Sharmaine Lovegrove, Melanmag.com’s new book editor, brings you her literary highlights of 2016. An avid book reader, going through five books a week no less, and literary editor at Elle UK, this lady knows good books!
Having worked in the publishing industry my entire career I always felt our stories were missing. Writing recently in the industry press The Bookseller, my incredible god-sister Candice Carty-Williams (who founded the 4th Estate BAME short story prize) brought to my attention the fact that most of the books we read and work on are not written with us in mind. I cried for days upon reading this and even writing about it now gives me a lump in my throat. I have devoted myself to books and stories and was disturbed to learn that in 2016 there were fewer than 100 books published in the UK by non-white writers. Now that we have the stats we know the work that needs to be done. So watch this space as over the next few years I will make sure your bookshelves are overflowing with stories of melanin writers for you to enjoy, learn and share.
It’s not all sobering news; this year has seen some great, award-winning books by BAME writers published and well received by a diverse public. I have devoured and loved many of them and am excited to share them with you. I am heartened to think the next generation will not have to struggle to find stories of people that look like them yet have unique experiences that remind us there is both nuance and continuity within our race. I am thrilled for next year: I am looking forward to reading many more stories written by BAME writers featuring characters that look like us.
My 2016 book highlights
Margo Jefferson (Granta Books)
The daughter of a successful paediatrician and a fashionable socialite, Margo Jefferson spent her childhood among Chicago’s black elite. She calls this society ‘Negroland’: ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty’. With privilege came expectation. Reckoning with the strictures and demands of Negroland at crucial historical moments – the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of post-racial America – Jefferson brilliantly charts the twists and turns of a life informed by psychological and moral contradictions.
Odafe Atogun (Canongate Books)
The day a stained brown envelope arrives from Taduno’s homeland, he knows that the time has come to return from exile.
Arriving full of hope, the musician discovers that his community no longer recognizes him and no one recalls his voice. His girlfriend Lela has disappeared, taken away by government agents. He wanders through his house in search of clues but any trace of his old life has been erased. As he realizes that all there is left of the house and of himself is an empty shell, Taduno finds a new purpose: to unravel the mystery of his lost life and to find his lost love. Through this search, he comes to face a difficult decision: to sing for love or to sing for his people.
Taduno’s Song is a moving tale of sacrifice, love and courage.
The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead (Little, Brown Book Group)
From prize-winning, bestselling author Colson Whitehead, a magnificent, wrenching, thrilling tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South.
Praised by Barack Obama and an Oprah Book Club Pick, The Underground Railroad is a book that should be on everyone’s booklist.
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.
In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.
Another Day in the Death of America
Gary Younge (Faber & Faber)
Saturday 23 November, 2013. It was just another day in America; an unremarkable Saturday on which 10 children and teens were killed by gunfire. The youngest was nine; the oldest was nineteen. White, Black and Latino, they fell in suburbs, hamlets and ghettos. None made the national news. There was no outrage about their passing. It was just another day in the death of America, where on a daily average – seven children and teens are killed by guns.
Younge picked this day at random, searched for their families and tells their stories. The nine-year-old opened the door and was shot in the head by his mother’s ex-boyfriend. The eleven-year-old was killed by his friend at a sleepover in rural Michigan.
The eighteen-year-old gang member, on Chicago’s South Side, was shot in a stairwell just days after being released from prison.
Through 10 moving chapters – one for each child – Younge explores the way these children lived and lost their short lives. He finds out who they were, who they wanted to be, the environments they inhabited, and what this might tell us about society at large.
What emerges is a searing portrait of childhood and youth in contemporary America.
Brit Bennett (Riverhead)
A dazzling debut novel from an exciting new voice, The Mothers is a surprising story about young love, a big secret in a small community – and the things that ultimately haunt us most.
Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California, Brit Bennett’s mesmerizing first novel is an emotionally perceptive story about community, love, and ambition. It begins with a secret.
“All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season.”
It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance, and the subsequent cover-up, will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.
In entrancing, lyrical prose, The Mothers asks whether a “what if” can be more powerful than an experience itself. If, as time passes, we must always live in servitude to the decisions of our younger selves, to the communities that have parented us, and to the decisions we make that shape our lives forever.
Paul Beatty (One World) – Winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize
A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game.
Born in Dickens on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, the narrator of The Sellout spent his childhood as the subject in his father’s racially charged psychological studies. He is told that his father’s work will lead to a memoir that will solve their financial woes. But when his father is killed in a drive-by shooting, he discovers there never was a memoir. All that’s left is a bill for a drive-through funeral.
What’s more, Dickens has literally been wiped off the map to save California from further embarrassment. Fueled by despair, the narrator sets out to right this wrong with the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.
In his trademark absurdist style, which has the uncanny ability to make readers want to both laugh and cry, The Sellout is an outrageous and outrageously entertaining indictment of our time.
Mama Can’t Raise No Man
Robin Travis (Own It Books)
The novel unfolds through a series of letters between a colorful cast of characters and the main protagonist, Duane, who despite his efforts to turn his life around, once again finds himself in prison. This time it’s on charges of intent to supply drugs and domestic violence, but things are not as clear-cut as they seem.
Mama Can’t Raise No Man is a unique and eye-opening exploration of black masculinity. Brimming with intelligent and thought provoking ideas, it cleverly challenges different definitions of manhood, whilst remaining an engaging, witty and at times laugh-out-loud-funny novel.
Kei Miller (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
It is 11 April 1982 and a smell is coming down John Golding Road right alongside the boy-child, something attached to him, like a spirit but not quite. Ma Taffy is growing worried. She knows that something is going to happen. Something terrible is going to pour out into the world. But if she can hold it off for just a little bit longer, she will. So she asks a question that surprises herself even as she asks it, ‘Kaia, I ever tell you ‘bout the flying preacherman?’
Known and Strange Things
Teju Cole (Faber & Faber)
A blazingly intelligent first collection of essays from the award-winning author of Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief.
With these pieces on politics, photography, travel, history and literature – many of which have become viral sensations, shared and debated around the globe – Teju Cole solidifies his place as one of today’s most powerful and original voices. On page after page, deploying prose dense with beauty and ideas, he finds fresh and potent ways to interpret art, people and historical moments.
Cole tells of his engagement with Virginia Woolf through her diaries, before reflecting on an episode of temporary blindness in New York. He looks at the rise of Instagram and interrogates the value of its images. He examines the transition of the candidate Obama, the avid reader, into a ‘forever-war’ president on the global stage.
Persuasive and provocative, erudite yet accessible, Known and Strange Things is an opportunity to live within Teju Cole’s wide-ranging enthusiasms, curiosities and passions, and a chance to see the world in surprising and affecting new frames.
What is not Yours is not Yours
Helen Oyeyemi (Picador)
The stories collected in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours are linked by more than the exquisitely winding prose of their creator: Helen Oyeyemi’s ensemble cast of characters slip from the pages of their own stories only to surface in another.
The reader is invited into a world of lost libraries and locked gardens, of marshlands where the drowned dead live and a city where all the clocks have stopped; students hone their skills at puppet school, the Homely Wench Society commits a guerrilla book-swap, and lovers exchange books and roses on St Jordi’s Day.
It is a collection of towering imagination, marked by baroque beauty and a deep sensuousness.