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Books We Love... 

that you need to read

A book recommendations blog by writers of colour


Nikita Gill recommends three recent poetry collections

Poets are witnesses to the emotive history of humankind. Where there is no one to remember the infinite gamut of emotions around the events that have shaped humanity, poets immortalise it, and that is precisely why their work is so essential. I start with this as the books I discuss here come from three of the most important poetic voices of this generation. Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi, Rick Dove and Cynthia Rodriguez have this in common: they speak to lyrical experiences so powerful that anyone who reads these books is forever changed.

In [Re:Desire], Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi’s fiery and evocative retelling of the desi woman’s experience, she touches on the distance between mothers and daughters through language, the yearning for love and pleasure, along with the constant pressure that is put on South Asian women. In the section titled Izzat in particular, she unflinchingly explores the way shame is used to define misogynistic thresholds for generations of women that we never agreed to (daughters who live past their first day/are wrapped in izzat and shame). One of the most startlingly beautiful aspects of the book is the hypnotic and rhythmic thirty six times she fell where the poet uses a study of intimacy as a basis for her melodic poem leaving the reader captivated with lines such as “he sang deep vowels of/ wreckage and chaos/ she saw the untruth/ and how hunger kisses his lips”. Structurally magnificent and drawing on the naturally poetic tongue of Urdu, this book is rich in experimental form and harmony.

Rick Dove’s Tales from the Other Box is an explosion of a collection, full of vibrant and symphonic language that will leave anyone reading breathless. I found myself reading sections of this book out loud, the words were deeply musical, all while skilfully harnessing quiet rage, passion, grief. From the very first poem, First Words, Dove captures the effects of both macro and micro racism on the mind, body and soul, specifically anti Blackness that permeates society. Here, we see the silent fury that has been held back for years, culminating in the heart-wrenching lessons learned from deeply resonant lines (“it is not your job to hold the lantern/ to show others out of the dark”.) The poet’s exploration of race, love, tenderness, regret, society and self goes from strength to fierce strength throughout the book with the brilliant Proud Flesh, Lessons on Folded Time, Bucket List, History 101, Soliloquy among so many others I highlighted to return to. Dove also touches on myth in After Sojourner Truth and Ouroboros in such a compelling way adding beautifully to his stunningly constructed narrative, every poem speaking to each other. An incredibly important and splendid work of craft and experience, this book will sing for generations to come.

Meanwhile, Cynthia Rodriguez’s dynamic and fearless collection is a powerful look at Britain through the eyes of a migrant. Her words particularly struck a chord with me as a migrant myself, especially the poem My Kind (“My kind were called names in school/ Now they are have adopted/ these names as their own. Names used for reconstruction/ instead of destruction.”), which uses both repetition and rich imagery to create an anthem for the othered. The five chapters of this book explore identity through a wealth of subjects like citizenship (Naturalisation), the complexity of the body (Spidergirls), imposter syndrome (But is it art?), mental health (How to Leave The House in Times of Trouble),childhood (Becoming), queerness (Recognise) – each poem as much a celebration as it is a reckoning. Rodriguez uses both formidable composition, weaving layer complexity with accessible lyrical language to challenge the approved narrative of what a migrant must do to be accepted, humanising in its approach. Sharp and bright, Meanwhile is a devastatingly moving book I highly recommend.

All three books provided for review by the publisher, Burning Eye Books. The books may be purchased from their website.

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This year has seen a heap of exciting books by writers of colour come out during lockdown. And the bottleneck of publicity means that there has just been an (wait for it) unprecedented amount of titles requiring shelf space, social media space, review space and so on. Yes, I am sorry, I started an article in Covid times with use of the word unprecedented. Let’s hope, in these strange times, I don’t do it again.

But look, part of our reason for setting up the Jhalak Prize was to celebrate and shine lights. So much of the conversation around *ahem* diversity and *cough* inclusion is miserable, especially for writers of colour, and I want to ensure that we’re taking as much time to celebrate books as we do speaking truth to power, if not more.

So, here are five books that came out this year that deserve your attention:

I cannot believe this - The Actual - is the first official collection from the maestro who brought us Barber Shop Chronicles. Having put out many essays, plays and pamphlets over the years, Inua Ellams gifts us this, his set of poems with no fucks left to give. Each poem is framed as a takedown, we have Fuck / Batman, we have Fuck / Tupac, we have Fuck Kipling, Tommy Robinson, Boko Haram, Empire, weak hugs! It’s a gloriously diverse collection, taking in social and political history, pop culture and love and heartbreak, to give us a collection that is about masculinity, vulnerability, colonialism, and more, all with Ellams’ signature brand of beautiful imagery, sly subtle humour and rhythmic prowess.

Nikita Lalwani is the master of political fiction that never allows itself to be didactic, is always skewering and humane, and filled with character. Having spent years researching and speaking to illegal immigrants, she brings - You People -an excellent thriller, set in a restaurant where many of the staff are runaways, escaping war, abuse, dark pasts, now working in a restaurant for a mysterious figure, who is part master criminal, part Robin Hood. As two characters fight to keep their pasts catching up with them, immigration vans get closer and closer and they must decide to take a stand. A masterful piece of thrilling political fiction that manages to always keep you guessing.

Ever since I came across Nikita Gill’s poetry on social media, I’ve been entranced with her ability to create magic. And The Girl And the Goddess, her first novel, told in verse, is definitely a welcome addition to her body of work. This is about a young queer girl called Paro, trying to find her place in the world. With help from goddesses, she will self-actualise. The poems all come together to send her on a journey with the Trimurti in what becomes an astonishing tale of healing and trauma and the power of womanhood and community. One of those books I wish I’d read as a teenager but am glad to have come to years later as well.

These poems, all taking place in and around an estate in Peckham, are breath taking, stories about love, loss, grief and violence. Caleb Femi manages to find beauty in house parties and music and friendships, and he manages to wring huge political points out of specific tales of lives squandered because of social inequality and the decisions people are forced to make. Peppered with photographs and always lingering on the cracks in the pavement where flowers might find themselves growing, Poor is a masterful book that never ever flinches.

4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE are Sheena Patel, Sharan Hunjan, Sunnah Khan and Roshni Goyate, and they are a community of writers with such electric individual voices that when they come together, you feel like they could decimate entire cities. These four pamphlets are each unique and different, and beautifully packaged by Rough Trade Books. Sunnah writes about inheritance and loss, in I Don’t Know How to Forgive You When You Make No Apology For This Haunting, where she speaks about grief and absent fathers and class. Meanwhile, Roshni Goyate’s Shadow Work is a spiritual mediation on race, motherhood, rebirth and connections. It manages to be otherworldly and real all at the same time, in language that is a grenade wrapped in honey. Hatch, Sharan Hunjan’s gorgeously experimental book on motherhood and community, is both raw and powerful, always vulnerable and always yearning. It also manages to skewer how colonialism remains in our language today. And finally Sheena Patel’s astonishing This Is What Love Is is the arrival of a British Asian voice I have never read before. A ragged, brittle piece of autofiction about mental health and the deterioration of various relationships, this is a brutal and honest depiction of youth, sex, mental health and the stories and people we surround ourselves with as the walls come in. These four pamphlets are a huge achievement, an arrival, a line in the sand, a gold standard for British Asian writing.

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We’re at the end of October and the books are coming in thick and fast, but there’s still time for publishers and writers to send in their books with the hope of winning the 2021 Jhalak Prize and Jhalak Children’s & YA Prize. This incredible unique prize is for writers of colour born, living or working in the UK.

I’m reminded of the joy of reading so many quality books of 2019 – these were my narratives, people I recognised, who looked like me, stories that were familiar to me, reminding me of things I knew but more importantly opening doors to new knowledge and worlds I had never experienced or imagined. So, just to give you a taste of the quality, beauty and depths of writing, I’m writing my final blog post for the series of Books We Love…that you need to read. The books that I thought got away, that any other year I believe they would have been longlisted.

In 2020 sports have certainly come to the forefront, supporting Black Lives Matter; Premiership matches starting off with the bending of the knee; Lewis Hamilton; Naomi Osaka, to name a few all actively evoking anti-racisms messages. No Win Race by Derek A. Bardowell, explores the Black British and Black diaspora experience through the lens of sports, embedding it with his own personal journey asking the question can Blackness and Britishness ever be compatible? Derek begins his journey in the 80s with the Minter vs Hagler bout, the fight which became so racialised, that at the end of the bout Hagler had to be escorted under a rain of missiles and racist slurs. This book is an informative and personal look at racism in Britain seated in the sporting arena, celebrating and exposing the heroes and villains contributing to the conversation and issues of racism. From the 1980’s to 2019, it seems apt that the penultimate chapter explores engaging in activism and how sports stars have often walked alone and suffered in the wake of their belief like Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the playing of the national anthem.

Wunmi Mosaku who plays Ruby Baptiste, the love interest to the main protagonist with power and sensuality in Lovecraft Country is not your usual thin waif light-skinned model. Talia Hibbert’s quaint and quirky novel builds on a similar body image in Get a Life, Chloe Brown. Chloe Brown has a chronicle illness, she’s a computer geek, meticulous planner, and very abrupt in conversation. Chloe’s family members are equally unique, a joy to read, her grandmother Gigi who, in response to a near accident Chloe experienced, says, “Would you like some Xanax, darling?” Then there’s mum, auntie and two sisters, making a loveable, odd and engaging phalanx of sisterhood (more please, each with their own book). This book explores the lives of broken people, vulnerable, experiencing each day as a daily struggle to get out of bed, almost impossible to trust anybody who comes close and a shield that will take all the skills of a handyman to find an opening. Lucky enough there’s Red, the apartment handyman and concierge and here begins a beautiful, funny, erotic, intense romantic journey. A lively, exciting page turner, characters we care for and subtle in the way that race is in the background but not necessarily ignored, a world where the heroine is black, big and sexy, andwe’re rooting for her, right down to the last page.

Shame on Me by Tessa McWatt, takes a different approach to race and belonging. Tessa is driven by the perennial question that often plagues the journey of people of colour: “Where are you from?” In Tessa’s case as an eight-year-old in an elementary school in Toronto she is confronted with the question “What are you?” It is this interrogation of self as an outsider which evokesher to explore stories of slavery, indentured labour, independence, and migration.Narratives of the Chinese, Indian, Arawak, Portuguese, French-Jew, African, Scottish and Canadianwoven in her DNA. Tessa navigates the landscape of the black/other body (eyes, lips, nose, etc.,) mapped by the fragile yet powerful history of race as a social construct. We travel across the globe as she enquires and searches for her identity within her multiple-rootslike a prayer along this journey: “O my body, make of me always a man who questions.” Here amongst memoirs, myths, history, literature, philosophy and black intelligentsia we find a sense of rupture and fluidity in identity but always a desire for healing and a place to find rest.

The following book would not be a book I’d automatically pick up off the shelf but I’m indebted to the process of judging and the joy of finding something so different and enthralling. If it’s adventure you’re looking for Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee is a rollicking, rollercoaster of a ride (Editor’s note: Congratulations Abir for winning the Crime Writers Association Sapere Books Historical Dagger award even as Roy was writing this blog post). This is the fourth in the historical crime novel series of Captain Sam Wyndham and Indian Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee. We get a beautiful, intoxicating insight into Empire, set in 1905 East London and 1922 India. Abir makes you run through mud, experience weeks of withdrawal from opium, slip down hills, makes you hear the crunch of bones and murdered bodies along the way, visceral, vicarious and vivid in his description. This was an enjoyable read and I can’t help thinking of the quote from the late great A. Sivanandan,“we are here because you were there.”

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*On hiatus, more coming soon*

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