Four Top Authors on What to Read This Black History Month
Founded on the idea that storytelling is one of the most nuanced and powerful means to open up conversation and spark change, Dialogue Books, part of the Little, Brown book group, is led by publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove - one of the founders of the Black Writers Guild. Dialogue Books started as a Berlin book stall and now publishes a huge range of engaging fiction, as well as political, cultural and cross-genre titles celebrating voices and stories often excluded from the mainstream. To mark Black History Month, we have the great pleasure of having four of their authors – Paul Mendez, Okechukwu Nzelu, Brit Bennett and Irenosen Okojie – recommend some fantastic reads by Black writers.
I will spend Black History Month exclusively reading Black British writers. I would recommend we all take the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the rich diversity of Black British History, and with what Black writers are concerned with today.
Bernardine Evaristo's The Emperor's Babe fictionalised the story of Septimius Severus, the half-Libyan governor of Britannia, combining Latinate phrases with circa-2000 South London dialect in an often hilarious verse novel.
Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative (1789) was published around the same time as Rousseau's Confessions – widely seen as the first modern autobiography – and takes us on an unprecedented journey through slavery, freedom, world travel and literary fame.
Caryl Phillips's 1991 novel Cambridge tells the stories, in pitch-perfect eighteenth-century pastiche, of the spoilt daughter of an absent planter sent to the West Indies, and an educated free man who is kidnapped and sold back into slavery.
Trinidadian author C.L.R. James's The Black Jacobins (1938) remains the definitive history of the Haitian slave revolt, which led to the creation of the world's first black postcolonial state outside Africa, thereafter dictating British policy in the Caribbean; it is written with the pace and guile of a literary thriller.
As for more recent and contemporary works, I recommend Derek Owusu's That Reminds Me, a semi-autobiographical novel about a young Ghanaian man reunited with his mother after spending most of his early life living with a white foster family, and the issues raised in negotiating the two cultures.
In Imperial Intimacies, Hazel V Carby – born in 1948 to a Jamaican father and Welsh mother – plots the long entanglement between Britain and Jamaica with her own family history.
Finally, in Shola Von Reinhold's Lote, a working class Nigerian-British woman becomes obsessed with an obscure early twentieth-century Black female Scottish poet, and travels to a remote European artist's colony where she reportedly lived, to luxuriate in her life and work.
My first recommendation for Black History Month is Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala. Based in Washington D.C., Speak No Evil is the story of Niru, the gay son of conservative Nigerian parents. It is also the story of his white best friend, Meredith, and her own journey. Told in moving, elegant prose, the story encompasses multiple issues, geographies and perspectives, and adds the growing canon of Nigerian LGBT literature.
My second recommendation is Women are Different by Flora Nwapa. The novel follows a group of schoolgirls in Nigeria: it begins in 1945 but sweeps across decades, exploring the lives of different women in work and in the home. The characters find themselves interrogating traditional values and received wisdom, and coming to their own conclusions about the lives they want to lead. A contemporary of Chinua Achebe, Nwapa presents women’s experiences and perspectives with a boldness and a nuance that deserve to be read and celebrated.
I recently re-read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, an impossibly perfect novel. I first read it when I was studying abroad in the UK, away from the US for the first time in my life. It felt that this book had found me at the perfect time, when I was beginning to think, more deeply than I ever had, about what it means to be both black and American. This is a novel about a selfish young man on the search for hidden gold who, instead, uncovers the hidden history of his family. It’s an epic quest but also a novel about heritage, community, and the search for freedom spanning from enslavement to the 1960s. This novel, about the limitations and liberation of language, will fill you with wonder.
The supremely gifted Jenniffer Nansubuga’s short story collection, Manchester Happened should be on everyone’s reading list. These acutely observed stories follow the journeys of Ugandans making England their home. Shifting between Manchester and Kampala, this brilliant collection vibrantly interrogates themes of belonging and identity. It includes the piece, Memoirs of Namasso. A story about a pariah Ugandan dog adjusting to life in England told from the dog’s perspective. It’s hilarious, revelatory and perfectly located in a collection that centres the experiences of Ugandans in the UK with candour and empathy.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas is a gothic delight. The gripping story of Ines, a young woman who enters a prestigious college for brilliant minds shaping graduates often rewarded with wealth and honour. But the price is being cut off from the outside world and their loved ones. Those who break the rules face time in the school’s legendary tower. When her vulnerable roommate Baby is banished to the tower and doesn’t return, a devastated Ines begins to uncover the mysteries of Catherine House. This is a deliciously atmospheric book tinged with elements of horror from an exciting new voice. Compulsive reading.
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