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Peter Kalu, novelist, poet, essayist, critic and educator, was on our judging panel in 2021. In this two part series, he recommends the books he read and loved that did not make it to our longlist but are essential additions to the canon.


Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah


Afterlives is the work of a master storyteller. It has an intricate weave of plot and a depth of historical references as well as an epic sweep and ambition. One of Afterlives many felicities is the way in which it breaks free of the vice of monolingualism – German and Kiswahili are employed as well as English and add to a sense of verisimilitude: reflecting the polyglot nature of diverse communities – indeed of the world in general – in a way few books seek to do. The novel is also an exemplar of how to tell the big colonial story through the eyes of the ordinary individual. By centering that individual, it gives them (and so all of us) dignity and reminds us how the big convulsions of history affect those at the bottom of power structures. The socialist historian, E. P. Thompson would very much have approved. Afterlives, of all the book submitted to the Jhalak Prize 2021 had the largest sustained historical sweep. This makes it a grand novel and it deserves wide acclaim.



I am not your baby mother by Candice Brathwaite


A thoroughly engaging book, part memoir, part guide that looks at the trials, traps and joys of being a black British mother. After an essay-like opening, it follows the chronology of pregnancy, birth, newborn, early schooling. Along the journey, the book opens out engagingly about the tensions, and idiosyncrasies of the author’s close and wider family. The focus is on the particular challenges faced by this black mother rather than mothers in general. The investigation is rare and captures a popular demand. A statistics nugget often begins each chapter. This is then elucidated by personal experience. I am not your baby mother is a vital and necessary book, written in a very accessible style, with very personal touches ensuring it may be actually read rather than, like most guidebooks, merely gather dust on a shelf.


The Actual by Inua Ellams


An exhilarating collection of prose-poems / poems linked by the word fuck carrying the meaning of ‘this is not good’. Ellams finds dazzling ways of entering into ideas. Often the movement from one metaphor to the next is startling and yet apt.


It is a magisterial demonstration of linguistic brilliance, of a mind capable of dazzling feats of imagination: Ellams is brim-full of talent.


We have to explete if we are not to explode. Ellams- very powerfully, skilfully, expertly and movingly - expletes on our behalf.


Moving away from the swaggering cool of an entire book of poems that begin with ‘fuck’, this is an inspired charge of splintering verse, beautifully cadenced, completely original verse.


It makes poetry of the anger we carry as black folks within us, the anger we have to suppress in order to negotiate the white world, perhaps too the existentialist anger we all human beings carry the anger we decant, filter from our verse. Ellams gathers it all and with lighter in hand, sparks it. Then Boom the actual fuck. He excels at qualia, at images that hit the spot unexpectedly but so bang-on that we say yes, that’s it, that’s that feeling I’ve been chasing but could never put my finger on, Ellams has got it, has trapped it in words.

Form-wise, it is blank verse with prodigious use of the forward slash as its punctuation mark. That decision alone deserves acclaim. A thinking, breathing feeling poet, global, local, oscillating in tone between black Jesus and Malcolm X. Yeah. What the actual fuck. I love this shit.


A charge, if you want to see the sizzle of cordite, the rippling run of a fuse in verse, this is it.


Trivial Pursuits by Raven Smith

This collection or articles is a breathless, hyperventilating, free-associating, deliciously narcissistic, consumerist ticker-tape of the zeitgeist. Glorious and highly distinctive: sardonic, whizzing in all directions with riffs, escalations, surprising pull-backs, occasional, fleeting candour. Simile-laden, first to second-person switching, breathless, Trivial Pursuits is best read this in chunks rather than attempted it all at once.


What we don’t talk about by Charlot Kristensen


Brilliantly presented graphic novel of inter-racial love in England. It will appeal particularly perhaps to the 16 to 25 year old demographic and makes some strong points on the trials that such a romantic relationship might undergo: the white young man’s ‘polite racist’ parents prove hostile and when the white man downplays the problem this gaslights the young black woman. The visuals are sumptuous and the balance between text and visuals extremely well done. It would make a brilliant short film, especially if the graphic novel’s colouring can be replicated.



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Patrice Lawrence, winner of the inaugural Jhalak Children’s & Young Adult Prize for her rich YA novel, Eight Pieces of Silva (Hachette Children’s) recommends five books that influenced her development as a Black woman and a writer


The Fat Black Woman’s Poems by Grace Nicholls


Every book that has had a profound impact on me has been discovered by accident. My mother loves poetry, but it’s the poetry of the English Literature curriculum that formed the foundation of her colonial education in Trinidad. I love that poetry too – but I also grew up believing that poetry couldn’t be anything else. I found Grace’s anthology in a second hand bookshop in Brighton. It showed me that poetry could be something different – and that womanhood could be something different from the ill-fitting mould of young white womanhood that seemed to be all that was on offer to me.


Pig-Heart Boy by Malorie Blackman


Did I ever think that someone that looked like me could be the main character in a children’s book? I never thought it. I never thought about thinking it. It was beyond my point of reference. Children’s books were full of white children and written by white people, often women and usually dead. That was fact. (Though obviously not at the time of writing.) Pig-Heart Boy appeared in my life when I had just become a new mother so was feeling hyper-sensitive to the way that my child would experience the world. It was about a Black family that wasn’t from the US and wasn’t about gangs, racism or crime. It was about love and ethics and validated the importance of my own perspective. Until then, all the characters in my stories were white.


So Much by Trish Cooke illustrated by Helen Oxenbury


An early Amazon buy that algorithms threw unexpectedly in my direction. The words, the pictures – a snapshot of mid-1990s Caribbean fashion. The tramlines! The desert boots! The joyfulness of Black family love. More than twenty years after buying it, that book is still on our shelf.



Random by Debbie Tucker Green


A script of a play, so cheating? It’s definitely purchasable in book form. I have friends who are great at booking theatre trips and before this, I hadn’t heard about Debbie Tucker Green. It’s a one-woman play about Black working class woman whose teenage brother is killed by a knife. It’s a mistress-class in dialogue, rhythm and characterisation – saying so much with so little. It thoroughly changed the way I used dialogue in my books and gave me the confidence to celebrate the resonances of young people’s words.



Tell Me Your Secret by Dorothy Koomson


A Black woman from Brighton reading a thriller about Black women in Brighton? How many ways can I say ‘yes’ to this! I hate cultural snobbery across the board – classical music being superior to pop, art-house films superior to the Marvel Universe. (As if.) In my twenties, I filled myself full of literary fiction. This, I believed, was what writers were supposed to aspire to even though I’ve always loved crime and thrillers. Writing exemplary commercial fiction like pop music is a wonderful skill – you have to swivel around cliches while embracing the tropes that fans expect. It has to say something new while having a touch of the familiar. Dorothy is an absolute queen at this.


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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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