The third International Literature Showcase of 2019 has been revealed. We asked Jackie Kay to personally introduce her selection of UK-based BAME writers.
I would have given a lot growing up to come across these writers. When I was a teenager the only black writer I came across was Wole Soyinka in his poem ‘Telephone Conversation’. When I was seventeen, I went to University and did a course on the Indian Novel. I discovered writers like Anita Desai and Mulk Raj Anand. They were a revelation. Through reading, I travelled halfway across the world. A little later, I found Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Gloria Naylor. I found that reading helped me understand myself, and my complex identity. It helped me piece myself back together again. Books kept me company in the dark. I suddenly found characters that looked like me and asked some of the same questions. I was not alone anymore. I had the very finest of company. It took me a long time though to find writers of colour from this country. The first writer I came across was Buchi Emecheta back in the late seventies; then I found a whole family of Caribbean poets – writers like James Berry, Grace Nichols, Fred D’Aguiar, Jean Binta Breeze. It was like extending your family. Good writers offer the reader something so deeply affecting that the impact stays with you for a very long time. Books you love become part of you. You are partly formed by them.
These ten writers open up the world to you and give you the world back. There’s a worldly-wise wisdom in their work, as well as an abundance of humour. They are bold. They often tackle difficult and dangerous themes with an extraordinary grace and lightness of touch. They are all writers who make the reader ask questions of themselves and their place in the world, and they are all writers that give us back the world in all its complex glory. Sometimes witty, sometimes elegiac, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes unnerving, sometimes hilarious, sometimes euphoric, these ten writers offer the reader a whole range of experience.
These ten writers open up the world to you and give you the world back.
Many of these writers write across forms and across times – using the past to hold up a mirror to our own time. Many of these writers have experienced one or more forms of discrimination and have found a way of writing about it in original and authentic ways. I’m excited to introduce these writers not just because they challenge received wisdom, not just because they give us a new way of looking at the old, not just because they offer us insight and understanding, not just because they often make us laugh, but because they are good. Bold, brilliant and brave, these ten writers give us a real idea of the range of talent writing in the UK today. All of them are interested in language, in memory, in time – and all make us think deeply about what it means to be a human being alive in Britain in the 21st century. The future is complex; the future is hybrid. These ten voices make me feel hopeful about our future and give me back some of my past.
Jay Bernard’s poems sing with outrage and indignation, with fury and passion. They tell the story, amongst other things, of the two of the terrible fires of our times: New Cross Fire and Grenfell and shockingly show how the past holds up an uncomfortable mirror to the present. Bernard finds a delicate way of returning the lost to the world. They have brio, they have brilliance, they are breathtakingly brave.
Mary Jean Chan’s work opens the window, and the door. Her work has an astounding urgency to it. A poet of our time – she captures the newness of everything, stepping into a gay bar for the first time. Her poetry is psychologically astute and culturally complex.
Eric Ngalle Charles is a versatile writer, excels in various forms. Ngalle Charles’s voice reaches out across the divides, across the lands, from Cameroon, to Russia to the UK taking it all in. His work examines the horrifying experience of detention, of being the victim of human trafficking with extraordinary grace and lightness of touch.
Imtiaz Dharker’s poetry shines a light in the dark. She is interested in how things work, in art, in history, in politics. There’s little that does not catch her attention. You cannot hear her perform without being somehow transformed by the experience. Witty, wise, profound and moving her work crosses continents. Carol Ann Duffy said if there was to be a world laureate it would be Imtiaz Dharker. Agreed.
Michael Donkor’s brilliance is in the way he captures voices; his work has an immediacy and a warmth to it and his is a world you want to enter, whose characters spring vividly to life. You read Hold and you say to yourself Hold on, I want to read more from this writer.
Diana Evans’s fiction is emotionally intelligent, dark, funny, moving, Diana Evan’s novels build and build. The sheer energy of them is enthralling. A brilliant craftswoman, a master of the form, she makes the reader ask important questions of themselves and makes them laugh at the same time.
Nadine Aisha Jassat is a fearless poet, who boldly takes on difficult themes, like gender-based violence, reasserting her right to speak out about those things that are often hidden from view. Hers is a powerful, unforgettable new voice.
Zaffar Kunial’s poems are precise, startling in their originality, full of grace. Kunial traces the roots in language to then track the roots in his mixed-race identity, effortlessly transporting the reader from one place to another.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi takes her readers from Manchester to Kampala, from the novel to the short story. Her stories illuminate not just the experiences of Ugandans in Manchester, who return to Uganda but of all immigrants who face the unfamiliar, the unfriendly, the strange habits and customs of a new land. Witty as well as deeply affecting, Makumbi is as comfortable in the grand sweep of the epic novel as she is in the powerful shot of the short story.
Olumide Popoola’s elegant and lyrical prose is instantly engaging. Her complex work captures the atmosphere and the tempo of the racial tension in Kings Cross. She is fascinated with the spaces in between culture and form, and she is adept at moving between Nigeria, Germany and the UK.
Jackie Kay is a multi-award-winning writer of novels, short stories, plays and television. She was awarded an MBE in 2006, made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002 and named Scots Makar in March 2016.