Among all the many astonishing things that happened in June, two black British authors topped the UK bestseller charts for the first time. Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other took the No 1 spot on the fiction paperback list, while Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race became the first to top both the non-fiction paperback chart and overall charts since records began. But, as Evaristo pointed out, the “astonishing” thing isn’t that these talented writers should outsell everyone else for a week – it’s that they are the first.
Before Evaristo, the only black author to top the fiction paperback charts was Jamaican Booker winner Marlon James in 2015, while the only black author to top the overall bestseller charts before Eddo-Lodge was Michelle Obama, for her memoir, in 2018. As Eddo-Lodge said, it is “a horrible indictment of the publishing industry” that it has taken so long; unsurprisingly, there is a coordinated campaign to improve this situation, with more than 100 authors joining the Black Writers Guild to get UK publishers “to introduce sweeping reforms to make the overwhelmingly white industry more inclusive at all levels”.
The letter they sent to spur UK publishers to support black literary communities feels like a good starting point for this month’s reading group. Not least because so many fine writers signed it, including – to give just a few names – Candice Carty-Williams, Dorothy Koomson, Courttia Newland, David Olusoga and Irenosen Okojie. You can get the full list here (scroll down) – we’d welcome nominations for books by any of these authors.
But, of course, that’s nothing like the full story of black British writing. Black authors have been an essential, and undervalued, part of UK literature at least since the publication of Ignatius Sancho’s astonishing letters in 1782 and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in 1789. There have been female narratives since The History of Mary Prince was published in 1831. This story of a slave born in Bermuda was transcribed by the writer Susanna Moodie, but it wasn’t too long before self-penned classics like The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (published in 1857) were in circulation.
More recently, there’s been the influx of talent brought in with the Windrush in 1948, and 20th century giants like Sam Selvon, CLR James and ER Braithwaite. As for contemporary names, we have authors such as Evaristo, Helen Oyeyemi, Michael Donkor, Aminatta Forna, Caryl Phillips and Diana Evans to consider. If you need inspiration, there’s an interesting list of black British book recommendations on Shondaland, on AnOther, on the UK Black History Month website, and of course, a list of authors on Wikipedia.
All you have to do is to choose the book you’d most like to read by a black British author and nominate it in the comments below. I’ll put the nominations in a hat towards the end of the week and the one that comes out will be our book for July. I’m looking forward to it already!