FV1’s Bayar Hassan talks to award-winning writer and fellow dyslexic, Benjamin Zephaniah
Bayar: So Benjamin, you’re dyslexic and left school at 13 and yet you’ve gone on to write novels, plays and poems. How did you learn how to write?
Benjamin: Writing for me is two things. The physical thing of writing it down and then the ideas. Now, dyslexia has nothing at all to do with your ideas. Some of the most intelligent, loving caring, compassionate people I know are dyslexic. They can’t spell dyslexia, but they are caring. When I started doing poetry it was actually poetry for performance, so I wasn’t that concerned about writing it down. It wasn’t until I met educated people who said: ‘This is wonderful poetry, you must publish a book,’ that I started writing it down. But even when I came to writing it down, I had to use my own sort of code for myself. I’d use words that made sense to me, like ‘dis’ and ‘dat’; so I do this kind of phonetic spelling.
Bayar: How did you get the confidence to go for it?
Benjamin: When I first discovered I was dyslexic, I looked at the people who weren’t dyslexic and decided they are no better than me. NO BETTER THAN ME! Their intelligence level isn’t necessarily better than my level of intelligence. Don’t get me wrong - reading and writing is important. Learning to read and write opens doors. But the problems that go with dyslexia, like reading and writing, is a kind of stumbling block that we can work around. There are a lot of people who speak proper English and can write very well, but do we understand them? Do we understand most politicians when they speak?
Benjamin: They’ve got the highest education in the country and they talk a load of gobbledygook! When they could say something simply they use a lot of words to show off their education, but to the common people, no one understands them!
Bayar: So when you write poetry you make sure people aren’t intimidated?
Benjamin: Most people ignore most poetry and most poetry ignores most people. I want to write poetry that does involve people... I’m not showing my education off - I don’t have one to show off. I want to connect with people.
Bayar: What made you go into poetry in the first place?
Benjamin: Well, I love playing with words verbally and, then - this may sound grand - but I wanted to change the world and I realised by writing poetry you can affect the way people think. You can make people think. You can make people listen to you in a completely different way how they'd listen if you were giving a normal speech from a podium.
Bayar: Educate people in a sense?
Benjamin: I’m not the most educated person but, yes certainly. When I was growing up there were few black politicians. Very few black leaders.You would get these people called ‘experts’ on black people who would come on television. I remember when I lived in Handsworth in Birmingham and them saying on TV, 'Right, now we have a leader of the black community,’ and they would get this guy and I would think: ‘Who is he? He is no leader of the black community! You’ve come from the church down the road with six people in your congregation every Sunday and you’re a leader of the black community?' If you don’t write your story yourself, someone else will do it for you. And if they write it for you, you shouldn’t complain. So you’ve got to get out there and write it.
Bayar: That is very, very true. I got into poetry to express myself. The poetry helped me branch out my experience of school because a lot of times I was very singled out. Being dyslexic, I had special needs and they thought: ‘He doesn’t know anything.’
Benjamin: Well, I was dyslexic at school but even the teachers, at that time, didn’t know what dyslexia was so we couldn’t have a conversation about it, so I was just seen as the awkward one. If I was given something to read, I couldn’t understand it and I would start looking out the window and the teacher would come over and say: ‘Why are you looking out the window?’ and I would say: ‘Well, I can’t connect with this.’ And the teacher would say: ‘Why can’t you read that. It’s a simple book. Can’t you understand it?’ and then I remember having some sort of conflict with the teacher and be sent out the class.
Bayar: I respected my teachers a lot at school, but my education wasn’t great because they didn’t trust me. I ended up walking out with all Bs and Cs, which I was actually quite happy about, but I wasn’t guided enough. Do you think the curriculum could be improved to help dyslexic young people better?
Benjamin: To me, school needs to be broadened out so that teachers know how to deal with dyslexia properly – in a way that recognises the difference positively. The important thing for anyone with dyslexia is you’ve got to overcome people’s misconceptions. And how you overcome these is being good at what you do. My mantra is: 'Dyslexia is not a measure of intelligence.’
I would like to see people with special needs – for want of a better word – integrated into the class and see a wider range of needs met. For example, some may not have special educational needs, but they might have problems at home. I used to go to school in the morning having watched my father beat my mother. Do you expect me to go to school and be a nice boy? So it’s difficult... But, I have to say this, in one sentence: Governments don’t care. Governments keep going on about targets, but they are not investing in education and funding cuts to education are only going to worsen support for dyslexics and other people with special needs.
Bayer: Young people tell Futureversity school isn’t preparing for them work. Most say they don’t have the confidence to talk about their talents and worry about getting stuck working below their aspirations. How do you think society and school needs to change?
Benjamin: I’m a professor of Brunel University now and you know I’ve been a Patron of Futureversity a long time. Futureversity focuses on what you can do - it could be music, it could be journalism and so on. I think one of the problems is that different governments keep saying everyone has to go to university. I have a friend who can’t read and write, but if you put him under the bonnet of an engine he can get on and do it because he’s very practical; very hands on... I couldn’t go to the Jobcentre and say: ‘I want to be a poet.’ You still can’t do that. It amazes me. You can only say: ‘I want to be a computer programmer or a bus driver.’ This is a shame.
Bayer: So experience is better than how much theory you know?
Benjamin: It’s all right knowing about stuff, but you’ve got to be able to DO stuff.
Bayer: Dyslexia annoys people. I have to use concepts and images to explain my ideas and sometimes people get annoyed. How does dyslexia affect your life socially and in relationships?
Benjamin: To be honest sometimes people come up to me and put their arms around me and kiss me and say: ‘Oh, we are both dyslexic!’ like we are in a family or a club, so in the creative arts, actually it’s not a hindrance at all. But I can understand if there people who think everything should be measured by your marks and ability to read things perfectly. The important thing is you’ve got to overcome these people. And how you overcome these people is being good at what you do. Being confident in yourself and being good at what you do. Like I said, it’s my mantra - please write it down somewhere - 'dyslexia is not a measure of intelligence'.
Bayer: What about getting a job? When I go for job interviews, people say: ‘We don’t want you to make a mistake,’ and I really don’t want to scare them off. What do you think are the job prospects for dyslexic people?
Benjamin: I would be very disheartened and very depressed if employers were turning dyslexics away. Dyslexia isn’t about your ability to make good judgements. I have to do marking at university and students are using words I haven’t even come across, but there are tools like spell checks to help me. And it hasn’t stopped me doing my work as a professor.
Bayar: That’s brilliant. Thank you Dr Zephaniah. Your wisdom means a lot to me. I think I might have just shaken a titanium hand!