My Favorite Neglected Black Writer – by Bernardine Evaristo, Margaret Atwood and more | Books


Tthink of “classical literature” and many white authors probably come to mind: Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Hardy, Woolf, Fitzgerald. Harper Lee, who wrote In regards to breed, is a favorite of many – but black authors themselves are grossly under-represented. Students might have the chance to study Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, but what about the rest of the vast history of black literature? Reports from last year revealed that it was possible for students to complete their GCSE and leave school without studying a single novel or play by a non-white author. It wasn’t until 2019 that the UK’s most prestigious fiction prize, the Booker Prize, was first awarded to a black British author: Bernardine Evaristo (who shared it).

In June 2020, the Black Writers’ Guild was established with the aim of creating “a sustainable, profitable, fair and equal ecosystem for black literary talent in UK publishing”. And for Black History Month this year, the British Library has produced a timeline of black literature in Britain, to celebrate its rich history since the publication in 1550 of A Geographical Historie of Africa by John Leo Africanus in current innovative writers like Debbie Tucker Green and Caleb Femi.

In recognition of all this, we asked contemporary writers to share the black authors who inspired them, and who deserve to be better known.

“An inspiration”… James Berry in 1985. Photograph: Alamy

Malorie Blackman on James Berry

Malorie blackman
Photograph: Antonio Olmos / The Guardian

A thief in the village and other stories, by James Berry (1924-2017), was the very first children’s book I read written by a black author living in the UK. It was in the late 1980s and I remember wandering around a children’s bookstore in Covent Garden, London when it jumped out at me because it was the only book with a black child on blanket throughout the store – and yes, I had searched and asked. When I got home I read all the wonderful stories in one sitting. They were fun, moving and full of life. Berry’s prose sounded and sang, as did his poetry. Some of the characters in the stories spoke in patois – something else that I had never seen before in a British children’s book. Berry’s book was an inspiration, just the sting and encouragement I needed to try and publish my own stories.
Malorie Blackman’s most recent novel is Endgame.

Bernardine Evaristo on Beryl Gilroy

Bernardine Evaristo
Photograph: Suki Dhanda / The Guardian

I just wrote the intro to the Black Teacher reissue by Beryl Gilroy (1924-2001), what I like. She was Britain’s first black school principal and also a novelist. She immigrated here from Guyana in 1952, and the book is a wonderful account of her early years as a teacher in London. I challenge anyone to read it and not come away shocked, moved and entertained. Gilroy is one of the unsung heroines of British black literature, and while Guyanese writer ER Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love was celebrated and turned into a Hollywood film, Gilroy’s memoirs have passed under the radar until today. She was a pioneer and we must remember her contribution to literary history.
Bernardine Evaristo’s most recent book is Manifesto.

Chinua Achebe.
“One of the greatest”… Chinua Achebe. Photograph: Mike Cohea / AP

Margaret Atwood on Chinua Achebe

Photograph: Derek Shapton / The Guardian

This was in 1958. Segregation was still in effect in the United States, as was apartheid in South Africa, although resistance to both grew. Things Fall Apart, the great debut novel by Chinua Achebe (1930-2013), broke into the scene. He was among the first to examine the colonial experience from the perspective of those affected. There are no angels in this book, only imperfect human beings, but what is plotted in depth is how traditional cultures crumble when outside forces are exerted on them. How do people cope with the perceived anarchy and felt desperation when their rules – even their unfair rules – suddenly disappear? Achebe is one of the greatest, a magical writer.
Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel is The Testaments.

Joanne Harris on Alexandre Dumas

Joanne harris
Photograph: Simone Padovani / Awakening / Getty Images

I read Georges for the first time by Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) like a child. Although this is one of Dumas’ lesser-known works, I loved it – and I still love it. Partly because of his wayward plot, but also because it is on its own the only book by Dumas that reflects his mixed heritage and openly confronts the subject of race. Set in the 19th century, Georges tells the story of Georges Munier, an intelligent and sensitive young man who grew up in Mauritius. Son of a wealthy man of mixed African and European descent, Georges soon comes to recognize his father’s feeling of inferiority vis-à-vis whites, and decides to be different. The ensuing adventure combines swordplay, slave rebellion, thrilling escape, and a vow of revenge, culminating in a sufficiently dramatic resolution.
Joanne Harris’ most recent novel is A Narrow Door.

David Olusoga on Olaudah Equiano

David Olusoga
Photograph: Karen Robinson / The Observer

I was a student when I first read the book by Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797). His memoirs, The Interesting Story of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, made a big impression on me. It was my first time reading a first-hand account in the present tense written by someone who had truly experienced slavery. The voice that rises from its pages is not that of a historian, casting an analytical look at the events of the past, but that of an African who lived in slavery and escaped from its clutches, a man capable of us. speak directly about the past. Equiano’s book is one of many “Slave Tales,” autobiographies written by former slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries, but in the British context it is the most comprehensive and powerful. Equiano emerges as an incredibly complex figure, a man aware of the power of his words, the suffering of his people and the potential of his story.
David Olusoga wrote the introduction to a new edition of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

Stuart Room
‘Infinitely intelligent’… Stuart Hall in 2000. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe / The Guardian

Megan Nolan on Stuart Hall

Megan Nolan
Photograph: Linda Nylind / The Guardian

i only came to Stuart Hall (1932-2014) relatively recently. When I did, I was intensely moved by the generous breadth of thought, the elegance and simplicity of his writing, and above all by the imaginative work he demanded of his readers. It was right after the Brexit vote that I stumbled upon his essay The Great Moving Right Show on the implantation of Thatcherism – a good time to remember that a left response cannot be limited to polite, intelligent rebuttals. and well formulated; action, imaginative action, is required. Coming from a man of magnificent and unlimited intelligence, this prioritization of real social good over theoretical flourishes is all the more inspiring. His identification of what he called the “well-being hunter,” a well-designed folk devil “has unfortunately become more than less relevant in the decades since he wrote it.
Megan Nolan is the author of Acts of Desperation.

John A Williams in 2000.
Revolutionary… John A Williams in 2000. Photograph: Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

Jason Reynolds on John A Williams

Jason reynolds
Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti / Getty Images

John A Williams (1925-2015) was grossly underrated, an incredible talent. He wrote a whole bunch of books and they were all awesome. My favorite is Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light, which explains how we should deal with police violence, but he wrote it in the 1970s. He also wrote The Angry Ones, Sissie, The Man Who Cry I Amthis guy was a master. He’s written a lot about being a writer, which I find interesting. Specifically in Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light, he demonstrated a truly revolutionary approach to the way we think about point-of-view writing. I think he revolutionized multi-point-of-view history in a way I’ve never seen before and haven’t seen so well since.
Jason Reynolds’ most recent book is Look Both Ways.


Black literature


Written by Gaverne Bennett and created with the British Library, this literary timeline explores the history of black writing and literature in Britain through some fifty texts. Download your copy of the poster or scroll through the digital version:

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Guardian Live will host an online event exploring British black literature on Monday, November 8th. Book your tickets here

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