Celebrating Black Literary Award-Winners
“Black writers do more than simply write manuals on anti-racism: we write beautiful, intricate, challenging worlds that have made important contributions to literature. This is our gift as writers; our duty as readers is to accept it.” – Okechukwu Nzelu
As the author of The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney so eloquently sets forth, within the literary sphere an extensive expectation is placed upon Black writers and creatives to educate entire nations on anti-racism. While it is imperative that every reader ensures their own conscious awareness for the innately political nature of being a Black writer and the implications of this, we must simultaneously pay gratitude to the creativity and beauty of the works and their contributions to literature. We wish to celebrate the rhapsodic and alluring worlds created on paper by Black authors at the vanguard of literature. As such we shall be looking at recent winners of prestigious literary awards such as Bernadine Evaristo, Colson Whitehead and Bryan Washington, considering how they have enhanced the world of books.
After five decades and counting, 2019 marked an outstanding, albeit overdue moment in history for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Last year we had more to celebrate than just its 51st anniversary, as critically acclaimed Bernadine Evaristo took the world by storm with her progressive and inclusive novel Girl, Woman, Other.
This masterpiece saw Evaristo jointly capture the title alongside Margaret Atwood’s blockbuster The Testaments. Bernadine Evaristo, is the first Black, and Black British, writer to receive the award, claiming the award through her eighth work of fiction. Exploring the alluring and intertwining lives of twelve Black British women, Girl, Woman, Other is a vibrant and compelling novel with a cast of fierce, razor-sharp characters. With this much-deserved award, Evaristo has undoubtedly shone a spotlight on a talented world collective of Black wordsmiths, laying the foundations to ensure the first black winner of the Booker Prize will be anything but the last.
As an infamous prize for political writing, the Orwell Prizes are awarded in honour of their namesake, to works resonating most with George Orwell’s ambition: “to make political writing into an art.” Winners were announced (virtually) on 9 July with Colson Whitehead winning for his novel The Nickel Boys. The fiction novel that is based on reality was “chosen for its convincing character portrayal and unsparing depiction of corruption and racial brutality.” The thought-provoking novel takes its readers back in time to the 1960s where power was abused. Colson’s portrayal of the past has captivated the minds of thousands and most certainly this is why he was on the receiving end of the £3,000 Orwell prize. Colson was additionally awarded “a unique trophy designed and made by students in the design department at Goldsmiths, University of London.”
Comparatively, winning the 2020 International Dylan Thomas Award, Bryan Washington has truly demonstrated his literary prowess and flair with his 2020 publication of Lot. Hailed by authors, critics and readers alike, Washington firmly established himself as a literary powerhouse. By negotiating a poignant and kinetic narrative, he allows us to journey along with his unnamed protagonist and become immersed in the visceral world that he has created.
Traversing race, sexuality, family and community, Lot is comprehensive and extensive of its discussion of Houston. Washington’s nuanced prose is able to strike an astounding balance between discussing the inherently political nature of Black Queer identity and also constructing enthralling prose – exactly as Nzelu asserted.
What is so acutely apparent is the expectation across society for explicitly Black writing to be purposefully educational and informative with regards to anti-racist teachings. This expectation, while acknowledging the intrinsic political nature of being Black dismisses the very craft of these authors.
By reducing their writing to a solely political entity, we risk losing the magic of the language, the entrancement of the worlds that they have created for us.
In reality, these pieces work on a myriad of levels, both politically teaching us and also enhancing our emotional intelligence. Through such novelists fashioning these worlds, we become more aware through their use of language, creating characters and their constructed realities.
While award winners Bernadine Evaristo, Bryan Washington and Colson Whitehead are taking prominence in the literary world for their works of fiction, we are only starting to scratch the surface. Such examples demonstrate a distinct societal movement towards recognising Black literary talent, yet the emergence of prizes such as the Jhalak Prize (previously discussed in Issue 2) are also distinctly imperative. We see and celebrate a mere snippet of what boasts a bountiful talent pool. We must observe many more Black novelists sharing their craft, rightly rewarding their talents with worldwide acclaim. We all need to celebrate their stories, amplify their voices and honour their legacies.