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Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman


Harrison Opuku is standing in the street watching the police block off a body, the body of one of his classmates—who seems to have been murdered for his dinner. The police have no leads, so Harri and his best friend Dean launch into action. Armed with camouflage binoculars and detective techniques absorbed from television, they gather evidence—fingerprints lifted from windows with Sellotape, a wallet stained with blood—and lay traps to flush out the murderer. Recently emigrated from Ghana to London and its enormous housing projects, eleven-year-old Harri is awed by the city. The kind of boy who befriends everyone he meets (even the pigeon that visits his balcony), Harri is still tempted by the glamour of the gangs who run his neighborhood. He will be tested by the Dell Farm Crew in more ways than one before the novel is over.


Discussion Points

  1. Harri is new to the UK. How do you think this informs his perspective on his neighborhood? How are his attitudes and beliefs different from those of his peers? How are they the same?
  2. Compare how Harri and Lydia have each adjusted to their new life in London, and how they are tested by their friends. In your experience, do you think this is indicative of delineated gender roles for many adolescents these days? How present are male role models in this story?
  3. What is the significance of the pigeon?
  4. There are many moments in Pigeon English when Harri misinterprets what people say and do. Share some of your favorite examples from the novel and explain what made those particular moments poignant for you.
  5. Discuss the social forces at work on Lydia, Harri’s older sister. How does she compare to her friend Miquita?
  6. Discuss the attitude of Harri and his friends toward violence. Is it surprising?
  7. How well do you think Harri and Lydia’s mother has protected them from the danger in their neighborhood? Is there anything else she could do? What would you do in her situation?
  8. On page 147, Harri describes the lines you do not cross if you want to remain safe. What other lines, real and imagined, are there that mustn’t be crossed in this novel? Discuss Harri’s use of “rules” to interpret the world around him.
  9. Harri often talks about “having the blood” or his blood “coming in.” What do you think he means? What are some of the other slang terms Harri uses and how did they enhance or inhibit your reading of the book? Does the slang come from England, Ghana, or both? How does it speak to Harri’s identity?
  10. How do the descriptions and names of the Dell Farm Crew members affect your perception of them?
  11. Did the ending of the novel surprise you? How did you react? Compare Harri and his fate to other boy heroes of classic literature, like Huck Finn, Paddy Clarke, Ralph from Lord of the Flies, and Holden Caulfield.
  12. Why do you think the book is called Pigeon English?
  13. Stephen Kelman was inspired by true events in writing this cartoon porn pictures novel. Does this make a difference to the way you read it?
  14. Has the novel in any way changed the way you think about youth gangs, knife crime, or urban poverty? Do you think there are comparable environments in the United States? What were some of the differences you saw in this distinctly British setting that wouldn’t translate to American culture?



Suggestions for Further Reading

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
Lord of the Flies by William Golding