Johny Pitts wins Jhalak prize for 'beautiful' history of black Europe

Sian Cain

Johny Pitts has won the Jhalak prize for his debut book Afropean, an examination of life in black communities across Europe.

The television presenter, photographer and musician was announced as the winner of the annual award for writers of colour in an online ceremony on Tuesday night. He won £1,000 and a trophy sculpted by artist Neda Koochakian Fard.

Related: Johny Pitts: ‘I’m working towards a multiculturalism 2.0’

Pitts, who was born in Sheffield to an African American father and a white English mother, wrote Afropean after a five-month journey exploring the lives and communities of black Europeans in 10 countries. In the book, Pitts visits places like Stockholm’s Rinkeby district, where 90% of inhabitants are migrants, and Clichy Sous Bois in Paris, where the 2005 riots began.

Speaking to the Observer in 2019, Pitts said he had learned “that the black experience can’t be pinned down to a solid thing. As I travelled, I met Tunisians who had a real problem with Somalians in Sweden, or Martinicans who looked down their noses at Senegalese in France. No matter how much I tried to fit it all together, it never fitted perfectly. Yet at the same time, I saw lots of opportunities for black communities to come together and lots of instances where they did. I saw a continent full of opportunity, of commonalities, of possible solidarities, but ultimately what I found empowering was knowing that the continent was full of people like me.”

From more than 150 submitted books, Afropean was unanimously named the winner by the judges, poet Roy McFarlane, journalist Anita Sethi, and authors Kerry Young and Nikesh Shukla, the latter having cofounded the prize.

Shukla called Afropean an “open-armed book” that “embodies exactly the reasons we set up the prize in the first place”, while McFarlane described it as “a beautiful book to return to time and time again”. Young said it was “exceptionally thoughtful” with a “strong moral compass.”

Pitts’s debut won on a six-book shortlist that included three other first time writers - Candice Carty-Williams’s bestselling novel Queenie, Yvonne Battle-Felton’s historical novel Remembered and Mary Jean Chan’s poetry collection Flèche – as well as Romesh Gunesekera’s novel Suncatcher and Dean Atta’s children’s novel in verse, The Black Flamingo.

Now in its fourth year, the Jhalak prize was set up in 2016 by authors Sunny Singh and Shukla, and Media Diversified to award the best book by a British or British-resident black, Asian and minority ethnic author. It has previously been won by Jacob Ross, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Guy Gunaratne.

In 2017, Tory MP Philip Davies complained to the Equality and Human Rights Commission that the Jhalak prize breached discrimination rules, arguing that the prize was unfair to white authors and was an example of “positive discrimination”. The EHRC dismissed his complaint after an investigation, which Singh said had caused “enormous stress” and wasted resources.