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  • Writer's pictureJhalak Prize

2020 Judge, Poet Roy McFarlane Wraps Up His Series of Blogposts With Final 4 of His Favourite Reads.

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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