Ellah Wakatama Allfrey contextualises Jackie Kay’s selection of compelling BAME writers working in the UK, revealed in the final International Literature Showcase of 2019.
I struggle with the awkward-in-my-mouth feel of the acronym BAME. It is both unwieldy and inadequate, seeking as it does to corral together in four too-small letters a multiplicity of identities, a universe of experiences and histories. Nowhere is this inadequacy more evident than in Jackie Kay’s glorious list of authors who represent the range, power, bold ambition and relevance of contemporary British writing.
Viewing the writers listed here it is clear just how important the recognition of a selected group can be. This list serves as a sign-post and a celebration – an invitation to explore further the diverse communities, individuals, histories and possible futures that make up a full and complete truth of contemporary British experience. Without the work of these writers, the story of our nation is incomplete.
These are writers reclaiming histories, telling stories in the first person. In her acceptance speech for the Sydney Peace Prize, the writer Arundhati Roy disputed an often too-easily used phrase: ‘There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the ] preferably unheard.’ Here are writers creating links from across the globe (reaching back to ancestral homes) and linking back to our own shores, widening our borders of imagination. Their journeys here (sometimes their own, sometimes those of a previous generation) span the globe: Cameroon, Ghana, Germany, Hong Kong, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan and Uganda. In a moment in our history, when political and economic uncertainty and a lack of honourable leadership have seen a lurch to right-wing isolationism and nationalism, these writers challenge readers to think of expanded borders, of migrations and sojourns and homecomings, of the truth that human beings have always journeyed. And more than that, the writers here demonstrate just how vibrant culture and art can be as a result of that very movement.
Without the work of these writers, the story of our nation is incomplete.
Half of the writers listed here are poets – as much a reflection of Kay’s own focus of interest as it is testament to a booming market responding to readers’ desire, with sales of poetry collections increasing by 66% in the last five years. Perhaps, in times of global uncertainty and fear for our future we respond to the poet’s ability to clarify and distil. Jay Bernard’s work ranges from a re-imagined Arthurian legend featuring a black knight to a lament for those lost in the tragedy of Grenfell. Here is a writer who reveals in searing verse the souls and lives of black folk through time. Fellow poet Mary Jean Chan revels in the complexities of language with verse that explores body and being, a self that is made across continents and languages. The intersection of race, gender identity and sexuality in this list is worth noting. For me there is clear instruction here: see how the work here resists boxing-in, see how a diverse range of experience distilled results in excellence.
Imtiaz Dharker (who is also an artist and filmmaker) traverses continents and identities in work that asks us to consider the nature of God and our impulse to religion, revelling in contradiction and a writerly political consciousness. Nadine Aisha Jassat a relative newcomer whose debut collection was published this year. This is the poetry of resistance, the vibrant craft of a defiant feminism through the prism of verse. Weaving paths through linguistic inheritances and memory, with subtle manipulations of form, Zaffar Kunial’s work offers both intimacy and humour. Here too Kay’s list invites exploration; these poet encourage readers to range wide from the capital, from the Englishness of the establishment to the voices of the north – via the Commonwealth.
In the novels of the three African women featured, this selection draws on the writing of ordinary lives and universal themes: Diana Evans, a novelist of delicate sensibilities whose books offer a chronicle of a particularly black and British lived reality that has been proven to resonate across all communities; the Ugandan-born Mancunian Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi whose historical novel debut found readers internationally and whose short stories of migration, romance, betrayal and family are a snapshot of immigrant life; and the urban realities of Olumide Popoola’s work that interrogates what it is to be an African and a European.
Michael Donkor’s debut novel – a story of displacement that explores family, sexuality and class – provides further evidence of the breadth of approach and the layered interrogation of the writers listed here. And for Eric Ngalle Charles one medium of expression is inadequate for what he has to say. Playwright, poet, novelist – across art forms his work is the memory of forced migration, the search for home, the state of being a stranger in a strange land and the holder of multiple identities. It is work that allows readers and audiences to witness the humanity of the migrant and refugee in the first person. And for all these reasons it is essential work particularly at this moment in time.
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, OBE is Editor-at-Large at Canongate Books and was the founding Publishing Director of The Indigo Press. She was a judge for the 2017 Dublin International Literary Award and the 2015 Man Booker Prize. She is former deputy editor of Granta magazine and senior editor at Jonathan Cape, Random House. She is the editor of Africa39 and Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction.