy restaurants Jesse works at when he arrives in the capital actually are.

He says his expectations for Rainbow Milk were necessarily modest prior to publishing. “Its success is such a surprise to me,” he says. “At heart, it is a critique, disembowelling white supremacy and white masculinity.” In this context, whether his book is littered with awards or not hardly matters. It is now part of British Black History. “Black boys are allowed to exist until they do the slightest thing wrong,” he notes, “and then they are crushed. We live in a world in which Black men are not allowed to fail. I have managed to pull myself back from that and to succeed in some way. But that is not a given for me and I don’t feel safe with that acclaim. There is always something in the back of my mind, a gut feeling that this is temporary and I need to enjoy it for what it is.”

Rainbow Milk is out now via Dialogue Books and the Gordon Burn Prize is announced on 15th October 2020. Click the image of Mendez to begin reading his Baker's Dozen selections