Which books influenced you growing up? How can we ensure that future generations are exposed to brilliant writing? Derek Owusu’s hand-pick of essential books is a good place to start…
Derek Owusu won the Desmond Elliot Prize in 2020 for his debut novel, That Reminds Me, which was published by Stormzy’s #Merky Books imprint. As part of an initiative to inspire pupils and further increase the reach of the Desmond Elliott Prize, we asked Derek to share his top ten books to be donated to his old school – Aylward Academy in north London. The titles have been purchased by the NCW from New Beacon Books, the UK’s first black publisher, specialist bookshop and international book distributor.
A Man of The People by Chinua Achebe
As Minister for Culture, the Honourable M. A. Nanga is ‘a man of the people’, as cynical as he is charming, and a roguish opportunist. At first, the contrast between Nanga and Odili, a former pupil who is visiting the ministry, appears huge. But in the ‘eat-and-let-eat’ atmosphere, Odili’s idealism soon collides with his lusts – and the two men’s personal and political tauntings threaten to send their country into chaos. Published, prophetically, just days before Nigeria’s first attempted coup in 1966, A Man of the People is an essential part of his body of work dealing with modern African history.
Slay in Your Lane by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené
This honest and provocative book recognises and celebrates the strides black women have already made, while providing practical advice for those who want to do the same and forge a better, visible future.
Illustrated with stories from best friends Elizabeth Uviebinené and Yomi Adegoke’s own lives, and using interviews with dozens of the most successful black women in Britain, Slay In Your Lane is essential reading for a generation of black women inspired to find success in every area of their lives.
Mask Off by JJ Bola
What is masculinity? Dominating the world around us, from Trump’s twitter outbursts to deadly gun violence, from male suicide rates to incels on Reddit and 4chan, masculinity is perceived to be ‘toxic’, ‘fragile’ and ‘in crisis’. In Mask Off, JJ Bola exposes masculinity as a performance that men are socially conditioned into. Using examples of non-Western cultural traditions, music and sport, he shines light on historical narratives around manhood, debunking popular myths along the way. differently by those around them.
The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward
This is the story of Yrsa Daley-Ward, and all the things that happened – ‘even the Terrible Things (and God, there were Terrible Things)’. It’s about her childhood in the north-west of England with her beautiful, careworn mother and her little brother who sees things written in the stars.
It’s also about growing up and discovering the power and fear of sexuality, about pitch grey days of pills and powder: going under, losing yourself, and finding your voice.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison’s blistering and impassioned first novel tells the extraordinary story of a man invisible ‘simply because people refuse to see me’. Published in 1952 when American society was in the cusp of immense change, the powerfully depicted adventures of Ellison’s invisible man – from his expulsion from a Southern college to a terrifying Harlem race riot – go far beyond the story of one individual to give voice to the experience of an entire generation of black Americans.
The 392 by Ashley Hickson-Lovence
Set entirely on a London bus travelling from Hoxton to Highbury and taking place over just 36 minutes, the events of The 392 unfold through a cast of charismatic characters coming from very different worlds.
On the 392 are all the familiar faces you might expect to see on any bus ride through inner-city London in the grip of gentrification: delinquent school kids, the high-flyers, the weird, the wonderful and the homeless. These Londoners share two things: a bus journey and a threat. A threat which is ready to blow apart everything they know.
The Scholar by Courttia Newland
When his dad dies under police arrest after a pub brawl, Cory goes to live with his cousin, Sean. By their late teens the cousins, though close, have chosen different paths. Sean is trying to improve his life through education, whereas Cory has already become involved in petty crime – burglary and dealing E. However, everything changes when Cory stabs a man called Roger after a rave, putting him in hospital.
The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu
As Nnenna Maloney approaches womanhood she longs to connect with her Igbo-Nigerian culture. Her once close and tender relationship with her mother, Joanie, becomes strained as Nnenna begins to ask probing questions about her father, who Joanie refuses to discuss.
Nnenna is asking big questions of how to ‘be’ when she doesn’t know the whole of who she is. Meanwhile, Joanie wonders how to love when she has never truly been loved. Their lives are filled with a cast of characters asking similar questions about identity and belonging whilst grappling with the often hilarious encounters of everyday Manchester.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in 21st century daily life and in the media. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essays, images and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, ‘post-race’ society.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
The award-winning poet Claudia Rankine, well known for her experimental multigenre writing, fuses the lyric, the essay, and the visual in this politically and morally fierce examination of solitude in the rapacious and media-driven assault on selfhood that is contemporary America. With wit and intelligence, Rankine strives toward an unprecedented clarity-of thought, imagination, and sentence-making-while arguing that recognition of others is the only salvation for ourselves, our art, and our government.
We couldn’t donate Derek Owusu’s selection of books without also including a copy of his own Desmond Elliott Prize-winning debut, That Reminds Me, which we think is essential reading for book-lovers of all ages.
That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu
This is the story of K.
K is sent into care before a year marks his birth. He grows up in fields and woods, and he is happy, he thinks. When K is eleven, the city reclaims him. He returns to an unknown mother and a part-time father, trading the fields for flats and a community that is alien to him. Slowly, he finds friends. Eventually, he finds love. He learns how to navigate the city. But as he grows, he begins to realise that he needs more than the city can provide. He is a man made of pieces. Pieces that are slowly breaking apart
That Reminds Me is the story of one young man, from birth to adulthood, told in fragments of memory. It explores questions of identity, belonging, addiction, sexuality, violence, family and religion. It is a deeply moving and completely original work of literature from one of the brightest British writers of today.