5 Books to Read by Black Northern Writers
Within wider efforts to promote regional diversity in publishing, the importance of highlighting underrepresented and minority voices in Northern writing cannot be overstated. In this issue, in celebration of Black History Month, we hope to bring attention to some of the exciting recent titles from Black writers working in the North.
The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward
Penguin Books, 2018
Yrsa Daley-Ward first rose to fame through her Instagram poetry, publishing her first full collection, bone, in 2014. Her most recent title, The Terrible, takes a more personal approach through its focus on Daley-Ward’s own life, narrating her experiences as a child growing up in North-West England through a series of sharp, honest poems. The collection is focused on her difficult journey to adolescence, touching on her struggles with mental health, drug abuse and tumultuous family relationships. The poetic narrative itself is especially interesting, taking a stream-of-consciousness approach and experimenting with unusual style and form.
The book won the 2019 J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography and has been lauded with praise since its release. Both raw and unflinching, this is definitely worth a read.
Zebra by Ian Humphries
Nine Arches Press, 2019
Published in April 2019, Zebra is Ian Humphrey’s debut poetry collection. Humphrey currently lives in West Yorkshire and has been widely published in journals and anthologies, including The Poetry Review, The Rialto, Ambit, Magma and The Forward Book of Poetry 2019.
Nine Arches Press describes Zebra as a “heady cocktail of the playful, political and mythical” whilst also being “a creature of opposites – light and dark, countryside and cityscape, highs and lows”. Its poetry, as the publisher observes, “shimmers with music, wit and humour while exploring mixed identities, otherness, and coming-of-age as a gay man in 1980s Manchester”. Through his collection, Humphreys pays homage to minority writers, LGBT civil rights activists, 70s queer night-clubbers and his own mixed-race parents.
And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando
Simon & Schuster, 2018
This is Danielle Jawando’s first novel, published in February 2020. Prior to this debut, Jawando had already made her name as a writer, having had several short plays performed at the King’s Arms in Manchester (where she was born), and at Stratford Circus in London. She also worked as a storyline writer for Coronation Street in 2015 and in 2019 was selected as one of the six finalists for the We Need Diverse Books short story competition with The Deerstalker.
And the Stars Were Burning Brightly follows fifteen-year-old Nathan, whose life is torn apart upon discovering that his older brother, Al, has taken his own life. Nathan becomes determined to find out the truth about what led to the tragedy, with the story touching on the devastating reality of bullying, mental health and grief. The book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, describes And the Stars Were Burning Brightly as “an extraordinary novel about loss, understanding and the importance of speaking up when all you want to do is shut down”, as well as being “perfect for fans of Angie Thomas, Gayle Foreman, Jennifer Niven and Nikesh Shukla”.
My Name Is Why by Lemn Sissay
This powerful autobiography recounts Lemn Sissay’s extraordinary life story, exploring how failures in the British care system led to him being stolen from his Ethiopian mother and growing up unaware of his family and heritage – even his own name.
His story is tragic and utterly heart-breaking to read, in its scathing exposition of years of unforgivable treatment by those in a position of power. Lemn’s resilience throughout, however, is remarkable, especially the refuge that he finds in poetry. The inclusion of real government reports and documents throughout the book provides an unusual but very effective memoir style, assisting in its critique of the neglectful decisions that tore apart his childhood. The result is an incredibly moving experience that explores the complexities of race, identity and growing up in care.
Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
This is Manchester-based writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s first story collection, shortlisted for the Hearst Big Book Awards in 2019. The narrative follows a series of Ugandan characters who have settled in England, juxtaposing their different experiences of living in the cities of Manchester and Kampala.
Within these stories are an interesting and creative range of perspectives, with some characters crossing into multiple chapters, giving the book a well-crafted, interwoven feel. The quiet observations of their everyday lives – while deceptively simple – are both poignant and entertaining. The dialogue in particular, which is rich with Ugandan vocabulary, is very fun and vibrant and is definitely a stand-out aspect of the book overall. Together, the stories allow the collection to observe differences in culture, politics and heritage, creating an insightful reflection on what it means to ‘belong.’