Layla Haidrani details 18 books by some of the most exciting new black voices in the world of British literature
While the publishing world still has a long way to go, there’s been a whole host of new black voices and debut authors joining the ranks of more seasoned black writers like Courttia Newland, Musa Okwonga and Jeffrey Boakye in recent years. Though these new voices touch on race, above all they celebrate and showcase the diversity of the black experience. From stories about love and climate change to queer literary debuts and a satirical guide on how to survive in the workplace, here are 18 must-reads by black British authors to add to your reading list.
1. Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez (lead image)
This queer literary debut is a visceral and emotionally searing tale touching on fatherhood, freedom, love and loss across generations. Norman, a Jamaican immigrant, settles in the Black Country in the late 1950s and battles racism, disability and personal conflict. At the turn of the millennium, 19-year-old Jesse arrives in London and turns to sex work to rebel against his religious upbringing. A writer to watch, Mendez writes exquisitely on longing, lust and the desire to forge connections.
Nzelu is a rising literary star – and for good reason. This tender and delicate debut featuring well-crafted characters charts protagonist Nnenna’s coming of age amid estrangement, faith, forgiveness and familial relationships (the bond between Nnenna and mum Joanie is a particular highlight). Unsurprisingly, this page turner has garnered critical acclaim – The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney is the winner of the 2020 Betty Trask Award and shortlisted for the prestigious the 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize. If you love Nzelu’s work, his chapter Troubles with God in the anthology SAFE: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space is a stirring and evocative insight into homophobia and the church.
Narrator Mathilda, who is black, working class and queer, is transfixed by the Bohemian socialites of the 1920s, who she’s emulated for much of her life. Later, Mathilda encounters a photograph of black poet Hermia Druitt, drawing her to the European town of Dun where Druitt once lived in the 30s in a bid to learn more about the forgotten figure. Set amid an artist residency, this arresting debut effortlessly explores infatuation, reinvention, the erasure of black figures from history and gender identities in what marks Von Reinhold as a unique new voice in literary fiction. LOTE is part of publisher Jacaranda’s campaign Twenty in 2020, the first initiative of its kind by a UK publisher to publish 20 black British writers in a single year.
Set entirely on a London bus travelling from Hoxton to Highbury, The 392 takes place over just 36 minutes and explores themes including terrorism and gentrification in inner-city London. The tale unfolds through a crowd of passengers from all different worlds – schoolkids, addicts, high-flyers and the homeless – who are all tied through a shared suspicion as the threat of terrorism looms. A unique debut, Hickson-Lovence pays tribute to London and all the colourful characters that call the city home.
Former banker Nels Abbey takes on the persona of Dr Boulé Whytelaw III, a distinguished Professor of Modern White People Studies, in this satirical guide on the realities of working in white-dominated workplaces. As humorous as it dark, this memorable and timely “self-help gospel” touching on structural barriers may well be one of the most original debuts in years.
This beguiling short story collection from the critically acclaimed author features an original roster of characters navigating surreal situations. These experimental tales time hop across perspectives and continents and sometimes beyond the boundaries of the human world. Themes spanning reinvention and shifting identities are vividly evoked throughout Okojie’s tales, from a girl in Martinique moonlighting as a Grace Jones impersonator to a love-hungry goddess of the sea arriving on an island inhabited by eunuchs. Okojie’s prose is as imaginative as it is absorbing.
Inspired by the only existing first-person account of an Abyssinian slave in Iran, this original historical debut sheds light on the untold lives of two slaves torn away from their families residing in the Persian royal courts in the 1890s. Told from the perspective of Jamila, a concubine, and Abimelech, a eunuch, Princewill deftly sheds light into an oft-overlooked area of African history. Expect rich and atmospheric depictions of palace life.
Spanning love, identity and belonging, The Returnees follows the adventures of three British-Nigerians who leave London for Lagos and marks Okoh as an exciting new voice in contemporary fiction. After a bad break up, 25-year-old Osayuki is drawn to the fashion industry in a country she hasn’t set foot in for many years. While waiting at Milan airport for her connecting flight to Lagos, she meets Cynthia Okoye, who’s required to attend the National Youth Service Corps, and Kian Bajo, a wannabe Afrobeat star who will go to any lengths to conquer the Lagos music scene. After the plane lands at Lagos airport, they all go their separate ways but this proves to be far from their last encounter.
Celebrating love around the world in all its forms, this is a much needed and refreshing addition to the contemporary romance canon. Babalola retells 18 love stories from history and mythology, from Nigerian folktales, Greek myths, ancient legends from the Middle East, tales from South Asia to the contemporary. The chapter Tiara is a particular standout.
10. Poor by Caleb Femi
The poet, director and former first ever Young People’s Laureate for London pays homage to his South London roots and the housing estate where he came of age in this captivating and compelling debut. Combining poetry with original photos, Femi’s poems and prose chronicle longing, desire, black boyhood and joy, with standout chapters including Supernova. Released in November, Poor marks Femi as one of the most exciting writers today.
Childhood friends Jack and Toni set out on a boat trip that goes awry and find themselves stranded at sea. Though initially optimistic that they’ll be rescued within hours, the first day draws to an end. Set in the Solomon Islands amid the environmental challenges it faces, Under Solomon Skies is an urgent look at the effect climate change on the island. Based on true events, Sorga-Millwood worked as a teacher trainer in the Solomon Islands.
The poet and author explores masculinity from an intersectional angle, looking at how contemporary notions of manhood are impacted by race, sexuality, class and varying political climates. Investigating how men of varying backgrounds, including LGBTQ+ men and male refugees, experience masculinity, Mask Off acts as a rallying cry for us to urgently redefine masculinity.
Moving between 1980s Brixton and Nigeria, The Book of Echoes skilfully explores racial tensions, gentrification and intergenerational trauma. Narrated by the spirit of an African female slave in 1803, she roams across the world in search of her lost children when she makes her way to present-day Brixton. Michael is trying to avoid trouble when rioting erupts and elsewhere in, Nigeria, a young servant girl called Ngozi struggles to escape her status. A novel 20 years in the making, this is a poignant and powerful debut.
The award-winning poet and playwright and performer behind the critically acclaimed The Barber Shop Chronicles is one of the most exciting black writers today. Told in free verse, The Half-God of Rainfall fuses Greek mythology and Yoruba deities and explores the conflicts that arise between them as well as pride, power, misogyny and female revenge.
Following on as the editor of SAFE: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space anthology, Owusu was the first novelist to join #Merky Books, Stormzy’s publishing imprint. His moving debut, which was nominated for the 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize, follows a boy known only as K who is sent to be adopted by white foster parents and returns to Tottenham to estranged parents at seven. Unflinching and raw, it ultimately questions how much our childhood has the power to shape our adult selves. Look out for Derek’s second book, Teaching My Brother to Read, out next year.
Moving between Ghana and London, this captivating coming-of-age novel on sexuality, identity, friendship, family and forgiveness was shortlisted for the 2019 Dylan Thomas prize. Rule-abiding Belinda is summoned from Ghana to London to befriend Amma, a troubled girl who shows no interest in her friendship. But as the Brixton summer turns to autumn, Belinda and Amma are surprised to discover a burgeoning kinship.
A celebration of black love and the vulnerabilities that come with it, If I Don’t Have You is also part of publisher Jacaranda’s campaign Twenty in 2020. Look out for Domingo’s collection celebrating love released next year, featuring a wide variety of black contributors including Dorothy Koomson and Irenosen Okojie. (It’s also well worth checking out Bad Love by Maame Blue – another Twenty in 2020 publication from Jacaranda – who at 30, reflects on her first formative relationship as a teenager.)
Examining negative and harmful racist stereotypes, Lawal makes contentious issues accessible and compelling. Exploring sex, sport, dating, immigration and police brutality and probing deeper into structural inequality, this handbook hooks you right from the start.