Fiction

The Best Black British Writers

recommended by Jacqueline Roy

The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy

Newly rereleased

The Fat Lady Sings
by Jacqueline Roy

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Black British writers have been storming the bestseller charts in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. Here, Jacqueline Roy—the novelist and lecturer in Black literature—selects five of the best books by Black British writers that deserve more attention.

Interview by Cal Flyn

The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy

Newly rereleased

The Fat Lady Sings
by Jacqueline Roy

Read
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Thank you for putting together a reading list for us that highlights five of the best Black British writers. To start us off, could you first explain how you selected these books?

One of the difficulties with putting together a selection of books is resisting the idea that you are putting some sort of canon together. That’s not what I want to do. One of my aims was to choose books that aren’t particularly well known, but deserve more attention.

For example, Ashley Hickson-Lovence’s The 392—it’s a relatively new book. I don’t think many people know about it yet. And then there’s the much older book by David Dabydeen, A Harlot’s Progress, which I think is an absolutely remarkable novel. And I chose Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe, because it’s one of her lesser known novels. People are focusing so much on Girl, Woman, Other, so I wanted something a bit different. She’s such an important writer, I didn’t want to leave her out.

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Then there’s Kit de Waal. Again, a relatively new writer compared to David Dabydeen and Bernardine Evaristo, but she has a really fresh voice, and she’s looking at areas that I think we need to be talking about more in Black communities. That also applies to Judith Bryan’s novel, Bernard and the Cloth Monkey, because it addresses trauma. I think Black writers are a bit reluctant to talk about trauma within the family—there’s a sense that that’s one stereotype that’s worked against us for so long, that Black families are dysfunctional in some way. So I thought it was a really courageous novel, and one that was long overdue.

Your own novel The Fat Lady Sings has just been republished as part of the Black Britain: Writing Back series. This has been billed as “a rediscovery of lost or hard-to-find books.” 

It’s been really exciting for me, because it came absolutely out of the blue. It was first published twenty years ago, so it was in the past, really—then suddenly I was getting the opportunity to be heard again. The agenda behind this series, created by Bernardine Evaristo, is to rediscover novels that perhaps didn’t get much of a reading first time around, for all sorts of reasons.

In the early nineties, I went to a Black writers’ conference, and someone from a major publishing house said that as a policy they didn’t publish Black British writing, because there wasn’t a market for it. They would publish African writing and Caribbean writing, but not British writing. So it was very hard at that time to get published and be heard. Most of us were published by small independent houses that couldn’t really sustain the kind of impetus that books need to be disseminated more widely.

This series has been an exciting opportunity for us to feel we’re being heard again.

And yes, let’s pick up on that point about the market. Political attitudes have changed, but sales have taken a long time to catch up. In recent months, however, we have seen bestseller lists dominated by Black writers. Do you feel like things are changing for the better in publishing more broadly?

Yes, I do. And we have to sustain the momentum. I’m a bit worried that, though people are interested for the moment, I don’t want it to be like a fashion show—and in a few years time find nothing happening again for Black writers. We must sustain interest, because Black Britain is a very, very important part of British culture. If our voices aren’t heard, we’re not getting a representative picture of the country.

Of course, the Black Lives Matter movement has really fuelled that interest. A lot of Black people have been saying: ‘where are the books that reflect our experiences?’ There really has been an absence that needs to be filled. The time is right.

There have been a lot of very successful nonfiction books – polemic, memoir, essays. Reni Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was first published in 2017 and returned to the charts in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. Candice Brathwaite’s I Am Not Your Baby Mother has also been a bestseller. It’s been great, too, to see Black novelists finding huge success, like Candice Carty-Williams’ with her international smash hit Queenie.

Yes. A few years ago it seemed that the attitude of a lot of people was: ‘We’ve got one Black writer. We don’t really need any more.’ So to have Penguin bring out six books simultaneously by different Black writers… It’s really huge, I think.

That’s great. And, yes, we’re going to start with one of the other books in the Black Britain: Writing Back series. This is Bernard and the Cloth Monkey, by Judith Bryan. First published in 1998 and freshly re-released. Why do you think this book deserves a wider audience?

So many reasons. One is that it crosses boundaries in what it’s prepared to talk about, and it does that without melodrama or sensationalism. It’s a really quiet novel; Bernardine Evaristo described it as exemplary, a “quietly outstanding novel”. That’s certainly my sense. As I was reading it, I was thinking, wow, it’s saying such important things, but doing it in such a way that it’s very accessible.

Two: it’s absolutely beautifully written. I was so drawn to the prose, to the rhythms of the prose. And to the sense of place. One of the things that the novel is doing is allowing Black people to simply belong in the space that they’re occupying. That’s not contested, you know? It’s taken for granted: they’re Black and they’re British. So for me, when it was first published, this was pretty extraordinary. I didn’t manage to read it then, I didn’t know of its existence, which tells you something about the poor dissemination of Black literature.

“Black Britain is a very, very important part of British culture. If our voices aren’t heard, we’re not getting a representative picture of the country”

I lectured in English at Manchester Metropolitan University for many years, and I really liked teaching Black British literature. But the problem was always that the books were so quickly out of print, or were so hard to get. I couldn’t put them on the list because students couldn’t get hold of them.

This book also has an incredibly clever title. I was initially thinking: What sort of book is this? Is it a children’s book? But as you go through the novel, the reason for the title becomes apparent. It’s like unpeeling and onion, its so layered. You unpeel one section, then the next, and gradually the secrets of the family are exposed, but in a very clever, careful and considered way. It’s also concise, under 300 pages. I don’t feel there’s an extra word anywhere in it. It’s pared back, yet creates atmosphere and a sense of longing. Ultimately, hope too. And that’s what I really value in novels.

I wonder if the exercise of republishing books years after first launch offers an interesting opportunity to reflect upon how society has changed in the intervening period? Must our appreciation of the book be layered, in that sense, too?

Well, this book seems really timeless. It could come from any period. It could be from the 1990s. It could just have been published yesterday, it has that sort of appeal. So although, obviously, some Black British novels are very much of their time, I don’t feel that’s the case at all with this particular book.

Interesting. Now, we’ve mentioned the Booker Prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo a couple of times already. Your second book recommendation is by her: The Emperor’s Babe. It’s a novel written in blank verse and set in Roman London.

One of the exciting things for me about this novel is the verse aspect. It’s hard to know quite how to describe it. It’s so rhythmic, and the use of language is so beautiful. But it’s also playful and irreverent. I really like that irreverence applied to Roman Britain, because one of the things about British education is that the Classical world is treated with a huge amount of reverence. Only the elite have access to it‚ it being taught in private schools and not in state schools. So it’s great to see a Black writer parodying aspects of it, playing with it, so that the Romans are going around in Armani togas, all these anachronisms. The language draws on Latin, but also East End slang. So it’s doing many things.

Also, what’s very, very important to me, is that it’s a kind of revisionist look at history. It’s saying, yes, there was a Black presence in Roman Britain. It’s contesting the whole idea of Britishness. That seems important too. We tend to think that Black people arrived with the Windrush.

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A few years ago, there was a version of A Christmas Carol on the BBC, and it was cast with Black characters. I looked on the internet to see its reception, and so many people were complaining, saying: ‘Black people in Victorian Britain? This is all rubbish!’ ‘Political correctness gone mad!’ That kind of thing. Actually, there has been a strong Black presence in Britain since Roman times. Greater or lesser, depending on the period, but certainly it existed. So I loved The Emperor’s Babe for asserting that and bringing it to light.

It’s a novel that you can access on all kind of different levels. A lot of people would be a bit scared to approach it, but its incredibly accessible. If you’re not confident reading poetry, simply read it as a story. It works at that level too. So, it’s really complex, but anyone can access it and get something out of it.

Yes. And it’s just brilliantly fun, right? I love what Kirkus had to say on its first publication: “like an episode of Sex and the City written by Ovid.”

That sums it up perfectly. It’s also a novel that has lots of different moods in it. Sometimes its quiet, sometimes full of life. It’s vibrant, really noisy. You can almost smell the things she describes, its so vividly written. It’s all mashed up into this lovely Londinium, one of senators and the rich, but also people like Zuleika, who describes herself as speaking “plebby Creole”.

I can’t think of a better time to be reading books that interrogate this idea of what ‘Britishness’ means. Shall we move on to Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon? It strikes a somewhat different tone.

Yes. Leon is a nine-year-old boy who is taken into care because his mother can’t look after him. She’s his white parent; he has a Black parent, his father, who is absent. He also has a baby half-brother who is white. That’s very significant in the story, because one of the things that becomes apparent is that the baby is much more likely to be adopted permanently.

Leon is desperate to hold his family together. We see everything through his eyes. That’s one of the very clever things about the novel; it’s in the third person, but it’s still written for the most part in the language of a child. So the reader is positioned so that they understand far, far more than Leon possibly can about his circumstances. It makes for a really poignant story. That’s one of the reasons I included it.

“There has been a strong Black presence in Britain since Roman times”

It’s very touching. I don’t often feel this about books, partly because—having worked in higher education for many years—I have quite an academic edge when I’m reading, a lot of the time. But I was really drawn to this on a visceral level.I really felt for this boy and found myself willing him to succeed and to get the things in life that he needed.

I thought a lot about how that was achieved in the writing. I think it’s to do with the real compassion in the way that it’s written, a kind of tenderness, almost, that you don’t often see sustained in fiction. I felt both moved and excited by it. Because at one level it seems like a straightforward novel, not particularly complex. But it achieves so much. It’s so humane. I think it is a very complex novel. Not many novels can do that.

De Waal’s mother was a foster carer, and she herself worked in family law. So I assume this is being written from a strong base of knowledge, both professional and personal.

It did seem incredibly well-informed about the processes that children had to go through at that time. Which gave it a kind of authenticity. I’m always worried about using the term ‘authenticity’, because of course it’s a construct. But because of the subject matter, it really needed to be believable to succeed. And it was, for all these reasons.

I think this brings us to David Dabydeen’s A Harlot’s Progress, which you touched on earlier. It takes as a starting point the Black boy in the famous Hogarth painting dating from the 18th century.

Yes. What Dabydeen does is construct a whole narrative around this painting, and at the same time interrogates the function of art. It’s not simply taking the Black boy and giving him a story, it’s actually asking: why was he in this painting?

Dabydeen is also an art historian, and one of the things that he has talked about eloquently is the way that in the 18th century, Black children and especially boys, were taken by very wealthy families and put in the household, a bit like page boys… slave children effectively. You often see them in portraits. Dabydeen suggests that one of the reasons they are in portraits is to contrast their black skin with the white skin of the main people in the portrait, so in a way they exist to facilitate whiteness, amplify whiteness, make us particularly aware of whiteness as a phenomenon.

“I love books that convey compassion. It’s so important”

The main part of the book is about slavery. What excited me so much when I read it was the question of how you represent really terrible trauma in a way that’s accessible to a reader. Because I don’t know about you, but when I read accounts of slavery, particularly slave narratives, I keep flinching. It’s hard to do. But we need to flinch, because it is horrendous. That violence is really hard to achieve in fiction.

One of the things that David Dabydeen does is create a kind of surreal form of narrative for those parts that are talking about slavery. So, on the slave ship, you have heads rolling across the deck. It’s quite hallucinogenic, a sort of heightened reality. For me, that was absolutely the most appropriate language for describing the slave trade; it really captured the horrors.

It also goes on to think about the aristocracy of 18th century Britain and how much of their wealth was absolutely contingent on maintaining that slave trade. All kinds of structures are looked at: the role of art in upholding and maintaining discrimination and colonialism; the position of the aristocracy… What also interested me was that the white working classes in the novel were treated respectfully and humanely as people also caught up in an inhumane system. Although they treated Mungo, the slave boy, badly, there were reasons for that. I love books that convey compassion. It’s so important.

Dabydeen himself is a very interesting figure. I read an interview where he spoke about how books became a kind of escape for him as a young man after immigrating to England from Guyana: “to survive you had to find a safe passage past the skinheads to the book shelves.  Libraries were secure places, you could easily hide in books, forget your immigrant status.” He went on to study literature at Cambridge—where he must have been studying an almost entirely white canon. Yet there is a sort of transcendence in how later he comes to reimagine, reinvent an iconic work of English art in his own image.

It’s that idea of revisionist sort of history, decolonising history, so that the stories that are otherwise absent get told. One of the things about contemporary fiction about slavery is that it can say things that slave narratives themselves couldn’t say—because they were censored narratives. They were usually told to, mediated by, abolitionists. Dabydeen plays with that in this novel, by having Mungo tell his story to an abolitionist. And the abolitionist gets lots of different versions and doesn’t know what to do with any of it. He doesn’t know what’s true and what isn’t. Of course, the novel is also contesting the idea of a single truth; it’s giving us multiple truths and multiple ways of seeing things, which British history has tended not to do.

You said something earlier that echoed with Bernardine Evaristo—that it is not about selecting a new ‘canon.’ Could you talk a little about this rejection of the concept of the canon?

I think one of the things that’s happened, certainly with English literature, is that it works through exclusion. ‘Is this novel a great novel?’ ‘This is what you need to read, don’t bother with the rest.’ That kind of exclusion is often based on race, class and gender. So we need not to replicate that when we think about Black British writing.

It’s a real problem, because, after all, who does the choosing? It tends to be educated people. Historically, in universities, it’s been white people, middle class people. So of course the narratives are chosen to reflect their interests and values. We don’t want that. Even if it’s somebody like Bernardine Evaristo—she’s very aware that she doesn’t want her values to be reflected in the books that she chooses. She wants something broader than that.

Then let’s look to the final book on your own list. You mentioned it earlier, and it brings us bang up to date: a very exciting book by Ashley Hickson-Lovence, The 392, set in east London. Tell us about it.

It takes a group of people who are on a 392 bus on its maiden voyage through Hoxton. These are people from all walks of life. There are several Black characters, slightly fewer white characters. You can see the strategy there to give voice to Black experiences by a Black writer.

One of the things I loved about this book was this use of different registers. So you get Natalie, who is 19; you can really hear her, she’s so vibrant and vivid, such a strong character. There are about 13 narrative voices, all telling their story. And yet every chapter is so economical, the whole novel is only about 120 pages.

I really loved that there was a real disconnect between the way they were projecting themselves and the way they wanted to be. So a lot was about image, how you survive. You have to have a particular persona. It’s rough out there.

And as we went through the streets on the bus, each character was observing the changes that were happening in London. All of them felt they were Londoners, even those who were the children of migrants. The majority were thinking, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to recognise my home soon, because it’s all being gentrified.’ There’s lots of talk about hipsters, the sorts of people coming into Hoxton and changing the landscape.

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Natalie describes herself—very entertainingly—as the Queen of Hoxton. She sees herself as absolutely central to Hoxton. It’s very much a London novel. There’s a very strong sense of place coming through. And it seemed to me very contemporary, partly because of the use of idiom, the kind of contemporary London you see in grime. I could imagine Stormzy reading the book and enjoying it.

As with the Bernardine Evaristo book, this novel has a real musicality to it, even though it’s not about music. I think that’s one of the ways that Black writers express themselves; music is culturally important. Many of us have always had music from Jamaica, or Africa, if that’s where our parents come from. So it offers a continuum, if you like, that we haven’t necessarily had through literature. It’s a hugely important form. The 392 is not overtly working with that, but I think it is implicitly.

I love the multiplicity of voice in this novel, but they are linked by geography. Do you see ‘the Black British voice’ as being weighted towards London, or is it more diffuse?

I didn’t consciously choose London novels. But that’s pretty much what they have in common. My own writing focuses on London as well, because I was brought up there, although I live in Manchester now. I think that’s a danger. We need to be hearing more from regional writers.

I think white writing suffers from the same thing; it’s much harder to be published if you’re a regional writer, particularly if you have a regional voice and are not using standard English for whatever reason.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Jacqueline Roy

Jacqueline Roy

Jacqueline Roy is a dual-heritage author, born in London to a black Jamaican father and white British mother. In her teenage years she spent time in a psychiatric hospital, where she wrote as much as possible to retain a sense of identity; her novel The Fat Lady Sings is inspired by this experience of institutionalisation and the treatment of black people with regards to mental illness. She rediscovered a love of learning in her thirties after undertaking a Bachelors in English, and a Masters in Postcolonial Literatures. She then became a lecturer in English, specialising in Black Literature and Culture and Creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, where she worked full time for many years, and was a tutor on The Manchester Writing School's M.A. programme. She has written six books for children, and edited her late father's novel No Black Sparrows, published posthumously. A second novel for adults will be published in 2022. She now lives in Manchester.

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Jacqueline Roy

Jacqueline Roy

Jacqueline Roy is a dual-heritage author, born in London to a black Jamaican father and white British mother. In her teenage years she spent time in a psychiatric hospital, where she wrote as much as possible to retain a sense of identity; her novel The Fat Lady Sings is inspired by this experience of institutionalisation and the treatment of black people with regards to mental illness. She rediscovered a love of learning in her thirties after undertaking a Bachelors in English, and a Masters in Postcolonial Literatures. She then became a lecturer in English, specialising in Black Literature and Culture and Creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, where she worked full time for many years, and was a tutor on The Manchester Writing School's M.A. programme. She has written six books for children, and edited her late father's novel No Black Sparrows, published posthumously. A second novel for adults will be published in 2022. She now lives in Manchester.