In today’s culture, it’s as though black British literary history began relatively recently, and new books are published without reference to or knowledge of what has gone before. This is not the case with white writers. Publishers, critics and readers will often understand where books sit within their literary contexts and cultural ecosystem. We can trace the literary lineage of Douglas Stuart’s Booker-winning Shuggie Bain back to the works of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. Ghosts by Dolly Alderton is in conversation with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones series and all the novels that were published in its wake, just as Ali Smith’s postmodern novels are descendants of Virginia Woolf’s modernist oeuvre. And we know that today’s historical novels have antecedents in their earlier counterparts.
Our appreciation of literature is deepened when we understand the foundations from which each new generation creates literature anew, but because so much of the body of black British literature hasn’t been taught in schools or universities, or immortalised on television and film, or even been widely or seriously reviewed in the media and academia, it’s as if each new book is published out of a void.
What began as a conversation with my publisher just over a year ago, and an idea to bring six books back into print, has evolved into a series called Black Britain: Writing Back, with the first set of titles about to be relaunched into the world. I spent the first half of last year working my way through stacks of novels that fit the bill – either out of print, or only available as print-on-demand. My goal was to find books that illustrated a variety of preoccupations, genres, styles and voices. Fiction that feels alive and fresh reveals itself almost immediately in spite of its vintage, and I believe that the novels I have chosen have withstood the test of time, even if they are of their time.
Minty Alley (1936) by CLR James was a great discovery and I was surprised that I’d never come across it before. It’s my proudest achievement of the series because James wrote it in 1928, nearly 100 years ago, and it’s been a buried treasure ever since, only known only to Caribbean literature aficionados. A captivating social realist novel, it is set in a boarding house in Trinidad, which was then a British colony, although the story isn’t written in relationship to Britain or empire. Through the protagonist, Haynes, a young middle-class man, we witness the shenanigans of a lively household where small dramas simmer and explode. His hitherto empty life fills up with the subterfuge and entanglements that whirl around him, while he remains the still centre of the house, quiet and observant. Reading it is like eavesdropping on history, a sensation at once intimate and distant. It offers the contemporary reader a peek into a society of long ago, and shows us that, while the circumstances are different, our essential passions, preoccupations and ambitions remain the same.
James is better known for his nonfiction books, especially his history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938) and Beyond a Boundary (1963) which mixed memoir, sports commentary and social history. He moved to Britain in 1932, long before postwar mass migration, and became the cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, which was an incredible achievement for a black man at that time. Minty Alley was his only novel.
Four of the books were published in the 1990s by writers I knew and admired on the literary scene back then, but whose work had long been out of print. At one event in a London library I met SI Martin, who had just published his first novel, Incomparable World (1996). Featuring three former African American slaves, the novel draws on the thousands of formerly enslaved Africans who, having fought on the side of the British in the American Revolution, were offered their freedom in Britain and British territories, most of them ending up in London. His rich, sonorous voice boomed out into the room as he read of the struggles and escapades of these men in a multiracial, teeming, malodorous, criminal and dangerous late 18th-century London – bringing the past into our present.
At a time when the absence of the teaching of black history is high on the agenda, this historical novel shows readers some of what’s been missing from the canon and the curriculum.
Nicola Williams’s novel, Without Prejudice (1997), a hugely impressive legal thriller, is as relevant today as it was when it was published. In its pages we find Lee Mitchell, a young woman of working-class Caribbean background, who is succeeding against the odds in a white and predominantly male and middle-class work environment. When the real-life black barrister, Alexandra Wilson, made the news last September because she’d been mistaken for a defendant three times in one day, it proved that the obstacles Williams was writing about more than two decades ago remain the same. Williams herself is a barrister, and currently the service complaints ombudsman for the British armed forces. Her novel gives us insight into the tenacity that would have been necessary to achieve this level of success.
The restitution of African artefacts procured through theft, war and exploitation, and lodged in British institutions, will be the subject of heated debate until they are returned. This controversial issue, which speaks to Britain’s expeditionary, missionary and colonial history, is cleverly refracted through a thrilling storyline in Mike Phillips’s crime novel, The Dancing Face (1998). It takes as its plot the re-theft of one such ancient mask by an idealistic young black Londoner called Gus. Stolen from Benin, the mask is about to be included in a British “African Art on Tour” exhibition. Phillips was one of the elders of black British literature in the 90s. His many books were published between 1982 and 2005, primarily crime novels that investigated important political and social issues, as well as nonfiction such as Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-racial Britain (1999), co-written with this brother, the broadcaster Trevor Phillips, and one of the earliest, most substantial books capturing the Windrush generation, and its descendants. Phillips forged new fictional pathways and deserves to be recognised as a pioneer.
From the mid-80s to the mid-00s, there was a tendency for novels by black British women to focus on coming-of-age tales that touched on difficult childhoods and the trials of early adulthood. I chose Bernard and the Cloth Monkey (1998) by Judith Bryan for the series because it is a quietly outstanding novel along these themes, with a slow, atmospheric build up to devastating revelations. It’s a family psychodrama in which a young woman, Anita, returns to her family home where secrets lie buried, tensions are palpable and betrayals need a reckoning. The novel is a rebellion against silence and a testament to women’s capacity for survival, and it shows the transformative power of literature at its best. I can’t wait for women in particular to read this novel.
The Fat Lady Sings (2000) by Jacqueline Roy completely passed me by when it was first published. Two women, both diagnosed with mental illness, end up in beds next to each other on the ward of a psychiatric hospital and as their friendship develops, we come to understand why they’ve been incarcerated. This is the kind of novel where the reader has to relinquish the expectation of a straightforward plot and succumb to the propulsion of its experimental, parallel narrative structure and impressionistic writing. It’s a novel of daring, not only stylistically but thematically, because discussions of mental health were a lot more taboo 20 years ago. One of the women is also a lesbian, disrupting the heteronormativity of black British fiction. Roy herself spent time in a mental institution when she was younger, and this emotionally intense and brave book feels as if written from inside the experience.
I’ve often talked about the lost generations of significant black writers whose books have disappeared, but I never imagined I’d be given the opportunity to resurrect some of them. These novels are my personal choices, determined by my literary values and how I perceive the creative and cultural significance of the work. Other than James, who died in 1989, all the writers are very much alive and most of them are writing or have written new novels. The reception our books receive today is very different from that of yesteryear, even though as you can see, the themes are as topical now as then, although ultimately it’s the quality of the writing that counts most. Our writers are currently riding the crest of a wave and building appreciation in greater numbers than ever before. Black Britain: Writing Back aims to fill in some of the gaps in the foundations of this exciting cultural moment.
• The first six books of the Black Britain: Writing Black series will be released on 4 February.