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  • Writer's pictureJhalak Prize

Of fathers and daughters

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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