Benjamin Dean: “There’s endless things I can discover about myself”
The author on finding his people and leaning into his identity
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to author and journalist Benjamin Dean, whose second young adult novel, The Secret Sunshine Project, is out on Thursday. Benjamin hasn’t always felt connected to his Blackness, but after a journey of discovery, is excited by the prospect of exploring aspects of his identity. Read Benjamin’s story below.
How do you define your ethnicity?
I probably say I’m Black more than I say I’m mixed. I’ve started to battle with that recently, especially through my writing. Recently I was writing a story and referred to a mixed character as “the first Black…” I didn’t want to offend anyone by calling the character Black when they’re not monoracial.
Has anyone ever told you that you’re not Black?
No, but I have feared that it might happen. If it did, I hope it would open up a dialogue between me and that person. I don’t get to choose not to be Black – it’s complex and complicated, and something I’ve only started to digest now. I get a little bit more comfortable the older I get.
You don’t have a relationship with your dad – has that impacted your sense of self?
It’s probably the biggest aspect of how I look at my identity. I haven’t had a relationship with him for over 12 years, and when we did have a relationship, it wasn’t what I wanted. My first book, Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow, was almost me putting on paper the kind of relationship I wish I’d had with my dad.
Growing up, I was physically different – I lived in a white family in Peterborough, a white neighbourhood, and went to a nearly all-white school. I can probably count the amount of Black people in my year on one hand, but I never knew any different so I didn’t feel like I was missing out. When I went to uni in Manchester, I started to make Black friends and connect with that side of my identity more without even realising. I think I’d stepped back from my Blackness before because I wasn’t surrounded by that culture. I’ve had to explore that side of myself as I’ve grown up.
So how did you connect with your Blackness at university?
Food, for sure. My whole family is all about roast dinners and hearty pies, while my Black friends would tell me about curried goat and jerk chicken. I’d hear about traditions my other friends would have at home, and my family didn’t do those things, even down to never having a skin fade before uni. Barber shops used to be my biggest fear, I almost felt like an intruder in that space, like I was going to get called out for not being Black enough.
All of that made me resent my dad more, I felt robbed of a part of my identity that I’ve not been able to connect with. I felt so much anger and frustration that I never even got a choice in the matter.
How does your mixedness interact with your sexuality?
It didn’t help that when I was trying to discover elements of my identity like my queerness, most of the people I encountered were white. There has been some collision between those two identities – I feel conscious of one identity when I'm in spaces of the other and vice versa. Recently, I’ve enjoyed exploring both of those identities in tangent. Making queer mixed or Black friends has made the experience better, making me feel like less of a sore thumb.
Does your mixed heritage influence your writing?
When I was first writing Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow, I hadn’t physically described [main character] Archie, I think I may have made him white. I wanted the book to have the best chance of selling to a publisher, and I didn’t have anyone to look at and see that the door was open for that. My agent encouraged me to make Archie mixed, and now in hindsight I feel silly for not being confident in doing that.
For The Secret Sunshine Project, I made the main family Black and that was almost me giving myself permission to lean into those identities.
What’s one of the best things about being mixed?
I get to explore different parts of myself, and figure out things I didn’t know before. You identify with more than one community, and the fact that I’m mixed and gay, I feel like there’s endless things I can discover about myself. That’s not me saying if you’re a singular race you only have a certain set of things to figure out, but being mixed opens up tangents and strings that come off that. I find it very positive.
Can you sum up your mixed experience in a word?
Infinite. It leans into discovering new added elements of myself, I don’t think there’s even an end point to that.
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Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.