Towards the end of last summer I was browsing through my twitter timeline and noticed a link to the 100 African-American must read books. I was incredibly impressed, but not in the least bit surprised at the breadth of the list, many of which I’d read myself over the years, such has been the power of African-American literature in the UK. I began to wonder what a must read Black British book list would look like. I knew that I probably could be able to get to 100, but with help of friends, I was sure that we’d certainly be able to get to 50.
I started with Jacquie who runs the London Afro-Caribbean Book Club, we shared our lists and we found that we’d already arrived at over 40 books, but with duplications of either the same book, or the same author, but with a different book. A few months later, over dinner with Angela, the founder of the Black Reading Group, (the 12-year old reading group that I now co-ordinate and our friend Sasha, we fine-tuned the list and found that we had indeed arrived at 50 published books. Finally, I sent the list to the author, Fiona Joseph (Fiona’s biography of the philanthropist Beatrice Cadbury is now available ), and with her contributions, the project moved into getting the list back down to 50. Together I think that we are a formidable and knowledgeable group of commentators on literature generally, and Black British literature in particular.
My original idea for inclusion to the list is: one book - one author, published by a UK-based publishing company. No anthologies or compilations. It did not have to be literary fiction, but it had to be the written word, so plays, poetry, biographies, even academic publications are included, but no photography books, for example. [The African American list that I had seen was primarily literary fiction.]
As indicated, we found that we had selected the same author, but often a different book. So blame me if you don’t see your favourite book here, often I have opted for the prize winning book, for example Andrea Levy’s Small Island, (32) rather than my favourite – Every Light in the House Burnin’; Dreda Say Mitchell’s celebrated first book Running Hot, (42), won the top crime writers fiction award, and Ben Okri’s Booker prize winning The Famished Road 36, even though in both the latter cases their more recent work would be considered the much more admired of their work. In other instances, my co-workers on the project, made such strong cases, and so I have I stuck with that selection, which is why, for example, Aminatta Forna’s first book (18), the memoir about her father appears here, rather than the more recent, Commonwealth prize winning, Memory of Love.
The list spans over 200 years. I’d heard of Oladiuah Equiano’s book (15) – the oldest on the list, first published in 1789, (and I look forward to Chike Unigwe’s biography of him that will be published later this year), but I only came across Mary Prince’s book (41), published in 1831, as I was researching this list. Alex Wheatle’s sequel to Brixton Rock, Brenton Brown (46) is the newest title on the list as it was published last spring.
I am not really a theatre goer, I prefer film, and while I have seen Debbie Tucker Green (45) and Roy Williams’ (48) work performed, it is thanks to Jacquie, that the selection of playwrights is as full as it is here. On the other hand, I am eternally grateful to who ever it was in my East Anglian home town who in the late 80s and early 90s funded a series of evening presentations by Black British poets, the result is that I am happily able to include on the list Jean Binta Breeze (7), James Berry (6), Linton Kwesi Johnson (29) and Fred D’Aguiar (12) based on their memorable performances, talks and chance to buy their books a couple of decades ago.
Many on the list you may wonder are they still writing? This where are they now section of the list includes: Buchi Emecheta (14), Diran Adebayo (1), Victor Headly (23) and Patrick Augustus (4). Others, I imagine will always be on lists such as this: Zadie Smith (44), Andrea Levy (32), or Caryl Phillips (38). At the same time those that sell huge amounts Malorie Blackman (8), Mike Gayle(19), Dorothy Koomson (27) & Benjamin Zephaniah (50) are critical to this list, as their work is so widely read. I would say that the ones to watch are Helen Oyeyemi (37), Yvvette Edwards (13), Nadifa Mohamed (34) & Diana Evans (16) – and I am looking forward to seeing future work of theirs. Though the authors I admire most are the ones who also take the time to nurture and encourage others, while still creating their own work, Courttia Newland (34), Nii Ayikiwei (5), Alex Wheatle (46) and Bernadine Evaristo (17). I can imagine how hard it would have been trying to get published in George Lamming (30) and Sam Selvon’s (43) days - incredible works, that define the Caribbean experience in 1940s & ‘50s London, but even harder to create the book that Doreen Lawrence (31) has done about the murder of her son Stephen. As I write this, the jury is deliberating it’s decision – 14 years after the crime was committed. Doreens’s book describes her life in rural Jamaica and her early married life in the London of the 70s and it is so beautifully written.
Like Doreen, Oona King (26) is not strictly a writer, but I have included her book here, not only because I thougt that she was a very good hardworking MP, but because this book is an honest look at the demanding area British politics at national and local level during the Blair years. As with the Doreen’s book, Oona also details the very private areas of her personal life too.
I hope that you will agree that this is a rich and varied list, spanning over 200 years of Black British writing. You might not agree with some of the selections here, and I may well have omitted authors you think should have been included. I am not saying that this is only list or that they are the best - though I do think that many here are, I am just thinking that the collation and sharing of a Black British literature cannon is important and we should make more effort to discuss it and let people know that it exists. I believe that this set of books should be available in all public libraries. What do you think?
Here are the 50 books in alphabetical order, with links mostly to Amazon and the earliest edition of the book that I could find. On some occasions the link will be to Wikipedia or some other interesting article that I found about the author and their work.
1. Diran Adebayo: Some Kind of Black
2. Sade Adendrine: Imagine This
3. Bola Agbaje: Not Black & White
4. Patrick Augustus: Baby Father
5. Nii Ayikiwei Parkes: Tail of the Blue Bird
6. James Berry: When I Dance
7. Jean Binta Breeze: Riddim Ravings & Other Poems
8. Malorie Blackman: Noughts & Crosses
9. E.R. Braithwaite: To Sir With Love
10. Constance Briscoe: Ugly
11. David Dabydeen: Black British History
12. Fred D’Aguiar: Bill of Rights
13. Yvvette Edwards: A Cupboard Full of Coats
14. Buchi Emecheta: The Joys of Motherhood
15. Olaudah Equiano: The Interesting Narrative & Other Stories
16. Diana Evans: 26a
17. Bernadine Evaristo: Blonde Roots
18. Aminatta Forna: The Devil That Danced on Water
19. Mike Gayle: Brand New Friend
20. Beryl Gilroy: Black Teacher
21. Paul Gilroy: There Ain’t No Black in The Union Jack
22. Colin Grant: Negro with a Hat: Marcus Garvey
23. Victor Headley: Yardie
24. C.L.R. James: The Black Jacobins
25. Jackie Kay: Trumpet
26. Oona KinG: Oona King Diaries: House Music
27. Dorothy Koomson: The Cupid Effect
28. Kwame Kwei-Armah: Statement of Regret/Elmina’s Kitchen
29. Linton Kwesi Johnson: Tings an’ Times
30. George Lamming: The Emigrants
31. Doreen Lawrence: And Still I Rise
32. Andrea Levy: Small Island
33. E.A. Markham: Hinterland
34. Nadifa Mohamed: Black Mamba Boy
35. Courttia Newland: The Scholar: A West Side Story
36. Ben Okri: The Famished Road
37. Helen Oyeyemi: The Icarus Girl
38. Caryl Phillips: A Distant Shore
39. Trevor & Mike Phillips: Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain
40. Hannah Pool: My Father’s Daughter
41. Mary Prince: The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave
42. Dreda Say MiTchell: Running Hot
43. Sam Selvon: The Lonely Londoners
44. Zadie Smith: White Teeth
45. Debbie Tucker Green: Random
46. Alex Wheatle: Brenton Brown
47. Precious Williams: Precious
48. Roy Williams: Starstruck
49. Gary Younge: No Place Like Home
50. Benjamin Zephaniah: Refugee Boy