Pigeon English

Pigeon English Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Stephen Kelman

Stephen Kelman grew up on the Marsh Farm council estate in Luton, a town in Bedfordshire near London. As a child, he lived in a multiethnic community much like Harri’s and witnessed the effects of poverty, crime, and violence firsthand. However, he notes that although violence was a problem, gang activity (and particularly knife crime) was not as significant an issue during his childhood as it is now. Kelman wanted to be a writer from the age of six or seven, but he studied marketing at the University of Bedfordshire and worked as a warehouse operative, care worker, and in local administration. In 2005, he decided to commit himself to writing. His first novel, Pigeon English, was picked from a “slush pile” by his agent. The novel was published in 2011 and received a host of awards, including the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Galaxy National Book Award for a new writer, the Guardian First Book Award, the Writers’ Guild Award for Fiction, and the Man Booker Prize. Kelman has since published a second novel, Man on Fire, in 2016.
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Historical Context of Pigeon English

Stephen Kelman has stated in interviews that he was partially inspired to write Pigeon English by the 2000 murder of Damilola Taylor, a ten-year-old boy who had recently immigrated to London from Lagos, Nigeria. Damilola was stabbed by two older boys and left to bleed to death in a stairwell in Peckham, a neighborhood in London that was known for its high crime rate. Taylor’s murder brought the issue of rising knife crime to the attention of the British public. Knife crime continues to be a topical issue in the UK and particularly in London, with 40,000 knife-related offences recorded by police in 2017. Besides knife crime, Pigeon English also addresses issues related to immigration. In 2010, one year before Pigeon English was published, a coalition government led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron began to implement a harsher immigration policy, particularly influenced by the notoriously anti-immigration Home Secretary Theresa May. In 2010, May instituted the “hostile environment” policy, nicknamed as such after she commented that she aimed to “create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.” Anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK culminated in the 2016 “Brexit” referendum, in which a majority of British voters elected to leave the European Union.

Other Books Related to Pigeon English

Pigeon English has been compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), which is also based on the framework of the detective novel and recreates the unique voice of an adolescent boy (in this case, an autistic teenager). Like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Emma Donaghue’s Room (2010), and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2004), Pigeon English is written for adults but told from a child’s perspective (however, like some of these other books, Pigeon English is a crossover book, meaning that it has also been marketed and read as a young adult novel). In addition, like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003), Pigeon English depicts a multiethnic community navigating issues of pluralism and prejudice in the heart of London. 
Key Facts about Pigeon English
  • Full Title: Pigeon English
  • Where Written: Marsh Farm Estate, Luton, UK
  • When Published: 2011
  • Literary Period: Twenty-first-century British Fiction
  • Genre: Crossover Young Adult/Literary Fiction
  • Setting: A fictional neighborhood in London, UK
  • Climax: During the scuffle between Harri, Dean, and the Dell Farm Crew, when the picture of the dead boy falls onto the ground.
  • Antagonist: The Dell Farm Crew, especially Killa; Miquita
  • Point of View: Harri Opoku, with occasional interludes from the perspective of the pigeon

Extra Credit for Pigeon English

Next step, the small screen. Pigeon English was sold to the BBC for a “high six-figure sum” and will be adapted into a television series.

Reading for all. As well as being included in school curricula, Pigeon English has been used to help encourage reading within prisons.