BLACK BRITAIN: WRITING BACK
The Dancing Face by Mike Phillips
The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy
Minty Alley by CLR James
Without Prejudice by Nicola Williams
Incomparable World by SI Martin
Bernard and the Cloth Monkey by Judith Bryan
Penguin Books, £8.99 each
Edited by Bernardine Evaristo
Review by Rosemary Goring
In the wake of Black Lives Matter comes Black Britain: Writing Back, a series of six ground-breaking novels by overlooked, or forgotten black British writers. Selected by playwright and novelist Bernardine Evaristo who was co-winner of the Booker prize in 2019 for Girl, Woman, Other, this is a timely venture. It is also long overdue. Among Black Lives Matter’s priorities was to protest the airbrushing of black and ethnic minority voices from far distant and recent history, and Evaristo’s selection aims to make a start to rectifying literary neglect.
There are countless famous and influential writers of black and ethnic minority backgrounds who are familiar to anyone interested in fiction, from Toni Morrison and Ngugi wa Thiong’o to Zadie Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro and Jackie Kay. What Black Britain: Writing Back makes you appreciate, however, is the number of less prominent authors left by the wayside.
Evaristo identifies a handful whose work has faded from sight, and deserves a second chance, not just because of its quality but because these were each in their way pioneering. As she writes of the Penguin initiative: “Our ambition is to correct historic bias in British publishing and bring a wealth of lost writing back into circulation … this project looks back to the past in order to resurrect texts that will help reconfigure black British literary history.” It’s worth pointing out, however, that all these novels were first published in the UK.
Her choices, she stresses, are personal, and not to be read as “an attempt to be definitive or to create a canon”. Evaristo’s views of the literary canon are widely known, and she raised eyebrows when she admitted that writers like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters did nothing for her. Hence her concern not to sound prescriptive.
Not that all six of these authors are unknown. CLR James is one of the best sports writers of all time, the timeless voice of cricket. He also wrote extensively on African politics, and he turned his play The Black Jacobins, about Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, into a history of the uprising. Less familiar, and the only book in this chronologically lopsided series that pre-dates 1997, is his novel Minty Alley. Published in 1936, before James left Trinidad, it is a picaresque, wry, colonial-flavoured account of a middle-class young man falling on hard times. When he moves into a low-rent but warm-hearted community on his doorstep that, until this point, he had never even noticed, his future opens up. While few today will have even heard of it, Evaristo writes that Minty Alley, the first novel published in the UK by a black Caribbean writer, “laid the foundation for [VS] Naipaul’s most celebrated novel, A House for Mr Biswas”. That book, meanwhile, remains evergreen.
The other five titles are all from around the 1990s. This was a time when, Evaristo writes, there was a flourishing of publishing by black women writers, one of whom was her. The book that stands out particularly, for me, is Jacqueline Roy’s gripping tragi-comedy, The Fat Lady Sings. The comedy is entirely in the main narrator Gloria’s voice, as she observes her own and fellow patients’ behaviour and feelings, while in hospital with severe mental health issues. On the death of her partner Josie, the middle-aged, ebullient Gloria has had a mental collapse: “The world goes on the same, as if Josie’s still alive and nothing’s changed … since I got put in hospital, it’s as if time has stopped and the future’s been squeezed out of me. It’s all past and present now.” In the next bed is a young woman whose interior monologue is fractured and impressionistic, but clear enough to show what has caused her to be traumatised. It sounds gloomy, but while the women’s stories are bleak, Roy infuses this book with wit, spirit, and compassion. Recounted from a wholly original perspective, it drives home the double jeopardy in which black Britons have often lived: “Mother Country: Funny phrase that. Britain gives the kind of mothering that would fetch the social workers in.”
Mike Phillips is another well-known name and his thriller, The Dancing Face, is even more topical today than on publication in 1997. The story of the theft of an iconic Benin mask, stolen by the marauding British in late Victorian times, it is a cry of rage about cultural loss and appropriation, and the imbalance of power between Britain and its former colonies that continues to blight the lives of modern black Britons. Phillips’s style is fast-paced, the plot eventful, but it is marred by a preacherly tone. By contrast, SI Martin’s punchy historical novel, Incomparable World, pitches you into the stews of 18th-century London, and the scenes and characters do all the talking. Set among black soldiers who have returned from America’s war of independence to find themselves abandoned by the state and reduced to penury, it crackles with attitude and atmosphere.
Evaristo introduces each book individually. Her passion for highlighting these novels is not in doubt, but her style can be tutelary, as when saying that Roy’s novel “breaks with the heteronormative convention of black British writing”. Nicola Williams’s crime novel, Without Prejudice (1997), is about the English justice system as seen by a black female barrister: ‘[it]offers us a version of black female achievement that is essential to attaining and inspiring a more meritocratic nation.” That cannot be disputed, but when she claims that “Val McDermid was one of the first crime writers to put women in the driving seat”, you can feel the shades of Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Dorothy L Sayers, Sara Paretsky – to name only a few – taking to the barricades.
Completing the series is Bernard and the Cloth Monkey, Judith Bryan’s painful account of two London sisters confronting their unhappy past. Its opening scene, in which the narrator’s father dies, is unforgettable: her mother shoves his false teeth into his mouth before he has taken his last breath, so that he will look the part as a corpse.
Evaristo describes this book as “a rebellion against silence”. That could stand as the credo for this eye-opening series which, one hopes, continues to grow.