Hajar Press Announces Roster of New Authors
The creation of new diverse imprints and publishing houses will go a long way in helping the UK’s publishing industry become a more inclusive place. Hajar Press is a new independent publisher seeking to provide an output for Black voices. It is run by and for people of colour, and was launched in August this year by Brekhna Aftab and Farhaana Arefin through a crowdfunding campaign. Initially, they will publish six to eight books per year.
Hajar’s core aim is to tackle institutional racism within the industry by publishing a range of fiction and non-fiction that engages with politics. On their website, they state that they reject the kind of token diversity currently seen in the industry, and will endeavour to challenge structural inequalities on their own terms. Most of the authors announced for 2021’s publication slate are first time authors, providing a much needed platform for writers who may otherwise have gone undiscovered without the emergence of these new publishers seeking to level the playing field for people of colour. Their first titles will include a historical novella by Yara Hawari, a poetry book by Lola Olufemi, and a collection of poetry and short stories by Jamal Mehmood.
Pictured above from left to right: Yara Hawari, Jamal Mehmood and Lola Olufemi.
Publisher and press co-founder Brekhna Aftab said:
“We are incredibly proud to have a roster of writers who define what this project is all about, and with them we are building a community that responds to the erasure of our stories in revolutionary and truly beautiful ways. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank everyone who has contributed to the Crowdfunder so far – your support means the world to us.”
During her keynote speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo told publishers they need to “radically alter the demography of their employees and publish a healthy, inclusive, diverse, exciting range of good books from a range of communities and for every kind of readership”, and rejected the idea there was no demand for books by writers of colour. Although existing publishers have been taking small steps to ensure they are catering to Black readers, presses like Hajar will quicken the process of making UK publishing more inclusive, and ensure that diversity is not just a commercial trend.
New Projects We’re Excited About
The publishing industry still has a long way to go to ensure the work of Black creators gains the exposure it deserves. Below is a round-up of some of the new projects by Black authors that have recently been announced.
Hidden Histories by Afua Hirsch
Hidden Histories aims to tackle the existing school curriculum and fix current omissions in the type of history that is taught to schoolchildren, specifically Britain’s colonial past. Upon leaving school everyone is familiar with the Tudors and World War II, but most lessons hesitate to build children’s understanding of themes like slavery and imperialism. Hirsch plans to correct this, as the book’s synopsis reads:
“...by telling the incredible, surprising, amusing, and poignant stories of Black figures from British history – stories that British children have never heard before. The stories she tells are about Black people, but this is not Black history. It’s the history of Britain, told through the lens of these hidden histories.
New Film Series to Feature the Life of Author Alex Wheatle
Small Axe is an upcoming anthology film series focusing on the West Indian experience in London from the 1960s to the 1980s. It is directed by Steve McQueen, most famous for the 12 Years a Slave adaptation. Wheatle is set to appear in the fifth episode, in which his experience as a Black author will be told. He is known for a number of books, with his latest project, Cane Warriors, exploring “the horrors of the British slave trade, and the brave men and women who stood up to it and did all they could to overthrow their cruel masters and make a bid for freedom”.
Becoming Muhammad Ali to be Published for Black History Month
On 20 October, Jacaranda Books published a biographical novel of the famous boxer’s life to inspire young readers. It follows the discrimination Ali faced in school and how he fell in love with boxing. Jazzmine Breary, Sales, Marketing, and Publicity Manager at Jacaranda Books, said:
“Becoming Muhammad Ali is one of the most important new books for young readers this autumn and a particularly inspiring story for Black History Month. 2020 has been a difficult year for the Black community and young people have been deeply affected. It is important to remind them of powerful, talented, and socially conscious Black heroes who not only excelled in their own areas of expertise, but who stood up for civil rights and equality. We are so proud to be able to bring this title to a UK audience.”
Stephen Buoro Lands Deal with Bloomsbury for His ‘Astonishing’ Debut
The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa will be published as a lead title in 2022. After an eight-way auction, the title was acquired for an impressive six-figure sum, suggesting that the commercial value of Black authors is finally being recognised. The novel is narrated by teenager Andrew Aziza, who lives in Nigeria. It explores important themes of identity, inheritance, religion, and colonialism. When asked about the deal, Buoro commented:
“I’m incredibly delighted to work with Alexis Kirschbaum and Bloomsbury to publish my debut, The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa. I can’t wait for readers to meet Andy and his droogs, to discover his mysteries and his world.”
Publishers Honour Black History Month Together with First Time Event
At the time this article was written at 8:00 p.m. on 15 October, the BAME networks of Hachette, HarperCollins and Penguin Random House came together for the first time to mark Black History Month with a webinar.
The Bookseller described the webinar as an event that aims to look after the minds of Black publishing professionals. Agnes Mwakatuma, founder of Black Minds Matter UK – a charity that connects Black individuals and families with free mental health services – and two licensed therapists offered advice to Black publishing staff on how to take care of their mental health in the workplace. Discussion points included microaggressions, how collective trauma can present itself in the workplace, and the impact of George Floyd’s death on Black Lives Matter.
Hachette’s network for BAME employees, THRIVE, also spearheaded a series of events to celebrate Black authors and publishing professionals. A Black Love panel took place on 14 October and focused on the importance of seeing Black love in books and on screen. Author Francine Toon (@FrancineElena) tweeted praise for the panel, “Brilliant discussion on Black Love this evening with @Lizeokoh, @BeeBabs and @SareetaDomingo hosted by @THRIVEHachette”, and asked panellist Sareeta Domingo for a regular podcast.
Another panel on 21 October will feature some prominent names in Black activism, their roles, Black Britons who inspired them, and the importance of activism. The remaining panel, ‘Publishers and Agents of Tomorrow’, will take place on 29 October and be chaired by Sharmaine Lovegrove. This panel and its focus on how to break into the publishing industry will be a great talk hopefuls, with editorial assistants and literary agents offering their expertise.
Hachette CEO David Shelley did not shy away from the difficulties this year has brought, commenting in The Bookseller:
“Black History Month has always been a time to celebrate the contributions of Black creatives to our publishing and our culture. This year, sadly we must also reflect on the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on the Black community and the unacceptable racial injustices we have seen played out in the headlines since [the killing of] George Floyd.”
Co-Chairs of THRIVE, Ebyan Egal and Joelyn Rolston-Esdelle, expressed their excitement at joining other publishers reflected on the importance of this support:
“We’re incredibly excited to be partnering with our fellow network chairs at Elevate and Colour[Full] to host this session with Black Minds Matter UK. With World Mental Health day taking place during Black History Month and given the traumatic events of this year, we felt it pertinent to organise a workshop that focuses on mental health and wellbeing for our Black colleagues across the industry.”
These events show the industry’s slowly increasing support of Black publishing professionals and hopefuls, with the biggest three publishers in the UK recognising the role they need to play in honouring Black lives. Their combined support this Black History Month is a testament to how traumatising this year has been, and shows the strength of an industry that seemingly wants to try to pick each other back up again. This event was the first of its kind, a start, but we will hopefully see this support, celebration, and open discussion carried forward.
All proceeds from the event will go to Black Minds Matter UK.