Rainbow Milk author Paul Mendez sits down with Zibby to discuss how his “story of overcoming indoctrination” came to be. He details the role method acting played in his character creation, the story’s parallels to his own life, and the Windrush generation that served as the novel’s inspiration.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Paul. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Rainbow Milk.

Paul Mendez: Thank you very much for having me.

Zibby: I don’t think I have ever read as effusive a letter from an editor as the one that is in the front of this arc from Margo Shickmanter. I’ve never heard people rave. Tell me all about this book and how you came up with the idea for it, what the writing process was like, and what it’s even about. I know. For people listening.

Paul: Of course, my pleasure. Thank you so much. Rainbow Milk is the story of three generations from the same black British family. The book starts with a fifty-page first-person narrative rendering in Jamaican Creole by a gentleman who’s moved to the UK from Jamaica in the late 1950s as a member of what later came to be called the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants. He was fit and healthy, just got married, traveled with his young wife, and now has a young family, but has immediately come upon a physical disability unexpectedly, some health problems, and also, a real shock at the realities of British life on British soil. Britain always taught citizens from its colonies, it gave a particular sort of sense of its reputation, let’s say, abroad. Then when you get here on British soil, you realize that people were very, very different and that it’s not as you thought it would be with the streets paved with gold and every man being like Mr. Darcy and every woman being like something as per Jane Austen as well. That gives us the first fifty pages just to give us a bit of context into the sort of heritage that — Jesse is not aware of himself. Jesse in our main protagonist.

Zibby: With the first fifty pages, by the way, the physical disability being blindness or semi-blindness made it very tricky to take care of the kids. The fact that he could barely even see where anybody was — he’s like, “I think that’s the little girl. I think that’s your sister. Could you watch her?” It made me think about all these things related to parenting and that particular type of disability. Anyway, we can talk about that later. Sorry to cut you off. Go ahead.

Paul: No, if you want to talk about that, it’s a very interesting point. I did a bit of acting a few years ago. One of the ways I was able to access Norman’s character was — I’m childless myself, but I was living with a family at the time in South London, so a couple with a then two-year-old son. His toys were all over the place. It’s a family home. Everything’s absolutely elsewhere. I did a bit of method acting to help access Norman’s character. I did actually tie a blindfold around myself. I’m not saying that this is an approximation of a blind person’s experience, but it just gave me a real insight into, okay, I’ve lived in this house for five years, I know where everything is, but as soon as I can’t see anything, I’m absolutely petrified. I don’t know where the stairs are. I don’t know what toys are where. I don’t know which piece of clothing is where. I realized that Norman, being this six-foot-four former boxer, this very huge man with two tiny little toddlers running around or crawling around him, he would be scared of trampling them underfoot. There’s a moment where he trips over a telephone wire and drops and collapses and really scares the children. He’s very, very constantly aware of his peripherals and where his limbs are at all times. That was an interesting experience in terms of accessing his character. It also raises questions about the institutional racism that he faced being a big black man in his early thirties and being physically imposing. Doctors didn’t take his health condition seriously, with absolutely disastrous consequences. That gives us a little bit of background knowledge into Jesse’s inherited trauma and the legacy of being a descendant of the Windrush generation.

Zibby: The other side effect of his blindness in that section, too, was not knowing even who was being mean to him, who was trampling on his garden or who was stealing flowers or whatever. He had to rely on —

Paul: — A lot of things happened. There’s someone who his neighbor claims is coming to — Norman has planted a beautiful and fragrant rose garden in his front yard and also other vegetation at the back including jasmine because English neighbors are saying, “These West Indians with their smelly cooking.” Everything that he does in England is calculated against being racially abused, basically. A neighbor has said that because his roses are the envy of the estate, people are approaching with secateurs to take cuttings and everything. Also, more sinisterly, there was a spat of vandalism against the homes of people of West Indian origin in Britain in the late 1950s and 60s where the initials KBW, standing for Keep Britain White, were painted on their doors almost in a kind of — what was that story in Genesis of painting across on the doors of people with the plague? It reminds me a little bit of that. He had a brick through his window. He is, again, a man with a wife and two small children whom he feels obliged, obviously, to protect. He’s not doing anything to hurt anyone. He’s not doing anything to upset anyone. He’s an exceptionally polite and kind person, hardworking person. Yet he gets that treatment from people. All of this really only came to my attention — I’m the descendent myself of the Windrush generation.

For American listeners who aren’t aware of the Windrush generation, they’re so named after the ship SS Empire Windrush that docked on the 22nd of June 1948 at Tilbury on the south coast of England bringing 492 mostly male, mostly Jamaican people, some of whom were returning servicemen, others of whom were coming to the UK for the first time. That was when the UK changed its law to say that all Commonwealth citizens were now British citizens and that they could come and live and work in the UK and help the post-war effort. It’s since been uncovered by, particularly, a black British historian, David Olusoga, that that invitation was only supposed to have been extended to Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand former Commonwealth members, essentially, white people who could come live and work, marry English girls, and be absorbed into the population. Britain created such a terrible problem for itself with American black GIs coming to help the war effort, staying in towns, meeting English women, and creating brown babies. That was considered to be a big problem in the UK and something that the government at the highest level were trying to eradicate. Now they’d created this, again, so-called problem for themselves by not stating specifically. They couldn’t really do what they’d condemned Nazi Germany for doing during the war and be specifically racist. They couldn’t do that. People like Winston Churchill were sending frantic memos through the houses of parliament saying, “Oh, my god, what do we do? We’ve just created a monster. Now this whole ship carrying 492 mostly black men are coming to work here and live here.”

That is the start of what we call the Windrush generation. My grandparents belong to that. They came here, all four of them, from Jamaica in the late 1950s. The Windrush scandal broke in the news at the end of 2017. Descendants of the Windrush generation who had traveled here as children on their parents’ passports, their landing cards had been burned back in 2010, I think it was, by the home office who then went back to these same people and said, “Could you prove that you can live here legally?” Of course, nobody can prove the whole time that they’ve been here. They can’t produce a receipt from 1972, for instance. These people were being deported. They were having their benefits taken away. They couldn’t apply for jobs. They couldn’t do anything. People died. This scandal broke towards the end of 2017 and got me really thinking about my grandparents’ generation, what their lives must have been like at that time moving to this completely racist country with absolutely no sort of structure for them to succeed in any way. My grandmother came here as a single woman. She didn’t meet her husband, my grandfather, who apparently is from the same parish in Jamaica, but they didn’t know each other — they met here. What would it be like for a young black woman who’s left two children from a previous relationship back home hoping to send for them? This Windrush scandal, they would’ve been asked to prove that they’ve been here for such-and-such time. Because my grandparents have always been very circumspect about their stories, and I think reasonably so because of the trauma attached, they’ve never really been able to speak about it. Now they’re all dying. I only have one grandparent left. She’s in a care home now.

Zibby: What about the children they left behind? Did they ever come? What happened to them?

Paul: The children they left behind, on my maternal side, the grandmother I’ve just been talking about, her oldest son died sometime in the early eighties, I believe. None of us ever met him. The other child now lives in New York. We have an every-few-years telephone conversation. She used to call my grandmother’s house. We’d all take turns to speak for two minutes. What do you say to someone who you’ve never really seen? You’ve never been to New York. She’s never been to the West Midlands. It’s kind of like, what do you say? She sent a really lovely message across at my grandmother’s funeral. That’s kind of it. There’s no real engagement there. Then on the other side, my paternal grandmother also had two children. She left two sons behind in Jamaica, moved over here, and started a new family. They’ve both grown up and had children of their own and I think are both doing very well last I heard. Still, it’s your mother who’s leaving you to live with your grandmother or your aunts or something. You’re six, seven years old. She was like, “Give it a couple years while I settle down. I promise I’ll send for you.” Norman, who introduces the story in Rainbow Milk, is based on my paternal grandfather who did go blind and who got sent back to Jamaica because my grandmother couldn’t look after him and work and look after two new children. That’s a really devastating situation. I’m sure as a mother, you can absolutely appreciate leaving two children behind and then having to make a decision about whether you get to send for them or not. Maybe that decision is not in your power because you haven’t got the money. You haven’t got the circumstances. You haven’t got the infrastructure. You haven’t got the people around, a support network. Very difficult. I got to meet them, those two uncles. They came over to England around 1991. I lived around the corner from my grandmother, so I got to spend quite a lot of time with them. It was really funny because they were really into country and Western music.

Zibby: Who knew?

Paul: One of them gave me this tape and bought me a tape player to play these country and Western songs on. I was just like, okay, but I thought that you’d be into reggae or something.

Zibby: No luck.

Paul: That was just me putting my expectations on them as Jamaican men. This is my heritage. This is my story. Black kids in Britain growing up are not really empowered to include their personal narratives and heritage in the bigger picture of what British history is. We don’t learn about these things in school. We don’t learn about the Windrush generation. That’s something that’s, I suppose, been introduced during Black History Month over the past ten or fifteen years. I certainly didn’t have any knowledge when I was younger. I am in a minority in that sense because I know other young black people who had a supplementary school education on a Saturday, for instance, where groups of black mothers and fathers would open up their homes on a Saturday and have lots of kids around. They’d talk about their heritage. There’d be homework club. Sometimes it would be sort of connected to the church as well. Again, I was completely outside of all of that because of my parents being Jehovah’s Witnesses and growing up in a very white, working-class community where our blackness had to sort of be buried, I think for survival reasons. That’s one of the things that I go into with Jesse’s narrative, which comprises the vast bulk of the book.

It’s a third-person narrative, but he’s speaking, if you like, at the beginning of the twenty-first century as a teenager, devout Jehovah’s Witness. His mother married a white man when Jesse was four years old. He’s never known his birth father. He’s been raised basically to treat his blackness as a disability or as a chronic condition that you manage. The main narrative of your life should follow that of the mainstream white leaning towards right-wing kind of narrative. He’s been taught and really absorbed everything that he’s taught. He’s really internalized everything, but he’s gay. That is something that is absolutely anathema to his religion. It’s something that he gets punished for. He gets ostracized completely from his organization. Rainbow Milk, the novel, really is a story of overcoming indoctrination, de-indoctrinizing yourself in the way that you feel is the only way to do that. Jesse does it through sex work and through immersing himself in the things that he’s had to suppress for his whole life. It is through the people he meets and the difficult situations that he puts himself in that inspire love and care in others that helps him to create a new chosen family and also to then have the safety and comfort to be able to look back at his heritage and find out who he is and where he’s from and who his family really are. Sorry, that was a very long answer.

Zibby: That was great. Well, our time here is up, but thank you. No, I’m kidding. Wow, that was a great answer. Gosh, this is why I love doing these types of conversations because I wish I had known how much of that came from a place of personal experience. It just infuses characters with even more meaning, imagining this as your grandfather versus just the man who’s in the garden who feels less than for being a stay-at-home dad, essentially, at a time when that was not accepted at all as a thing, and having people even give him a hard time for that. Oh, too bad your wife has to go out and work. Yet he’s like, I’m trying to stay alive here. It’s just amazing. By the way, your history, you should be a history professor in your spare time. The way you speak and your obvious extensive knowledge, it’s very impressive. You should do little workshops or something.

Paul: Thank you. There’s a lot that we’re learning from — we have some brilliant historians now. It’s a huge difference between black British culture and African American culture. Black British culture and history has only really played out here in a kind of — in terms of big numbers of black British people living in this country and being activists and resisting and creating change, that’s only really been since the Windrush generation, seventy years. Of course, there have been black people living in Britain for a lot longer than that, since the eighteenth century in large numbers. Even going back to Roman times, there were Africans living in the UK. Where it’s different from African American history is, that’s four hundred years where black and white people have lived together systematically. You had this constant dialogue of race relations in the US. The way that civil rights unfolded here — when I say here, I mean in the US — the way that Black Lives Matter unfolded in the US, all other diasporas where black people live all over the world look to America because that’s where white and black people have lived together for over four hundred years.

For us, it’s very different. It’s been a case of, who is empowered? It has taken several generations to find scholars. Even now, in big 2021, there are only half a dozen black British literature professors in this country, in the whole country. It’s just a case of, who has the ability? Who has the confidence to take on the history and the historiography? I am a student of black British literature. I chose to do that because for me, it’s a radical thing to be taught black history from black voices in this country. In America, it’s different because you have HBCUs. We don’t have that. We don’t have black middle-class neighborhoods or anything. We have black working-class neighborhoods that have since been gentrified out of existence. The ownness is on us now to try to absorb the knowledge. It’s me. The history is still alive in me and still evolving in me. I am third generation. If it’s not me, then who? Again, that’s part of the reason for writing Rainbow Milk, certainly in terms of some of the more essayistic moments, let’s say, in the novel where I think I sort of lost control a little bit and starting ranting about certain aspects of the experience. I’m really glad that it struck a chord with you.

Zibby: For sure. How did you even approach writing this? Just tell me about that more. Tell me how this became a book. You obviously have so many big ideas and can speak so eloquently and write so eloquently about all of it. How do you even choose where to begin to make the biggest impact?

Paul: Again, thank you. I should stress that Rainbow Milk is fiction. This story of Norman may be based on my paternal grandfather, but I knew so little about him that I had to create most of it from scratch. I did a lot of research, did a lot of method acting, as I’ve said, and managed to be able to just create this environment around it. I’m from the Black Country, which is an area in the West Midlands that for two or three hundred years was basically the workshop of the world. It’s the seat of the Industrial Revolution, chain-making, coal mining, glassmaking, etc. Still, sixty percent of the world’s chain for ships are made in Cradley Heath, which is the next borough along from where I was born. It’s a place of generation after generation after generation of heavy industry where kids didn’t really need to go to school and they don’t really need to invest in an education because they know that they’re going to follow their forefathers into those jobs. That ended in the early 1980s with Margaret Thatcher’s government, the slow — well, quite quick, actually, deindustrialization of the country. That’s a historical monument now. That was something I really threw myself into researching in order to create this environment around Norman so that his little individual story could really sing within that great, big, black cloud of heavy industry. At the same time as the decline of heavy industry was happening, you’ve got the Windrush generation coming in and taking jobs. The white working-class people here started to rise up and say, who are these people? Who are these people from the jungle coming to have sex with our wives and take our jobs?

You had people like Enoch Powell, the conservative MP who made a speech at a counsel in Birmingham where he said, “In ten years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man,” whipping up racial tension. Ten years before that, there’d already been riots. You factor all of these things in. You create something that’s part of the real history. In terms of Jesse’s story, it’s much closer to mine in terms of, we’re both from the Black Country. We both grew up as Jehovah’s Witnesses. We’re both gay. We both were disfellowshipped from our religious community and both became sex workers and both became writers. The emotional trajectory of Jesse’s story is very similar to what I’ve been through. I have a black father who’s always been there. I created the stepfather character in order to have an easier access to the discussion on how black masculinity can be trampled on by white masculinity and by the white patriarchy and it being the status quo of survival and success and education and all of those other things that we judge people on. Once I’d created his character, that was a real way of stepping away from myself. I’ve been through lots of trauma, lots of difficulties in life.

It’s interesting, I’m speaking to you as the “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read” podcast because motherhood is a very fascinating subject for me. It was something that I had to minimize my attention on in terms of the novel. I have a mother. I have a relationship with her that’s very difficult. I couldn’t write about that. I had to write about something else. I had to create a mother character and write about her and write her through Jesse. Again, the emotional trajectory might be the same, but I had to do something different because my mother’s alive and I don’t want to offend her. She’s a mother. She has her reasons for the way she raises her children. That’s not for me to say or to judge. What I can do is show how a mother withdrawing her love for her child can impact that child forever, not just during childhood, but deep into adult years. That day where you’re feeling bad, you’re depressed, you’re upset, nothing’s going right, who’s the one person you want to call? She doesn’t respond. That’s really hard to take. The only way, really, for me to deal with something like that is to write about it. I may have a little bit more money now. Back then when I was writing, I couldn’t afford a therapist, so it all came out in writing. I just had a lot of material. I had a lot of personal trauma-based stuff to get through.

It started out as a memoir, a sort of fragmentary memoir. My publisher encouraged me to write fiction because, A, she could see that I wasn’t saying certain things for fear of upsetting people. B, I was just reopening wounds, and it wasn’t doing me any favors. It’s cathartic in the first instance in terms of actually just getting it out, but actually doing it for an audience is another thing altogether because then you’re performing your trauma. That’s not good. That doesn’t help anyone. She’s like, “I’ll give you a book deal, but write a novel. Same everything, but just write a novel.” So I did. I kept it in first person, and I was still reopening the wounds. Five months late, I said, “I’m really sorry, but I have to start again and rewrite this in third person. I have to try it, at least.” I did. I immediately felt the difference because it wasn’t me anymore. It’s a really simple technique, just to switch from “I am” to “they are.” It just made all the difference because I wasn’t actually in the body of the character anymore. I was a camera on their shoulder. I was able to see the same things and retell the same kind of story from that perspective, but I was detached from it. I was almost playing God with my own story. It completely freed me. It became a joy. I was able to do the same research that I did for Norman, but transferred to the late nineties and early two thousands Black Country post-deindustrialization where you’ve just got, basically, loads of derelict buildings and loads of people unemployed and kids starting to try harder at school, but not all of them, and then transfer that to early twentieth-century London. London has changed so much since I’ve lived here. It was a really interesting exercise to be able to position us back in that time. Again, it becomes historical. That’s Rainbow Milk.

Zibby: Amazing. Obviously, we could talk for another three hours about all of this. I’m sorry that we have to end now. Wow, thank you. Thank you for telling me the whole backstory. I’m telling you, you should do a MasterClass.

Paul: Well, I’ve been talking about this novel for a year now, so I think I’ve had lots of practice.

Zibby: Okay, sorry.

Paul: No, I love it. It’s great.

Zibby: Even still. Paul, thank you so much. Thanks for bringing Rainbow Milk into the world. I will just say for everybody at home, do not try to parent with a blindfold on. It will not work at all. Take the blindfold off.

Paul: Not when you have rainbow bookshelves, anyway.

Zibby: Exactly. There we go. Thank you so much. Best of luck.

Paul: Thank you, Zibby. Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Paul: Thank you. Buh-bye.


RAINBOW MILK by Paul Mendez

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