Book clinic: what are the best novels on modern black British lives?

From Guy Gunaratne to Preti Taneja, author Kit de Waal selects some outstanding writers who reflect the richness of the ‘black experience’

Q: Apart from Small Island by Andrea Levy, what are the best novels on being black and British in the 20th and 21st century?
From a 61-year-old, middle-class white woman who lives in West Sussex, and who is sadly entirely insulated from black British lives.

A: Kit de Waal, author of My Name Is Leon and The Trick to Time
There’s a lot of great writing by black British authors, although the experience of being black and British is as diverse as the ethnic identities who would describe themselves as such.

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Why the extraordinary story of the last slave in America has finally come to light

Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon was written in the 1930s, but has only just been published. Why has it taken so long for the remarkable story of Oluale Kossola to be made public?

“We stand as living monuments,” wrote the historian Len Garrison, of the black British descendants of slavery and empire. “For those who are afraid of who they must be, are but slaves in a trance.” For Garrison, the idea of the African diaspora as “living monuments” was to some extent figurative. But a new book makes it literal. Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave presents the remarkable fact that there were people alive in America who had experienced abduction from Africa – being examined, displayed, traded and enslaved – well into the 20th century.

The book is the story of Cudjo Lewis; a man born Oluale Kossola in the Yoruba kingdom of Takkoi. Kossola was the ...

Why the extraordinary story of the last slave in America has finally come to light

Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon was written in the 1930s, but has only just been published. Why has it taken so long for the remarkable story of Oluale Kossola to be made public?

“We stand as living monuments,” wrote the historian Len Garrison, of the black British descendants of slavery and empire. “For those who are afraid of who they must be, are but slaves in a trance.” For Garrison, the idea of the African diaspora as “living monuments” was to some extent figurative. But a new book makes it literal. Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave presents the remarkable fact that there were people alive in America who had experienced abduction from Africa – being examined, displayed, traded and enslaved – well into the 20th century.

The book is the story of Cudjo Lewis; a man born Oluale Kossola in the Yoruba kingdom of Takkoi. Kossola was the ...

Ode to whiteness: British poetry scene fails diversity test

Study shows poets of colour are underrepresented in the UK, as Forward poetry prizes announce trailblazing shortlists

The British poetry world is “failing to meet even the most basic measurements of inclusivity”, according to a new report which highlights the “systemic exclusion” of poets and critics of colour from UK and Irish poetry magazines.

Collecting data from 29 magazines and websites including PN Review, Poetry Review, the Guardian and Oxford Poetry, the study found that between 2012 and 2018, 9% of almost 20,000 published poems were by poets of colour. Of the 1,819 poems, 502 were published in a single magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation; if this is taken out of the equation, only 7% of poems were by poets of colour. The studyPDF, conducted by poetry reviewer and blogger Dave Coates for Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics, points out that in contrast, at the 2011 census, 12....

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala – review

In a powerful, polemical narrative, the rapper charts his past and the history of black Britain

In 2010, UK rap artist Akala dropped the album DoubleThink, and with it, some unforgettable words. “First time I saw knives penetrate flesh, it was meat cleavers to the back of the head,” the north London rapper remembers of his childhood. Like so much of his work, the song Find No Enemy blends his life in the struggle of poverty, race, class and violence, with the search for answers. “Apparently,” it continues, “I’m second-generation black Caribbean. And half white Scottish. Whatever that means.”

Any of the million-plus people who have since followed Akala – real name Kingslee Daley – know that the search has taken him into the realm of serious scholarship. He is now known as much for his political analysis as for his music, and, unsurprisingly, his new book, ...

Margo Jefferson: ‘I have always loved Michael Jackson’

The US author talks about her book on the pop star whose life distilled so many of our obsessions with race, gender and the body

Margo Jefferson is the author of Negroland: A Memoir, which won a National Book Critics Circle award, (for autobiography) and was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize. Born in Chicago, she lives in New York and has worked as an associate editor for Newsweek, and a book and theatre critic for the New York Times, where she won a Pulitzer prize for criticism. Aged 70, she now teaches at Columbia University School of Arts. Her book On Michael Jackson will be published on 3 May (Granta, £9.99).

This book is about the life and work of Michael Jackson, from his early years as a child star to the “freak show” aspects of his image later on. Why write about an already ...

No Cinderella: Margo Jefferson on the real Meghan Markle

She’s educated, divorced, a woman of colour, a feminist – and a radical addition to the royal family. Will she revolutionise the House of Windsor?

In February I saw a photo of Meghan Markle and the Duchess of Cambridge sitting next to each other at the Royal Foundation Forum, wearing colour coordinated dresses (lavender for Kate, deep purple-blue for Meghan). It wasn’t their dresses I minded, it was how they sat – legs crossed neatly at the ankle, knees pressed firmly together. It was that dulce et decorum pose passed down to generations of girls and young women expected to demonstrate their good breeding on social occasions – expected to show they are “ladies”. Both Kate and Meghan had folded their hands in their laps, the arms forming a gentle circle, the hands quietly clasped, as if ready to shelter a child or calm a kingdom’s cares. But it ...

Kei Miller essay about white women sparks tensions among Caribbean writers

Miller’s essay has been withdrawn after divisive reception, but supporters say it is part of a necessary conversation about race and privilege

An incendiary essay by the award-winning Jamaican poet Kei Miller that probed at white women writers’ authority to speak for the Caribbean has been pulled from a new magazine after laying bare a long-festering anger in the islands’ literary community.

Miller’s essay, The White Women and the Language of Bees, was published last week in Pree, a new magazine highlighting writers from the Caribbean. Asking “how many years and decades must pass before we can belong to a place and to its words? How much time before we can write it?”, the essay saw the Forward prize-winning author discuss his interactions with four white women writers from the region, evaluating their books, and the way they have interacted with the local literary community.

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Kei Miller essay about white women sparks tensions among Caribbean writers

Miller’s essay has been withdrawn after divisive reception, but supporters say it is part of a necessary conversation about race and privilege

An incendiary essay by the award-winning Jamaican poet Kei Miller that probed at white women writers’ authority to speak for the Caribbean has been pulled from a new magazine after laying bare a long-festering anger in the islands’ literary community.

Miller’s essay, The White Women and the Language of Bees, was published last week in Pree, a new magazine highlighting writers from the Caribbean. Asking “how many years and decades must pass before we can belong to a place and to its words? How much time before we can write it?”, the essay saw the Forward prize-winning author discuss his interactions with four white women writers from the region, evaluating their books, and the way they have interacted with the local literary community.

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Linton Kwesi Johnson: ‘It was a myth that immigrants didn’t want to fit into British society. We weren’t allowed’

As the Jamaican-born dub poet reflects on decades of race relations in the UK, from the Brixton riots to Windrush, he says young black men carry knives out of fear, and questions how much progress we have made since his time as a teenage Black Panther

When Linton Kwesi Johnson was a boy, he wanted to grow up to be an accountant. “If I was an accountant,” he chuckles softly, sitting surrounded by piles of books and CDs in his modest south-London terrace house: “I would probably be a multimillionaire by now.” The world, on the other hand, would be considerably poorer.

It is 40 years since the Jamaican-born poet made his debut as a recording artist. The release of Dread Beat an’ Blood – an album of radical political poetry spoken in Jamaican patois, set to a reggae beat – created a new literary genre known as ...

Vetting for stereotypes: meet publishing’s ‘sensitivity readers’

Publishers hoping to avoid offence are increasingly turning to sensitivity readers. But is this good practice, censorship, or just another way of maintaining privilege?

When reviewers first saw Keira Drake’s The Continent, this story of a teenager trapped by a war between two “native” tribes quickly found attention on social media – though not much of it was good. This young adult novel was attacked for its “white saviour narrative” and its stereotypical portrayal of people with “reddish-brown skin” or “almond-shaped eyes”. The author Justina Ireland called it a “racist garbage fire”.

Drake apologised, said she would “address concerns about the novel”, and delayed the release. Her publisher, Harlequin Teen, sent the book out to two “sensitivity readers”, who vetted the manuscript for stereotypes, biases and problematic language. Armed with a list of potential problems and possible solutions, Drake went back to the drawing board.

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Vetting for stereotypes: meet publishing’s ‘sensitivity readers’

Publishers hoping to avoid offence are increasingly turning to sensitivity readers. But is this good practice, censorship, or just another way of maintaining privilege?

When reviewers first saw Keira Drake’s The Continent, this story of a teenager trapped by a war between two “native” tribes quickly found attention on social media – though not much of it was good. This young adult novel was attacked for its “white saviour narrative” and its stereotypical portrayal of people with “reddish-brown skin” or “almond-shaped eyes”. The author Justina Ireland called it a “racist garbage fire”.

Drake apologised, said she would “address concerns about the novel”, and delayed the release. Her publisher, Harlequin Teen, sent the book out to two “sensitivity readers”, who vetted the manuscript for stereotypes, biases and problematic language. Armed with a list of potential problems and possible solutions, Drake went back to the drawing board.

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Speaking out: Ted Hughes winner Jay Bernard on exploring the New Cross fire in a one-off performance

When Bernard won the top poetry gong last week, it was a validation for performance poetry – and for the poet’s inquiry into the 1981 fire, told in a constantly evolving poem

The awarding of this year’s Ted Hughes prize for new poetry to Jay Bernard could be seen as a step-change in the long running, and increasingly sour, debate over the relative value of poetry for page and stage.

The 30-year-old Londoner, who uses the pronoun “they”, won the £5,000 prize with a moving and timely multimedia sequence exploring the unresolved issues arising from the New Cross “massacre” – a fire at a 16th birthday party in south London in 1981, which killed 13 young black people.

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Booksellers remove racist and Holocaust denial titles from their websites

Anti-racist group Hope Not Hate says Waterstones, Foyles, WH Smith and Amazon are lending respectability to offensive books, but retailers say listings come from uncurated feed

Major booksellers have been accused of lending a veneer of respectability to antisemitic and neo-Nazi books by featuring them for sale on their websites.

The UK’s largest anti-racist group Hope Not Hate published an investigation into the number of far-right and antisemitic works available to buy on the websites of Waterstones, Foyles, WH Smith and Amazon. These included a manual containing bomb-making instructions, extreme antisemitic tracts venerated by Hitler and numerous works by Holocaust deniers. Many listings have since been removed from the retailers’ websites.

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Romance so white? Publishers grapple with race issues amid author protests

New report exposes decline in diversity in romance writing, as editor resigns after telling author they avoid putting non-white characters on covers ‘because we like the book to sell’

Readers, writers and editors of romance books are grappling with the genre’s record on diversity, after a week where a report found that books by authors of colour were on the decline, an imprint specialising in diverse romances closed, and another publisher was forced to apologise for telling a writer they avoided putting people of colour on book covers because they didn’t sell.

Queer romance writer Cole McCade came forward last week to reveal conversations with editor Sarah Lyons of the New Jersey-based publisher Riptide. McCade, who also writes as Xen Sanders, described Riptide as “at all levels hostile to me as a person of colour”. He published an email from Lyons in which she told him: “We don’t mind POC ...

Sharmaine Lovegrove: ‘If you don’t have a diverse workforce or product, sooner or later you won’t exist’

The Dialogue Books publisher felt shut out of the book world, working her own way up from secondhand book stall to heading her inclusive new imprint. At last, she writes, the industy is changing

I am from a family of activists. My uncle, Len Garrison, was the founder of the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, south London, and I draw daily inspiration from his fight for equality along with his love for literature. Books and stories have always been my escape route from busy London life. As a child I was often found reading – in a corner at home in Battersea, or in the library, on a bus, or the back of a car, drifting into the lives of others for hours on end, with only the act of turning the page occasionally jolting me back into reality.

Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, London was incredible, ...

Reni Eddo-Lodge wins Jhalak prize for British writers of colour

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race praised for ‘holding up a mirror to contemporary Britain’

Reni Eddo-Lodge has won the Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour. Her book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, was praised by judges as a “clarion call for action”, which “not only holds up a mirror to contemporary Britain but also serves as a warning”.

Eddo-Lodge’s collection of essays began as a blogpost of the same title in 2014. Opening with her statement: “I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race,” Eddo-Lodge wrote she could “no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates our experiences. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ...

Tomi Adeyemi: ‘We need a black girl fantasy book every month’

Author of Children of Blood and Bone says her debut novel was a response to genre fiction in which the characters were always white

It has been called the biggest fantasy debut novel of 2018, drawing comparisons with everything from Game of Thrones to Black Panther, and has netted a movie deal reported to be worth seven figures.

But Tomi Adeyemi, the 24-year-old Nigerian-American author of Children of Blood and Bone, says that such success was the last thing on her mind when she sat down to write her epic tale of an oppressive world where magic has been outlawed.

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Awards for women, writers of colour, small presses – why are there so many books prizes?

There are so many literary prizes these days that they could be regarded as an industry in their own right – but they’re needed to change the status quo

How many literary prizes are there in the UK today? To Wikipedia’s tally of around 70, I can immediately add half a dozen more – and still they come. It doesn’t seem too much of an exaggeration to see them as an industry in their own right, involving flotillas of administrators, squads of judges and hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in prize money.

The value of this industry has long been hotly debated, with some writers going so far as to maintain that having so many prizes deforms the literary culture. The Man Booker prize, in particular, has been charged with dictating the sort of novel that is thought to be worth publishing and promoting, thereby influencing the ...

Why one story explaining racial segregation in America is overlooked

In his extract from Cause: . . . And How It Doesn’t Always Equal Effect, Gregory Smithsimon explains that black people live in black neighborhoods because white neighborhoods are unsafe

White people in America tell themselves many stories about racism and race. Some are comforting myths, designed to naturalize racial hierarchies or dispel the guilt and responsibility of privilege. Others are sociological and historical narratives, which locate the causes of racism in specific times, places and institutions, so that the problem of racism can be quarantined, and more easily cured.

But there is another, mostly overlooked story in which the causes are more diffuse and more difficult to accept – one that goes a long way towards explaining our recent racial tragedies.

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