Bernardine Evaristo has worked with Penguin in selecting six lost and hard-to-find books by Black writers to start a new series, Black Britain: Writing Back.
The Booker Prize winner has also written the introductions for the first six titles, which are rediscovered works about Black Britain and the diaspora that were written over the past 100 years, with the intention of presenting a “body of work that illustrates a variety of preoccupations and genres that offer important and diverse Black British perspectives. I am very excited to introduce these books to new readers who will discover their riches.”
Evaristo worked with Simon Prosser, publishing director of Hamish Hamilton, and Hannah Chukwu, editorial assistant at Hamish Hamilton, to put the list together.
The first books to be published are The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy; Incomparable World by S.I. Martin; Minty Alley by C.L.R. James; Without Prejudice by Nicola Williams; Bernard and the Cloth Monkey by Judith Bryan and The Dancing Face by Mike Phillips.
The origins of the Black Britain: Writing Black series began a year ago, in the wake of Evaristo’s Booker Prize win. “We got together to talk about how we could harness the energy and excitement of that moment to make further change happen,” said Prosser. The covers of the books have been redesigned by Black British artists and the audiobooks will be voiced by Black actors.
Evaristo told Penguin.co.uk that “these books will take the reader from 18th-century London to 1920s Trinidad; from inside the heads of women in the mental health system to inside the life of a working-class Black woman barrister making her way in a white, middle-class, male profession; from the ethics of stolen African artefacts in British museums and into a family home haunted by past that lingers in the present.”
Five of the titles were originally published in the Nineties by contemporaries of Evaristo. “It was much harder back then to sustain enough interest in our literature and I suspect that in these more progressive times, these books will find larger readerships,” she says. “Each generation builds on those who went before and I’m keenly interested that today’s writers and readers will engage with novels that still feel current in their complex narrativisations of Black lives.”
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The remaining book, C.L.R. James’s Minty Alley, was published in 1936 and was the first book by a Black Caribbean writer to be published in England. Evaristo calls James, who also wrote plays and non-fiction books, “legendary”.
For Prosser, the series has offered an opportunity to work again with James: “As a young editor one of the first books I had the luck to work on, at academic publisher Blackwells, was The C.L.R. James Reader – so it is especially moving to me to see his only novel form the cornerstone of this series.” Having published Black authors, from Evaristo to Zadie Smith, in the decades since, Prosser says the series is “a dream come true”.
“Whenever I get together with Bernardine, or Courttia Newland or Kadija Sesay, we often talk about the writers who didn’t make it, who had to make a career elsewhere, or who, even more sadly, aren’t with us now at all. A few of these writers I published myself. But now we have a chance to give some of their books a second chance – and what a joy that is.”
“Only one GCSE English Literature course in the UK features a Black novelist, and this glaring omission demonstrates the lack of support and elevation Black writers have historically received,” says Chukwu. “Black British creatives deserve space to be celebrated and represented across the arts, and I hope that this series will provide readers with an access point for delving into our rich literary history.”
The first six books of the Black Britain: Writing Black series will be released on 4 February, 2021.