Books We Love... 

that you need to read


Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, winner of the 2021 Jhalak Prize for her powerful novel The First Woman (OneWorld) recommends some of her favourite books:

Maru by Bessie Head:

This goes back to my younger days. Luckily, it was recommended rather than a taught classroom text – nothing destroyed the joy of reading like studying a book for literature back then. Maru was my first novel by Bessie Head and after reading it I went and bought the rest of her novels. The writing style in Maru is deceptively simple – it’s short and precise – but I think that just added to the constant surprise and the sense of ambush at the ending, leaving my heart pounding at the end. I carried on writing Maru’s future long after I had finished the book. For all these reasons, it is a book I keep going back to. I think it is still hiding something from me. As an author, this is where I learnt that readers create the story as they go along. It’s important to leave gaps, to give the reader space to create alongside you.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga:

Again, this one is from my high school days. I borrowed it from a friend. I remember when I read the opening line: my jaw just dropped. Good African girls did not say, ‘I was not sorry when my brother died’. Such sacrilege was tantamount to wishing for the demise of a sibling. This must have been in 1988 or 1989 and such wickedness, even literary, had not crossed my path. I remember looking around and wondering who had ‘heard’ me read it. Of course, by the end of the novel I was celebrating Nhamo’s death too.

I had a similar reaction to Reni Eddo-Lodge’s title, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. The first time I saw it I thought, ‘tell me she did not write that out loud!’ because those were things we said behind closed doors. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions taught me boldness, it taught me audacity. After that, nothing was unsayable for me.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones:

Novels like this push a reader into expecting and demanding more from a book. Novels like this make an author wonder: ‘What am I doing being an author if I cannot write like this?’ After reading it I thought, ‘If I am going to be read by someone who’s read this, then I better up my game!’ It is the book I have most recommended to people. Tayari Jones understands the reader, she gives them more than they expect. And, oh boy – the language, the structure, the syntax – everything sings in harmony, there’s not a note out of place.

Lives of Great Men by Chike Frankie Edozien

This was the first memoir I read by a middle class, Nigerian gay man privileged enough to move to New York and be himself. It is about being a son, a journalist, a fighter and an African man in America. Chike opened my eyes to how the queer world covertly coexists alongside the heterosexual one. He lays bare the extent of Africa’s loss to the West, in terms of skills, expertise, talent and entrepreneurship, that results from the rejection of its own. But most of all, this is a book about loving a mother, a father, a partner, and about being loved back.

Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ waThiong’o

This one is from my school days, when studying the nature of satire. This novel is why I fell in love with satire. It is my favourite of all Ngũgĩ’s novels and plays. It is where I learnt to wield humour, irony and sarcasm as weapons of anger. It was drummed into my head that you never let anger spill onto the page. Instead, you use these elements to reign it in. We studied it along with A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift and both texts left a strong impression on me. Sometimes, the study of literature can take the pleasure out of reading and it becomes a chore, but because of the humour I roared and hooted my way through Devil on the Cross. As an author, I know that with humour you’ll get away with murder, that irony can bite without bitterness, and that sarcasm will take the story far. For this I am thankful to Mwalimu Ngũgĩ.

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As our 2021 judges – Yvonne Battle-Felton, Louise Doughty and Peter Kalu for the Jhalak Prize, and Candy Gourlay and Kiran Millwood Hargrave for the inaugural Jhalak Children’s & YA Prize deliberate, and yes agonise over selecting our shortlists for the year, we share their views on reading for the prize, on picking the longlist, and the books they love….that you need to read:

Yvonne Battle-Felton: Judging the Jhalak Prize has introduced me to works I may not have otherwise read. Imagine! I wouldn’t have met some of the characters, stories, phrases, lines, thoughts, facts, scenes, landscapes, topics, and more that left me - a lover of words - reduced to one: wow. The longlist is a stunning achievement. How did it feel to be a judge for this wonderful prize? Emotionally, I am lit up: filled to the brim with stories, characters, and a range of emotions. One of them is gratitude.

Louise Doughty: I've been a previous judge for the Booker Prize, the Costa Novel Award, the Desmond Elliot Prize and numerous others, and never have I found it so hard to narrow the entries down to a longlist. The standard was amazingly high and inevitably the personal preferences of the judges had to come into play - but no writer should feel disheartened by missing out in this fifth anniversary year, the competition was fierce.

Peter Kalu: Judge Not (that you be not judged). Is a daisy more beautiful than an orchid? This is the task judges are faced with. Did we get it right here? For now, no-one knows. Time will judge the judges. Yet if I fell onto a desert Island and had the Jhalak 2021 Longlist as my only reading, I know I would have a stay filled with wonders, nightmares, speculations, provocations and a beautifully strong sense of what it is to be human and among other humans. I have thoroughly enjoyed the process. Though I’ve twisted and turned these last few nights at some of the amazing books that have been left off. The winner is not among the longlist. The winner is literature itself.

Candy Gourlay: It was humbling to read this treasure chest of entries, a revelation of talent! Our list puts on display the best an author for children can offer, always perfectly pitched to the young reader, whether an illustrated book to read aloud or a young adult with all the burgeoning emotion that involves. I was especially excited by the untold histories now finding their way into books, the unheard voices singing from their pages.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Judging any prize is always a mix of joy and tough decisions, and the quality of the entries to the Jhalak CYA Prize this year made it an especially exciting experience. We have settled on a longlist that foregrounds and rewards storytelling in all its forms, from picture books made to be seen and shared aloud, to fantastical, moving middle grade, and YA that grips and confronts. It's an extraordinary longlist, and I can recommend every book on it with my full and whole heart.

The shortlists for both prizes will be announced on 13th April 2021.

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For this year’s LGBT+ History Month in the UK, author Niven Govinden picks some of his favourite reads by queer writers of colour for our Books We Love…that You Need to Read blog. Niven is the award-winning author of five novels. His latest, The Diary of a Film has just been published to rave reviews.

Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone, James Baldwin

This is the Baldwin novel I always return to, and think the most about. It's overshadowed by the greater weight of “Another Country” and “Giovanni's Room”, but to my mind it's quintessential Jimmy, in its telling of a creative life discovered and then thriving across New York, segregated America, and latterly the freedom of Europe. In Leo Proudhammer, Baldwin gives us a complex lead narrator: honest, egotistical, dramatic, bisexual, loving; one whose passion on and off stage looms large. Scenes of police brutality in childhood New York could have been written yesterday - ditto the emotive passages on travelling as a man of colour around Europe. What a book.

The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories, Golnoosh Nour

I was blown away by the stories in this collection, that presents Iran and Persian queer life (and the diapora) in always engaging and multi-layered ways. These are stories that continue to linger long after reading: "Spoilt", with its childhood lesson of disappointment, "Transit", a story of in-flight queer possibility, and "Acid", with its brutal takedown of the hipster culture in London and a mis-matched emotionally destructive relationship. I finished this collection wanting to read everything that had Nour's name on it. So excited to see what comes next.

Slingshot, Cyree Jarelle Johnson

There's a breadth, dynamism and energy coming from queer PoC poets that I totally NEED. I’m so excited about the work that poetry presses and journals do in nurturing and giving a platform to that work. Johnson is based in the U.S, but I would also mention Keith Jarret, whose collection Selah though different, electrifies me in the same way. In many ways, UK publishers have yet to match this in fiction - but we’re seeing signs of change. Slingshot takes ownership of sex work, disability, and the black body in language that speaks of depth, power, defeat, victory, autonomy. It's everything.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, Jeremy Atherton Lin

It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the book that had the most impact on me as a lockdown reader last year. Lin’s non-fiction debut is a (social) history of queer nightlife, across London, San Francisco and Los Angeles, weaved with personal memoir from the 90s to present day. It’s intersectional, fluid, lucid, moving, and hot AF. We’ve never needed to go out dancing and cruising more – and until we can, we can live through Lin’s glorious book. It’s a triumph.

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