Black British writers: we’re more than just Zadie Smith and Monica Ali | Irenosen Okojie
This article relates to why I am making an effort to read more female and ethnic minority writers and as with any article, the comments make for an even more interesting read.
When I was a young girl of 11, my favourite thing to do on a Saturday was to spend my day in the library. This joy was to continue into a life long pleasure. I clearly remember when Islington libraries would have a section or shelf of ‘black and Asian’ authors. I would curiously read the backs of these books and would take one (haha read several) home.
This was how I read my first gay novel about an Indian boy falling in love with another man; about African American women’s lives at university and learnt about telephone prayer meetings and fell in love with a book called ‘the scholar’ by Courttia Newland, which was about urban teenagers in NW London and the difficult choices teenagers sometimes face. I recognised myself, my friends, and most importantly my surroundings in his books. It was a courageous choice to write about black teenagers in London in the early 90s, after all who was interested? Gang culture wasn’t yet with us. As an aside, I wonder if white authors writing about black teenagers get a better reception from publishers? Newland has a character in one of his books that is a struggling black author and I now wonder how much of that character was autobiographical?
There are small black and Asian publishers in the UK and these have been going since the 1980s and it would be great to read more black and Asian British writing.
As some of you may know, one of my new year’s resolutions was to read more female writers and also more writers of colour. Whilst many of my favourite authors are women: Jilly Cooper, Margaret Atwood, Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery, I felt that there was room to read and buy more books by authors from a non Western/ White/ male perspective. I created a pretty extensive list in January (read it here) and since then I have read some great books and have been really enjoying discovering new authors and their perspectives. Here is my first month of reading.
January I started the new year with two Turkish authors- Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak.
And I fell in love with both authors lyrical descriptions of Turkey. The Museum of Innocence is set in the period 1975 to 1984 in Istanbul. The book is ultimately an ode to love/obsession and kept me up all night wanting to know how the story would end. However, The Bastard of Istanbul had me hooked from the beginning. Shafak is courageous, she writes about religion, genocide and cultural identity whilst engaging the reader with a host of female and family characters. This book is set in contemporary Turkey and the US. I don’t want to give any spoilers but I thoroughly enjoyed this book and that led me to her book the Forty Rules of Love. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of discovering a new life and love and even more the interwoven story of Rumi (an epic medieval Persian poet and Sufi) and his meeting with the Sufi dervish Shams-e Tabrizi. The book has a strong mystical feel and is concerned with the philosophy and spirituality underpining the lives we lead. I have quoted the book several times on this blog which is my own personal endorsement of how much I got from it.
The Museum of Innocence – 8 out of 10. I disliked the ending and the lack of female voices throughout but otherwise an excellent book. The writing is great.
The Bastard of Istanbul- 9 out of 10. An excellent read, my favourite.
The Forty Rules of Love -7.5 out of 10. A great read but not as memorable as the others. Would recommend to anyone questioning their life/ relationships around them.
Next- I start my journey into Fantasy wrote by a woman and POC, and learn about the Freedom riders in the US…
I had a powerful realisation on my way home after 3 days of amazing talks and poetry about feminism and the achievements of women and girls around the world.
I realised that this is my job. My job isn’t just the one I get paid to do. My real life job is to ensure that my life is as enjoyable and purposeful as it has been the last three days. Everyday. (and if not everyday, then once or twice a week!).
I am responsible for ensuring that I continuously do what I enjoy and for me this includes learning new ideas, consolidating existing ones and sharing this experience with others.
I have prioritised other things over maintaining my intellect, letting life and earning money get in the way. I need to commit to myself that I will continue to over use my brain. I’m exhausted but also invigorated. I’ve made new friends and I’m filling an appetite I didn’t fully realise I had, nor the extent of my hunger.
Some people will read this and think ‘well doing what you love is very obvious’. However I’d ask those people how much time do they spend doing those little things that bring them joy? Reading books, painting, going for long walks, swimming, going to a gallery or exhibition and so on. We are all guilty of putting off things that we enjoy because something more pressing is at hand.
So my challenge to those reading this is- this week do one little thing that you love doing but haven’t done in ages. Let me know how it goes.