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Black Voices Matter: Celebrating Diversity in UK Literary Prizes

Black voices matter and positive steps have been taken to ensure writers of colour are given equal opportunities to achieve their goals in the literary world, and more specifically, the world of competitions.

UK literary prizes have started to award the unique voices of people with different backgrounds and diverse ethnicities, as competitions are finally celebrating writers from minority groups. This week, we will be comparing the Jhalak Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize, which have recognised the voices of the gifted Johny Pitts and Derek Owusu respectively. The Jhalak Prize is a relatively new competition specifically for writers of colour in the UK, and the Desmond Elliott Prize is one of the most prestigious competitions awarding outstanding British talent.

Focusing on these two prizes will demonstrate the movement towards a recognition of black authors, which is becoming ever more commonplace. It is the responsibility of everyone working behind the scenes in all literary competitions and, of course, the publishing industry, to keep striving for equality. Diverse voices keep our stories fresh, exciting and beautiful. We must enable all writers’ work to not just speak to readers but sing to them too.

“In Hindi and many related Northern Indian dialects, Jhalak means “glimpse”; implicitly brief, often tantalising with promise, piquing curiosity to explore further. The Jhalak Prize will recognise the vastness of talent, ambition and creative vigour that is often overlooked by an industry that has yet to decolonize its gaze.”

Such is the endorsement of the anonymous benefactor of the Jhalak Prize, the first award for Book of the Year by a British/British resident Writer of Colour. Created in 2017, this unique prize accepts writing across a variety of genres published in the UK by writers of colour, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry and short stories.

This question of “decolonising the gaze” of Anglophone literature is one that the prize is primarily concerned with, and black-authored non-fiction titles that attempt to do so have featured on the Jhalak’s lists since its conception. In 2018, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s seminal text Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race took home the title; in 2019, Akala’s Natives was in good company alongside Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. This year was no different, as Sheffield-born Johny Pitt’s Black Odyssey of Europe, Afropean: Notes From Black Europe, claimed the crown in a virtual ceremony.

Afropean is a voyage, archive, interrogation and manifesto. Pitts peels back the thin veneer of white-washed, picture-postcard Europe and reveals the wealth of Black culture thriving beneath its surface, seeking and finding “Afropea” in Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Lisbon and beyond, as he backpacks through Europe by train. Working in conversation with many of his predecessors, Afropean situates Pitts in a literary lineage that stretches across Africa, the US and Europe. This book is an evening drink in Liège with Caryl Phillips, a hazy afternoon at James Baldwin’s Mediterranean villa, a battle through Frantz Fanon’s Toulon. As Pitts constantly navigates the relationship between Africa and Europe, the shadow of one continent hangs heavy over the other – the legacy of colonialism haunts Afropean’s pages. It is a book that fills in the gaps left by the inadequacies of a white European education system, and its win amidst the most recent insurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement felt timely and more important than ever.

Established in 2008, the Desmond Elliott Prize has been around for significantly longer than the Jhalak Prize and, over the past twelve years, it has asserted itself as an authority in identifying budding literary talent. Having insisted his literary estate be used “to enrich the careers of new writers”, Desmond Elliott’s legacy transpires through a myriad of accomplished new authors and the 2020 shortlist is no exception.

Winner Derek Owusu’s debut novella That Reminds Me is more than deserving of this accolade. Unrelenting, unapologetic and arresting, the lyricism of this literary expedition confounds expectations. His nuanced discussion of racial identity, through British-Ghanaian protagonist K, invites his readers to sit with raw and uncomfortable truths so that they can feel K’s pain. While negotiating young K’s displacement, his very being becomes inherently political, as Owusu navigates childhood trauma and mental health in black men in this tragically poetic piece. This fragmented narrative avoids the fetishisation of K’s blackness and, as such, denounces any attempts to romanticise K’s lived experience.

Owusu’s profound novel is accompanied in the shortlist by emerging black authors; Abi Daré with The Girl with the Louding Voice and Okechukwa Nzelu with The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney. Unlike the Jhalak Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize is not specific to writers of colour. However, the success of exclusively black writers within this shortlist demonstrates an important industry-wide movement towards recognising and awarding a more diverse spectrum of voices. Owusu’s success is further amplified by the fact that his novel was published by #Merky Books, an imprint established in 2018 by Grime artist Stormzy that has transgressed restrictive industry norms.

A brief overview of these two prizes illustrates how 2019 and 2020 have been ripe in successes and representation for black authors. This movement is set to continue, with Serendipity and Writing East Midlands collaborating to announce BlackInk, a new writing competition for short stories. Furthermore, Linton Kwesi Johnson won the PEN Pinter Prize 2020, which Pinter himself described as awarding British writers who show “a fierce, intellectual determination […] to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.

Last year, for the first time in its fifty-one-year history, The Booker Prize was awarded to a black woman, Bernardine Evaristo, for her novel Girl, Woman, Other, which celebrates the voices of a multitude of black women in Britain. Both Johnson and Evaristo’s awards recognise BAME writers who scrutinise and interrogate contemporary society. However, the Booker Prize 2019 was, remarkably, also awarded to Margaret Atwood. Does this weaken Evaristo’s well-deserved win, as she must share her prestigious spot with a white woman? This controversial choice brings to light the risk of prizes becoming tokenistic and not representing real change, presenting the increase in the diversity of contemporary literature as a “moment”, not a “movement.” The successes of Evaristo, Johnson, Pitts and Owusu are very real and must be celebrated. But, these successes will not be enough if the current recognition of diverse talent does not continue beyond this “moment” through the ongoing support and celebration of black authors.



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