Kei Miller introduces his selection of 10 writers who are helping us to explore an emerging, post-Covid-19 world. Part of the International Literature Showcase, which you can find out about here.
The brief from the National Centre for Writing was a straight-forward one – to select ten of the most promising, most interesting new talents working in the UK right now. Emerging talents.
I got stuck on that word. Emerging. It was impossible not to ponder its particular resonance in this moment, after the year and a half we lived through – some of us, just barely. Covid-19 was a great wave of horribleness that washed over this country and the world. It submerged us, and we haven’t fully emerged from it; we aren’t yet comfortably looking back at the pandemic from a safe distance. In fact, many of us are still holding our breaths as if under water, looking up to an elusive surface that we can’t quite break. This is the question that kept niggling at me: what does it mean to emerge in 2021?
They are the writers of an emerging world – or, at least, the best that we might imagine that world to be
Nothing lasts forever, not even pandemics, and even with variants rising that elusive surface seems closer than it has for months. A new age beckons, even if its shape is indistinct, and even if the thought of it excites and worries us in equal measure. Will it be the same old, same old? Will we make better choices this time? And who will help us to articulate the kind of world we want to emerge from this?
To that last question, I can think of no better answer than these ten writers. Reading and rereading their works was undoubtedly the most fulfilling part of my own lockdown experience. They are ‘emerging talents’ in the traditional sense of that phrase; they are only just at the beginnings of what looks like promising careers but already they are winning the big prizes; already, they are writing books that critics have slapped with epithets like ‘magical’ and ‘essential’.
Still, it is more than that. In 2021, it has to be more. These are not just new and promising talents. More importantly, they are the writers of an emerging world – or, at least, the best that we might imagine that world to be. The list is unapologetically – even triumphantly – diverse. These writers are differently raced, differently gendered and differently abled – but what they each can do with a pen is breath-taking.
Daisy Lafarge and Steven Lovatt call our attention back to that place that we neglected to our detriment – the environment. Caleb Azumah Nelson shows us what black intellect and love can look like; Rachel Long adds to this the particularities of womanhood and being mixed heritage. Sairish Hussain shows us absolute ordinariness of a Muslim British family grappling with the shifting shape of our modernity; Gail McConnell and Mícheál McCann are expanding the vistas of queer being an queer love, and queer parenthood; Ingrid Persaud writes the contemporary Caribbean with more empathy than I have ever seen on the page; Jarred McGinnis’ darkly comic autofiction allows many of us to imaginatively navigate the world from a wheelchair; writing out of Scotland, Helen McClory’s boldly playful practice is poising itself to open up whole new genres for our new age.
Please read these writers. Yes, they are amongst the best of the UK’s emerging writers, but it is more than that. Their books have the potential to buoy up a new and better world.
One of the remarkable things about Mícheál McCann’s poetry is how it treats male same-sex desire as almost unremarkable. Gaydar is part of the landscape of these poems, and a son can casually ask a hapless father about PrEP. Queerness is just one part of McCann’s identity and it is folded into an intellect, a curiosity, a slight mischievousness that looks out to the world and notices its oddities and its disruptions.
Forget the Big Black British novel – whatever that may be. Nelson has written a short novel, one that can be devoured in a single sitting – but that still packs a big punch. It is the intelligence that infuses almost every keenly observed sentence that strikes you, and not an intelligence that is showy or bragging, but the kind of intelligence that holds within it a quality of vulnerability. Open Water enchants even as it breaks your heart.
Helen McClory is the kind of writer we need and the kind of writer I love to watch as she practices and expands her craft, nimbly moving across genres. You want a big suspenseful novel sprawling from the past and into the future? She gives you that with Bitterhall. You want mythical short stories? She has written two collections. You want playful flash-fiction? She’s got a collection of that too. Her practice is endlessly playful, formally inventive, and always stretching itself into new territories. We are always in need writers to show us new forms, and McClory is establishing herself as a writer able to do just that.
Lafarge writes the poetry that this world, in this moment, needs. These aren’t so much hymns to the beauty of nature as they are dirges to what is fragile, a keening against literal toxicities that we live with and have grown dependent on. To explore a topic so heavy, with so much grace, so much subtlety and so much insight, marks her as a remarkable and much needed poet.
In a time when so many of our best poets still hold the reader a bit at arm’s length, the open embrace of Rachel Long’s poetry is refreshing. Her poems insist that all the things that make her – her black woman’s sass and her political insights – can be bent into careful craft rather than hidden in ellipses. And yet, her poems are elliptical; there is always something at the edge of them, a final beat withheld that the reader can only imagine, and the effect of this is a powerful haunting.
McConnell’s brilliant and wonderfully experimental collection on parenthood is the kind of work that teaches us how to ask questions we might never have thought to ask. Does parenthood always have to be gendered? Can a parental figure occupy a role that is neither ‘father’ nor ‘mother’? These poems are formally playful as they try to invent a new language and a new possibility for people who resist the limiting construct of gender.
What Sairish Hussain accomplishes in her debut novel The Family Tree is no easy feat – to tell a story that is unapologetically domestic – a story about a very ordinary family living a very ordinary life, and to pack it with so much tension that we can hardly breathe as we read, biting our nails, to see what happens to them all. Hussain’s saga is about a family that is not written about enough – a British Muslim family – and without throwing a single stereotype onto them, she allows every reader to relate. Literally. It’s as if Amjad is our own gentle father, Saahil our own perfectly imperfect brother, and Zahra our very own selves.
The year 2020 plunged the world into one of the strangest and sometimes brutal experiences we would have in this world. And what was particular about this world-wide catastrophe is that it was, itself, so silent and that it also imposed silence. Lovatt’s beautiful meditation on birdsong is the first account I have read to take up residence in that silence and to make sense of it. What a beautiful direction he gives to say, at this time – stop! Listen to the birds.
Ingrid Persaud’s prose is near flawless, her story-telling is compelling, but what really stands out in her novel is something more than its outstanding literary merits, and it’s her compassion. It’s not just that Persaud creates well-drawn and believable characters, but that she feels for them and draws us into that feeling. The great achievement of Love After Love, is that it teaches us all over again how to love.
McGinnis doesn’t require his readers to walk a mile in his shoes. In fact, he doesn’t want the reader to walk at all, but instead to navigate the world and its new strangeness from a wheelchair. From the opening epigraph, McGinnis tells us that the line between memoir and fiction is about to be blurred. The blurred line is this novel’s real accomplishment. The reader is never quite let off the hook, and the story is weirdly charming, darkly funny and deeply human.
– Kei Miller
Vahni Capildeo contextualises Kei Miller’s ten unmissable emerging UK writers
‘Kei Miller’s list of emergent writers fizzes with hope, like an old-timey musical. […] There is something for everyone: six novels, three volumes of poetry, and non-fiction. Two novels are family sagas which would make a book club happy. Another scratches the itch for horror. What qualities might these titles share – apart from being stunningly well-written?’ Continue reading >>>