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  • Jhalak Prize

Peter Kalu recommends books he read & loved that did not make it to our 2021 longlist...

Peter Kalu, novelist, poet, essayist, critic and educator, was on our judging panel in 2021. In this two part series, he recommends the books he read and loved that did not make it to our longlist but are essential additions to the canon.


Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah


Afterlives is the work of a master storyteller. It has an intricate weave of plot and a depth of historical references as well as an epic sweep and ambition. One of Afterlives many felicities is the way in which it breaks free of the vice of monolingualism – German and Kiswahili are employed as well as English and add to a sense of verisimilitude: reflecting the polyglot nature of diverse communities – indeed of the world in general – in a way few books seek to do. The novel is also an exemplar of how to tell the big colonial story through the eyes of the ordinary individual. By centering that individual, it gives them (and so all of us) dignity and reminds us how the big convulsions of history affect those at the bottom of power structures. The socialist historian, E. P. Thompson would very much have approved. Afterlives, of all the book submitted to the Jhalak Prize 2021 had the largest sustained historical sweep. This makes it a grand novel and it deserves wide acclaim.



I am not your baby mother by Candice Brathwaite


A thoroughly engaging book, part memoir, part guide that looks at the trials, traps and joys of being a black British mother. After an essay-like opening, it follows the chronology of pregnancy, birth, newborn, early schooling. Along the journey, the book opens out engagingly about the tensions, and idiosyncrasies of the author’s close and wider family. The focus is on the particular challenges faced by this black mother rather than mothers in general. The investigation is rare and captures a popular demand. A statistics nugget often begins each chapter. This is then elucidated by personal experience. I am not your baby mother is a vital and necessary book, written in a very accessible style, with very personal touches ensuring it may be actually read rather than, like most guidebooks, merely gather dust on a shelf.


The Actual by Inua Ellams


An exhilarating collection of prose-poems / poems linked by the word fuck carrying the meaning of ‘this is not good’. Ellams finds dazzling ways of entering into ideas. Often the movement from one metaphor to the next is startling and yet apt.


It is a magisterial demonstration of linguistic brilliance, of a mind capable of dazzling feats of imagination: Ellams is brim-full of talent.


We have to explete if we are not to explode. Ellams- very powerfully, skilfully, expertly and movingly - expletes on our behalf.


Moving away from the swaggering cool of an entire book of poems that begin with ‘fuck’, this is an inspired charge of splintering verse, beautifully cadenced, completely original verse.


It makes poetry of the anger we carry as black folks within us, the anger we have to suppress in order to negotiate the white world, perhaps too the existentialist anger we all human beings carry the anger we decant, filter from our verse. Ellams gathers it all and with lighter in hand, sparks it. Then Boom the actual fuck. He excels at qualia, at images that hit the spot unexpectedly but so bang-on that we say yes, that’s it, that’s that feeling I’ve been chasing but could never put my finger on, Ellams has got it, has trapped it in words.

Form-wise, it is blank verse with prodigious use of the forward slash as its punctuation mark. That decision alone deserves acclaim. A thinking, breathing feeling poet, global, local, oscillating in tone between black Jesus and Malcolm X. Yeah. What the actual fuck. I love this shit.


A charge, if you want to see the sizzle of cordite, the rippling run of a fuse in verse, this is it.


Trivial Pursuits by Raven Smith

This collection or articles is a breathless, hyperventilating, free-associating, deliciously narcissistic, consumerist ticker-tape of the zeitgeist. Glorious and highly distinctive: sardonic, whizzing in all directions with riffs, escalations, surprising pull-backs, occasional, fleeting candour. Simile-laden, first to second-person switching, breathless, Trivial Pursuits is best read this in chunks rather than attempted it all at once.


What we don’t talk about by Charlot Kristensen


Brilliantly presented graphic novel of inter-racial love in England. It will appeal particularly perhaps to the 16 to 25 year old demographic and makes some strong points on the trials that such a romantic relationship might undergo: the white young man’s ‘polite racist’ parents prove hostile and when the white man downplays the problem this gaslights the young black woman. The visuals are sumptuous and the balance between text and visuals extremely well done. It would make a brilliant short film, especially if the graphic novel’s colouring can be replicated.



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