This article was first published in Attitude issue 323, July 2020
Words: Thomas Stichbury
First time’s the charm for promising author Paul Mendez, one of the most exciting and vital voices on the queer literary scene.
His debut novel Rainbow Milk, out now, is a semi-autobiographical story following 19-year-old Jesse as he tussles with his sexuality after being disowned by his mother and stepdad and his Jehovah’s Witness community in the Black Country. After escaping to London in a bid to finally live his truth, Jesse finds himself turning to sex work.
In the book, facts meld with fiction as Paul revisits and remaps his past in this timely tale that navigates sexual identity, race, heritage, class and, ultimately, the importance of finding your chosen family.
Mendez’ novel made The Observer’s list of titles to look out for in 2020, and featured in its top ten debuts of the year. After lapping up the book in a single weekend, Attitude eagerly jumped on the phone to Paul – who is also studying for an MA in Black British Writing at Goldsmiths – to discuss the, at times, painful writing process, how he now views the experiences he lived through, and the necessity of sharing stories from ‘minority’ writers.
How did Rainbow Milk come about?
I had always written for myself, cathartically, just to explain how things were going; to keep in touch with myself, really. I’d gone from growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness in the Black Country to then becoming a sex worker and living without my family in London, trying to make a life, make new friends, find love. The idea for writing a novel came from reading James Baldwin [and] Donna Tartt in the summer of 2002, then Alan Hollinghurst and Proust a few years later. I knew from then on that I wanted to become a writer.
What was the writing process like for you?
Because of the life that I’ve led, the things that I’ve been through and the subjects that I cover, I found it very difficult to be anything other than confessional. I didn’t know how my material would become fiction, especially because you don’t see black, queer, male fictional characters anyway, especially handled by black, queer, male authors. Indeed, one of the most memorable black, queer characters I can think of was Leo in Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, who was a model for me in many ways in terms of writing about Jesse.
In the summer of 2012, I met Sharmaine Lovegrove at a birthday party in Hackney. Five years later, I heard she was becoming a publisher at Dialogue Books – an imprint that would prioritise the voices of LGBT black and minority ethnic authors – and I sent her my work on her first day in the job. It was a manuscript that I’d cut together from years and years’ worth of essays, observation writing, confessional writing and poetry, but I ordered it in a narrative thread. I wanted her to see what I can do and what I was about.
Like a mood board.
I’ve never thought about it like that, but that’s perfect. She passed it on to a colleague who was the commissioner, then, of Little, Brown, and he decided to purchase the book and give me a two-book deal. Then I panicked [laughs].
How autobiographical is Rainbow Milk? How did you decide what to root in fact, and which bits to wrap in fiction?
It follows a similar structure to the life I’ve led, in that Jesse’s story starts off as him being a Jehovah’s Witness, him being disfellowshipped from his congregation, then moving to London and becoming a sex worker, and also tiny details like the “that man” section [where Jesse suffers an anal injury from a client and fears he has contracted HIV]. Those moments are lifted straight from my life, but that’s kind of it. I created the characters and situations, based vaguely on positions I had been in, and with people I’d been in the situations with.
One of the reasons that it had to be a novel is that it’s incredibly painful, as you can imagine, to write about some of the things you’ve been through, to dig these memories out of yourself and remain in those times and spaces long enough to get the details out of them. Writing fiction gave me an opportunity to say, ‘Something like this happened to me, but I’m going to write about it in a completely different house with a completely different person and they’re going to have their own individual thing going on, separate to the situation I lived through.’ It is using autobiography as a template, but it’s then utilising different observations and imagination to create a story.
How did you feel revisiting those moments, even though they are framed by fiction? Was it cathartic, or triggering?
A bit of both at times, [but] because I found a way of writing fiction, it was enjoyable. I made things happen at a different time in Jesse’s life than they happened in mine. For example, I moved to London in 2004, and I had Jesse move there in 2002, and I used 'Freak Like Me' by Sugababes, which was number one at the time as the way in for Jesse, because of the sense of hope that a great pop song can give you. Music has such a huge role [in the book].
I can’t remember the last time I read a book while simultaneously adding songs to my Spotify playlist. What song kept you going while you were writing?
Definitely 'Freak Like Me' – the 'We Don’t Give a Damn' mix, obviously. I have always done everything to music – it puts me in a place where I can concentrate and relax at the same time.
As you mentioned earlier, you grew up in the Black Country and left the Jehovah’s Witness at the age of 17. How difficult was it to unstitch yourself from a religion that had played such a huge part in your life?
I cut out a lot of the in-betweens that I lived through, and just gave Jesse licence to say, once he’d been disfellowshipped, ‘OK, if they don’t want me, then I’m going to live my own truth.’ I did not have the bravery or sense of self to do that, and I almost wish I had, notwithstanding the fact I’m healthy and have got away with it. If I had done what I did when I was younger and even less experienced than I was at 22, who knows where I’d be right now? I let Jesse move to London almost straight away and explore his sexuality and become a sex worker.
With me, I had a more roundabout experience. I moved to Tonbridge to study at the University of Greenwich and started a degree in engineering. I quit that after nine months, but I stayed in Kent because I’d made friends and did my A-level in English Literature – as you can imagine, being disfellowshipped at 17, my education was very much disrupted. I started writing in 2002, moved back to Birmingham, met someone who encouraged me to study acting, [and then] I applied to this obscure method school in London, which accepted me for a place on a half-scholarship. I moved to [the capital], but I just didn’t know what the world was back then. I was very sheltered.
London can be a very terrifying place, too.
I moved in with this guy, who a mutual friend had put me in touch with, and he introduced me to someone on my first day, who offered me £300 to appear in a semi-pornographic corporal punishment video and I just took the money. I was like, ‘I’m doing everything else, I’m having sex with men – why not?’ That progressed into being encouraged to take up sex work. That was my way to pay my fees… and as you say, London’s a scary, much more expensive place than anywhere I’d lived before. I set up a Gaydar commercial profile and I started seeing clients while attending this full-time course, which wasn’t accredited, by the way, so I couldn’t qualify for a student loan. It was coming out of my own pocket as I was earning it. It’s a very precarious way to live.
As I mentioned briefly earlier, the “that man” section of the book meets me and my reality. I did have a “that man” in my life, who wasn’t even a client, he was just someone… we must have flirted [and] I gave him my number and address but I don’t remember doing that. One day he showed up at my door, we had sex and that [anal injury] happened. But because it was 2004 – not 2002, as Jesse experienced – post-exposure prophylaxis was under trial, so when I went to the clinic to be checked out, they said, ‘We can give you this trial for a month.’ I was taking 16 pills a day for a month, [and] these were 2004-grade HIV medication, so some of the tablets were big and quite rough, with bad side effects, but then in March 2005, I did test negative, so I was very lucky.
I had to leave my course [though] because I couldn’t afford to pay the fees any more. It was a difficult time for me. I suppose the whole point of writing Rainbow Milk was to chart my transition from being a baptised devout Jehovah’s Witness at 17, being disfellowshipped, and then five years later being suicidal with this sexual injury [and] being pretty destitute and desperate on my own in London without family.
Issues of race and racism ebb and flow throughout the story. Jesse’s sexual transactions tend to be with older, wealthy white men, including a prominent Tory figure. How much of that is a comment on class and the objectification of black bodies?
It is quite a neat way of showing the hypocrisy of a certain class, generation and type. I’ve definitely gone to bed with men like that in a transactional relationship. It’s breath-taking, really, the lives that people lead — far be it for me to judge them, but they’re in positions of responsibility, they’re in positions of power, [and] they want to have sex with people they deem to be somewhat beneath them, socially, and in every other way, but they’d never be seen in the street with someone like me, or Jesse.
It becomes a touristic thing for them, that they can pay for someone to come round, have sex with them, fulfil that short-lived fantasy and then they’re out the door. That is a little metaphor in a way for black people in general, immigrants in general, coming over here to a land of opportunity where there is a job for you, as a nurse, as a cleaner, this, that and the other, but you can’t really escape from that, [and] if you try to escape from that, it becomes very difficult. As we’ve seen with the Windrush generation: ‘Once we’re done with you, then you can go, if you’re not going of your own accord, we’re going to make it difficult for you to stay, we’re going to create a hostile environment.’
Not to focus on your past as a sex worker, but how do you view that period of your life? And what was it like to write about sex? I suppose there is always the fear of it sounding like a Jackie Collins book…
[Laughs] One of my biggest fears is winning the bad sex award!
There’s your pull quote.
[Laughs] Fantastic. In literature, we never see a teenage black boy fucking a 55-year-old white man. We can imagine it, but we don’t know what that looks like, so I just wanted to put the camera on Jesse’s shoulder. In terms of our visual mood board, if you like, for interracial, intergenerational sexual relations in a gay [or] queer context, we have nothing. The scaffolding hasn’t been put up, [so] I couldn’t do the interior decorations, all the poetic stuff… It’s a special thing for him [Jesse], to finally be in this time and space where he can live out any fantasies that were suppressed when he was a Witness. There is that extreme as well, of being a sheltered Jehovah’s Witness, who’s told sex before marriage is the biggest sin that you can possibly commit, apart from if that sex before marriage is with someone of the same sex, that is just the worst thing. Him giving himself the agency to turn away from that, I had to present that in as pure and simple way as possible.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re going to win any bad sex awards.
Oh, good! Coming back to your first question, what do I think about that period of my life now? Erm… I am glad I’m no longer doing it [and] I’m glad I don’t have to do it any more, [but] I’m not ashamed of it. Sex work is something that people do out of choice, and sometimes not out of choice, and it is one of the great subjects of our time. It’s something that is going a little under the radar now, with sex workers, because there is absolutely no structure for them at all, having to break lockdown and quarantine rules in order to see clients and to pay their rent. I think we need to be much more honest about sex work and to acknowledge that it does exist, that it is a necessary vocation [and] a necessary provision. Sex workers need some sort of protection. I’m not sure how I want to proceed with that, but I do feel it is necessary to speak up as a former sex worker in favour of sex workers and how to create a change in some way. People might judge me, but that’s up to them. I don’t need those people in my life.
I also want to talk about the portrayal of Jesse’s mother, a complicated and, at times, cruel woman. How close to home is that for you? The title Rainbow Milk, of course, is drawn from the bowl of cereal, with sour milk, Jesse’s mum serves to him as a kid.
One of the ways in which I was able to fictionalise the story was to leave as much of my mother out as possible, but what I did include has a lot of resemblance to her and to my relationship with her. There are two moments lifted directly from experience, and that’s the moment where Jesse presents his exam results to her while she is watching Home & Away and then she just throws them across the floor when she’s finished reading them without saying anything, and then the moment where she has this outburst to the elders about the notion that Jesse leads a double life. The cereal thing as well, that is something that happened – but it didn’t quite happen in the way it’s portrayed in the book. My mother and I have always had a difficult relationship and it’s not one that I’ve gotten to the bottom of myself, so I can’t really talk about it.
I think your novel is ultimately a celebration of the chosen family, with Jesse’s relationship with boyfriend Owen and his friend Ginny.
Exactly… This is a lesson I’ve had to learn, and still am learning myself – even though I’ve bloody written a book about it – that you don’t need to rely on family for your emotional wellbeing. You watch any Hollywood film, any middle-class story of family, [and] you’ve got this wonderful matriarchal figure who tries her best to look after her children and to be there for them. Us kids growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, that’s what we want our parents to be, and when they’re not, it’s incredibly disappointing, but you don’t stop wanting that from them. When you fall to rock bottom, you want your mother to be there to mop your brow and hug you, but when you do call her, she says, ‘What do you want?’ without asking how you are, or first of all, she says, ‘Who’s this?’ as if she didn’t have a son. Even then, you don’t stop wanting your parents to come round and be that person for you; the people who gave birth to you are the people you should be able to fall back on for the rest of your life, until they die. It takes a long time to get to a place where you do have people around you of your choosing to replace them.
Do you feel confident that voices that have previously been othered or ignored in literature are going to come to the fore more?
[I hope] this current drive towards searching out black, Asian, minority ethnic, LGBT, working-class, disabled voices isn’t just a trend, and that authors being published now will be mid-list authors in five to 10 years’ time, publishing their second and third novels… The stories are out there and there are people to tell them.
Rainbow Milk, published by Dialogue Books, is out now