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  • Writer's pictureJhalak Prize

Patrice Lawrence recommends five books that influenced her development as a Black woman and a writer

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

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.

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.

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.

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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