Books We Love... 

that you need to read

  • Jhalak Prize

Roy McFarlane ruminates on fatherhood, raising a Black daughter, inter-generational memories, a parent’s worst nightmare and the book he is giving his daughter as she goes off to university. These are books all parents...indeed all of us must read:

It’s that time already, time to send in the books that you think could win the 2021 Jhalak Prize. This incredible unique prize for writers of colour born, living or working in the UK.

As a former judge, anything goes; non-fiction, fiction, essays, poems and prose, YA books, children books, graphic novels, even cooking books, every genre that you can imagine has found its way onto my door mat. So just to give you a taste of the quality, beauty and depths of writing that I had the good pleasure to read, I’m continuing the series of Books We Love…that you need to read, the books that I thought got away, that any other year I believe would have been long listed.

As a father taking my daughter out as a child, the numerous times strangers would reach out to touch my daughter’s hair and hesitate in the cold stare of my disapproval, is unbelievable. Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch My Hair is a personal journey from Ireland to London to Africa, drawing down on her heritage and history of the African-diasporic hair. The fascination, fetishism, exoticism and even a period of romanticism, are untangled and equally weaved with her own Irish-Nigerian experience. Emma places hair in the centre of the discourse on colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism and re-claiming her beauty and identity, taking us back to Africa, pre-western influence to understand the philosophy and theology of who we are and who we can be.This is a well-researched book across the African diaspora, that pulls apart and debunks the Eurocentric, negative understanding of the African hair. Emma provides us with amazing facts, such as ‘Fairy Mae’s inky version of Rapunzel’s locks,’the hidden story behind the Madam C J Walker’s multi-million hair empire. There’s something profound in knowing,“Through African hairstyles we can observe beauty standards and aesthetics, spiritual devotion, values and ethics, and even, quite literally maps from slavery to freedom.”

Wow, all of that encoded in a hairstyle. It’s time to let that halo of afro bounce and walk like deities crowned with braids of hair.

Her Lost Language by Jenny Mitchell is a reclaiming of words made flesh in this collection. This is a garnering of tales from the Windrush generation, lovingly and tenderly laid down on the page.Jenny no doubt relies on the oral traditions of the elders, squeezed memories of stories told in passing, and gleaned tales from traveling back to Jamaica. “I’ll be the dress she never owned…”This book covers the nakedness of a generation of black folks with a rich garment of words. Jenny takes us back as far as she can to slave plantations where ‘breeze made escape easy for birds.’ The poem ‘Lost Child’ is a harrowing beautiful lament for a child thrown overboard made so real through the finding of a necklace of small stones by the sea. This collection is a beautiful necklace of poems, pearled between the Caribbean and the British Isle, each poem shinning, singing, lamenting ancestors, family members, mothers and fathers. There’s a lyrical danceto be found in the stories of the past when she imagines enslavement and post slavery in Jamaica. But when the poems find their way to England, The Big Freeze, her mother working in the NHS and bringing up a family, there’s a raw truth telling of her experience and her parents’ lived reality in Britain. Jenny has just begun with this debut collection and I’m certainly looking forward to her next one.

We know about Shamima Begum through headline news, snapshots of a story in the blaze of anger at the idea that someone would leave a comfortable life, ungrateful in light of what British citizenship affords her and travel miles to join a terrorist group. And yet Shamima was a young girl aged 15 on the cusp of so much hope and opportunity. Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of Isis by Azadeh Moaveni asks you to take a breath and read into the many lives of young women caught up in this life changing moment and walk the thin line of victim and/or collaborator. She begins with the stories of Djamila Bouhired and Leila Khaled resistance and liberation fighters who earned celebrity status in the 60s and 70s internationally, so what about the present? You’ll never know the journey of these women of the Islamic State until you’ve walked in their sandals (I’m paraphrasing). Azadeh tries to remedy that by following thirteen women; young, old, working class, well off, some educated, some not, some aspiring to Western ideals, some seeking a better understanding of being a Muslim. These are the stories of our daughters, falling in love, ambitious, pushing the boundaries, forming an identity, but most of all the profound need to belong. At times due to no fault of their own; ‘as though her hijab did not simply cover her hair but cloaked her in invisibility,’ we fall down the rabbit hole with these women. Sometimes faith can be a solace, a sanctuary, a soothing in the heat of rejection, racism and sometimes there are those who manipulate souls into individuals full of rage and hate. But if we call ourselves a civilised state, then this book entreats and implores us to have a better understanding of the plight of women such as Shamima Begum.

I’ll be running my daughter down to London to start her second year at university, after the stop and start of the last academic year. To add to her full-length mirror, matching rug to her duvet cover, I’m throwing in her suitcase Taking up Space by Chelsea Kwakye & Ore Ogunbiyi. How to survive the rigours of the education system not designed to be user friendly to people of colour, Taking up Space is a manifesto for change, an act of resistance. I loved how this is an open letter of affirmation: you’ve earned your place in higher education, however minute the representation of colour may be seen amongst your peers or worse amongst the faculty member. There’s a collective responsibility to be aware of the conundrums and problems that young people of colour might face. The book is made up of discourses with students of past and present, alongside facts, statistics and lived experience, shedding light on institutional racism, decolonising the curriculum, mental health, a black sisterhood, loving oneself, black activism and many more subjects which are explored in this well thought out collection. I feel safe in the knowledge Taking up Space is a timely companion piece for my daughter to turn to whilst she manages and negotiates her place as a black woman in the hallowed halls of academia and society.

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  • Jhalak Prize

Roy McFarlane, poet, former community worker and judge for Jhalak Prize 2020, Inaugurates Our New Blog With Some of His Favourite Reads:

2020 was a momentous year for the Jhalak Prize: over 160 books were read and despite the issues of Covid-19 and being in lockdown, the organisers were able to celebrate and praise Johnny Pitts for his seminal volume Afropean, selected from a longlist of a dozen books.

But after all the celebrations, I’ve been musing over the quality, beauty and depths of writing of people of colour in the UK; imagining an alternative universe where I would have chosen another longlist. I’m still wishing that the longlist could have been longer, so I could have squeezed in another dozen. Well today, the Jhalak Prize heard my pain and afforded me this space to share with you: Books We Love that you need to read.

I came across After the Formalities (Penned in the Margins 2019) by Anthony Anaxagorou, a wonderful poetry collection which I happened to read in one sitting (actually, a couple of train journeys and a café). I was enamoured by its pure brilliance in use of language, poetic form and the lyrical dexterity used to explore subjects of loss, grief, family and racism, the layered context that unravelled before me time and time again.

Some of these poems are up close and personal, making you witness the harsh realities of verbal abuse in the back of an Uber during the time of Brexit or the phenomenal macro vision of After the Formalities. A poetic discourse built on the found text of racist philosophers, thinkers and politicians of the past and present. Anthony articulates a response to the ideology and pseudo-science of race across five centuries interlaced with his own personal experience and his Cypriot family of three generations migrating to Britain.

And as for his journey of fatherhood, the tenderness and weight of lines such as “I love you daddy, at this I cried/ becoming another rescued animal in his hands”found in Sublimation,shows the vulnerability and joy woven through his writing. An extraordinary poet with a surgical precision and yet tempered with grace and care to leave the reader thinking after the formalities have ended.

Sitting in Limbo and The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files are documentaries that have captured the tragedy and travesty of a hostile environment policy that decimated a generation of people of the Caribbean – pioneers and citizens of the British Empire. Home Coming: Voices of the Windrush Generation (Jonathan Cape, 2019) by Colin Grant, captures these voices from 1940 – 1960 succinctly and with great sensitivity, taking us back to the hopes and aspirations, the joy and pride to answer the call to help Britain back to its former self.

These are the stories of nurses, bus drivers, seamstress, teachers, dockers, writers and musicians. People who were qualified back in the Caribbean but felt the harsh discrimination of a motherland that stripped them of all qualifications and forced them into any job that was available. As a first-generation child of these pioneers - parents who have now passed away -chapters titled Last One Out Turn Off All The Lights, Tin Baths and Paraffin Heaters and Soon Come make me smile and cry with sweet memories and nostalgia.

Colin has a deft way of letting the people speak, this is a collection that goes beyond the famous but this is a story of everyday people. A fly-on-the-wall documentary of Windrush, warmly interspersed with his own parents’ narrative and a measured historical background to each capter. A must have volume and well needed garnering of voices whitewashed from British History.

Experimental and inventive, a bravado (to challenge, to provoke) of writing comes Exquisite Cadavers

(Atlantic Books) by Meena Kandasamy. If you haven’t read her second novel When I Hit You (ed: shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2018) you need too. Whisper quietly but this woman is writing her place into the cannon of world literature.

Every book needs a conceit and Exquisite Cadavers, a term derived from a game played in 1925 by Surrealists where “the exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.”Exquisite Cadavers dares to ask the question: can our fictional writing be written in a bubble void of our own personal experience, local and global events around usand what new possibilities can be found when we place these writing side by side?

This is a brave piece of work which pits fiction against the truth. Kandasamy captures in note form and prose the world around her through news events, films, romance, activism, etc., side by side with a novel about Karim, a young film maker and Maya, in an unstable job. I only wished she had more space on the page to shine more light on her vision.

Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh was an incredible adventure that I wasn’t expecting. Her love and passion for trains can be felt in the hum and reverberation of her narrative. We begin our journey in St Pancras, accompanying her and fiancé Jem, a newbie to global train travelling, experiencing the high and lows of their travels.

What I loved about this narration is the immersive feeling; you feel the fear and dread of a border inspection near Russia:“sniffer dog’s saliva in my face”; an invitation to look around a tea house by Lady BaBa,a geisha in Kyoto;avoiding slipping into a coma on the Qinghai railway from Xining to Lhasa, the highest railway in the world.

You can smell the food at the track side, be soothed by the colours that sweep all over the landscape, feel the sweat pouring over you in claustrophobic conditions, and find yourself waist deep in a cold white tundra. This is an adventure with a capital A for the new millennials as well as those harking back to a bygone age.

Monisha takes us across continents and exposes us to a vista of history, culture, colonialism, communism, class and so much more. Each railway system, train station and train bring with them a profound sense of identity. The engine that drives this book is the people, the individual stories that we miss as we fall asleep or as we rush to get off at the next stop. She takes notes of these stories like a train spotter and captures as much details in the moment of exposure and then they’re gone into the distant horizon.

This book speaks about globalisation without preaching, a gentle reminder that we are not too dissimilar or that far apart, that our actions impact upon each other, whether we are workers travellers, adventurers or migrants.This book is a joy for the rail travel enthusiast, (trains and rail tracks named and explained in such euphoric detail,) but this is also a book made enjoyably and accessible to the first timers like me and Jem.

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