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.