As the year ends and a new one begins, I reflect on my amazing good fortune since winning the Booker Prize on October 14th. Every day I marvel at the power of this prize to revolutionise my career in every way imaginable, just as it did for many of my predecessors.
In interviews, I am always asked how I feel about sharing the prize and my reply is genuine and heartfelt. I am happy to share it, especially with Margaret Atwood who is such an inspiring feminist, environmentalist, legendary writer and generous person. I certainly don’t feel that I’ve won half a prize. My name alone appears on the Booker plaque sent to me, just as hers will do the same. I’m the first black woman, and the first black British person to win it in its fifty-one year history, although it is a bittersweet honour, because it’s not that other writers have been undeserving in the past, yet only four other black women have ever been shortlisted. I do hope that another black woman will claim it soon.
The response to my win has been incredible. I have been bowled over by the celebration, warmth and appreciation coming my way. I know a lot of people in the arts and literature, and I am deeply connected to my communities. I think my win signals hope for all those artists who dream of a bigger audience and all those people who want us to succeed at every level in this country and who feel that my win is also theirs – as I’ve been told many times. I’ve been in the arts nearly 40 years and for this to happen at the age of sixty has been a staggering experience, especially with a radical, experimental novel positioning black British womanhood at its centre, a third of whom are on the queer spectrum.
A month or so after winning the Booker, I’d signed off on twenty-eight translation deals, whereas previously I’d had only five translation deals covering my seven books – the first one published in 1994. Girl, Woman, Other has made the Sunday Times bestseller list for hardback fiction several times and is currently selling more in a week than practically the entire lifetime of any one of my previous titles. As I’ve said many times, the book hasn’t changed, but the context of the book has changed. I wrote it to address the invisibility of black British women in fiction, and in so doing gained increased visibility as a writer myself. The novel is now floating off into the world to be read by people who would never normally encounter it, and in languages that range from Arabic and Georgian to Sinhalese and Taiwanese. My words, my twelve British womxn, now have a global reach, and for that I am deeply grateful.
The Bailey sisters from Clapham feature on the cover of the novel with a photo taken by Neil Kenlock circa 1970, found in a photo library by the cover designer, Ali Campbell. The three sisters discovered they were on the cover and came to my event at Brixton Library. The history of black British women is mostly untold, and they are part of our hidden history. I so enjoyed meeting them.
The novel was first published in May 2019 in the UK with Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House, under the editorship of publishing supremo, Simon Prosser, who has published six of my eight books with wisdom, sensitivity and great skill for nearly twenty years before this breakthrough moment. I will always be deeply appreciative of his loyalty and guidance as an editor.
Someone created this lovely collage at Penguin’s offices.
The novel was published in November in the US with editor Peter Blackstock at Black Cat/ Grove Atlantic, a new publisher for me, who, along with his colleagues, has expertly steered the novel onto several US bestseller lists.
Since winning the prize, I’ve given more interviews in two months than in my entire career – most of them for major outlets: print, podcasts and broadcast media (including my first invites to be interviewed on TV,), including for CNN with Christiane Amanpour.
I’ve actually lost count of the number of interviews I’ve given, and to put this into context, I didn’t secure a single major interview in print media for the novel when it was published in May, and indeed as far as I can recall, my only previous interview of any substance was for the The Emperor’s Babe in the (London) Times in 2001. I tend to be invited to be interviewed on radio. I guess the point I’m making is that while I’ve had a rich creative life and published eight novels, I was never cherry-picked for success, although I have long been well-reviewed in print media. However, while good reviews might enhance careers, they don’t, it seems to me, necessarily bring writers to wider attention. I’m not complaining, but I think people need to know that the road to this point in my career was not one of easy advantage. Here’s a link to a somewhat lighthearted piece I wrote earlier this year for the Royal Society of Literature‘s pamphlet, A Room of my Own, where several writers (inc. David Almond, Val McDermid, Daljit Nagra) addressed the issue of what a writer needs to work. I wrote, ‘For about 30 years I was the Queen of Precarity, earning little and never knowing how the year would pan out financially.’ This was indeed my reality, but I do accept that I chose a precarious profession, which for most writers brings creative fulfillment but little in the way of financial return. A writer needs to build self-confidence and be self-motivated, and obstacles and set-backs develop these qualities – if you don’t give up. The easy path doesn’t help artists build resilience, which is essential to keeping going for everyone at some stage in their career. I do think that after so long I am testament to some of the most important qualities needed to maintaining a career in the arts: ambition, determination, commitment to lifelong learning, resilience, resourcefulness and tenacity.
‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step…’ (…at a time…) Lao Tzu.
Other highlights this year include being in conversation for thirty minutes with Candice Carty-Williams (whose hit debut, Queenie, was published this year) for a BBC Radio 4 Front Row programme featuring just the two of us on Boxing Day.
With Candice Carty-Williams
I’ve also written many journalistic pieces and articles recently, and an extract from my long essay, ‘What a Time to be a (Black) (British) (Womxn) Writer’ was published in the Guardian Review in October (extracted from Brave New Words, edited by Susheila Nasta and Mark Stein, Myriad Editions, Nov, 2019.) My own ‘Top Books of the Year’ choices’ appeared in six newspapers and magazines. I’ve also written more pieces that are due out in magazines in the coming months.
Other writing projects of the past couple of months include an experimental creative piece for Sam Winston’s ‘The Dark Project’ – launching 2020. (It involved spending a few hours in a blacked-out room in Hackney and then writing out of this experience.) I wrote a prose poem, The Simple Life Cycle of the Islanders for the newly-launched Museum of Colour – for their Pitts River Museum Oxford collaboration – where I read it in October. I also wrote a reimagined ending to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway for BBC Radio 3’s ‘The Essay, Open Endings’, which was broadcast on Christmas Eve. A lowlight was having a short story turned down, post-Booker, by a magazine who commissioned it and then decided it wasn’t good enough. Well, that put me in my place. I sent it to my harshest critics telling them to be their usual brutal selves, and expected them to shake their heads in disappointment – but they all loved it. It was a savage satire, so maybe it misfired for this publication. Who knows? They never told me why it wasn’t good enough, just that it wasn’t. On the positive side, it’s good to stay grounded and rejection is very grounding! I’ll find a home for it somewhere. Another magazine also commissioned a short story and, happily, will publish it in February.
I contributed a story to New Daughters of Africa this year, edited by and published twenty-six years after the original came out in 1994, Daughters of Africa. Both books feature about 200 (different) black women writers each. What a feat, what a resource, what an encyclopaedia of our writing.
With Elif Shafak prior to our Southbank Booker event the day before the ceremony. She is one of the nicest and most supportive writers out there. She was shortlisted for the Booker with her haunting book, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.Several months after reading it the story still lingers in my imagination.
As the Woolwich Laureate for 2019 (appointed by Greenwich & Docklands International Festival & Greenwich Council & partners) I spent a lot of time this year in the home town I left in 1977 aged eighteen. #espadrilles…
A few weeks ago, I spent several days in Woolwich Library interviewing and recording local people talking about Woolwich, which will inspire the ‘Woolwich Narrative’ I’m going to write.
Woolwich Library is amazing – it’s a community hub, a gathering place for all kinds of groups, a place where tutors teach children after school, a warm and safe space for people to get in off the streets, and it gives people who need them access to computers. Oh, and there are lots of books there too, and it’s wonderful to see so many people sitting around reading them.
With two of the librarians in Woolwich library, December 2019
A knitting circle in the library.
After my Girl, Woman, Other reading at the library, where I was interviewed by Rasheeda Paige-Muir (2nd left) founder of Revolyoutionlondon, still a university student, and Woolwich home girl, growing up a few streets away from my childhood home — many decades later. Rasheeda is one of the many young women I met this year who are actively being a force for good in the world. Her sister, Shani Paige-Muir, recent graduate, runs the Nyah Network Book Club, where I also did a turn in November.
I also ran some writing workshops for young people at Tramshed, formerly Greenwich Young People’s Theatre, where I spent my childhood acting in plays. I’m now one of their ambassadors. They let me rummage inside folders of old photographs and I discovered this photo. My still great friend J from those days remembers me getting good parts at the youth theatre, but I don’t recall that at all. Here’s another piece I wrote for the Guardian, this time about the youth theatre.
Being worshipped in a play at Greenwich Young People’s Theatre, 1974. It set up unrealistic expectations for the rest of my life...
I rarely discuss my other career in public, as Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London, where I’ve taught since 2011. This was a busy term for me, teaching several classes, tutor groups and supervisions, and it was an incredible challenge post-Booker to maintain everything, but I felt duty-bound not to drop the ball with my students. It was very grounding (oh, that word again) for me to get up at 4 a.m. to mark-up students’ fiction homework in time for class later that day, while a whirlwind of publicity and public events gathered pace around me. I’d leave class, hop in a cab or get the tube from Uxbridge to central London, go off to do an interview or book signings, and then a public event, arrive home at midnight, and then get up again at 4 a.m. to mark-up student’s work for the following morning’s class. I’m not quite sure how I held it altogether. Let’s just say that I’d almost curbed my caffeine habit pre-Booker, but I was soon back on five strong cups day! I did 67 public events this year in the UK and abroad – readings, panels, talks – most of them in the second half of the year. I didn’t find it exhausting, although I do find the attendant admin exhausting. I mostly found it regenerative, especially as the book gathered momentum from May onwards. Events are a way to connect directly to readers, to communicate my ideas, and to bring my characters alive in spaces where they are heard for first time.
Panel discussion for the National Literacy Trust at Slaughter & May, November 2019
Event with the Black Girls Book Club Festival, December 2019
The Politics of Pleasure event at the ICA, November 2019, interviewed by Nydia A. Swaby
Of course I want people to read my books but the Prize draws attention to all the books on its long and short lists. Read everyone.
This autumn two of my PhD students passed their vivas, subject to minor corrections, which is always an incredible relief for them and incredibly satisfying for their supervisors. After several years of intense doctoral study, they are soon to graduate as academic doctors. I also examined three external PhD candidates at other universities.
One of my joys this year is to witness the ongoing success of The Complete Works poetry mentoring scheme (2007-2017). 95% of the mentees have published poetry books, often more than one, and several of the thirty alums published new poetry books this year including Raymond Antrobus, Mona Arshi, Jay Bernard and Roger Robinson.
Some of The Complete Works alums a few years ago. Photo taken by Naomi Woddis. L-R: Roger Robinson, Malika Booker, Sarah Howe, Rishi Dashidar, Kayo Chinonyi, Jay Bernard, Karen McCarthy-Woolf, Warsan Shire, Adam Lowe, Eileen Pun, Mona Arshi.
2019 The Brunel International African Poetry Prize entered its seventh year, with joint winners: Nadra Mabrouk (Egypt) and Jamila Osman (Somalia). As African poets are now proliferating and getting published and recognised across the globe. I’m currently cooking up another literature project advocating inclusion. My aim is to always place our under-told voices on the map: to help develop craft, build careers and literary communities; to value our perspectives and validate our cultures and to get our stories out there – taken seriously and read widely. Brunel University is the primary funder of this prize, and every year I work closely with Kwame Dawes, founder of the African Poetry Book Fund, on this and his prizes.
Winners 2019: Nadra Mabrouk & Jamila Osman
Somalia, Nigeria, Ethiopia
(As you can see, I don’t have a problem with prizes where the winner is multiple rather than single. #spreadingthelovebaby)
Every year I co-judge the African Poetry Book Fund’s Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, and this year I was the sole judge for the Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry, which went to South African poet Koleka Putuma for Collective Amnesia.
Years ago, in the nineties, someone I knew, another black woman who was a powerful producer and had a sharp tongue, told me to concentrate solely on my own writing career and stop behaving like a ‘social worker’ for other writers, because I’d never get anywhere. I had published two books and was working in literature development at the time and her words stung. I’ve come across this sentiment since, although not put quite as brutally: that serious writers should stay focused on their own careers and not get distracted by, for example, all the acitivities I generate and participate in. I don’t agree with this and winning the Booker is proof that you can be taken seriously as a writer and be a serious activist involved in literature at grassroots level. It’s a choice, not an obligation. I long ago chose to take my community with me on my creative journey. I grew up in a political family with activist parents who believed and fought for a more egalitarian society. When you are in various ways minoritised or marginalised in a society, you are often not privy to the subterranean networks of power that support a status quo that is too often exlusionary. In other words, the support networks already exist and we’re often not included in them and indeed, we often don’t even know they exist because they are invisible. Individual success does not a sea change make. We need to be there for each other; we need to support each other. This is one of the many reasons why I loved Toni Morrison. We were at the centre of her universe. She never ignored or forgot us. Here’s my tribute to her in the Guardian.
I’m pleased to say that an unprecedented number of black British books were published this year, many of them debuts, and I hope this momentum is sustained. I’ve provided puffs for many of these books and supported many others through reviews, mentions and teaching them – nearly fifty books all told. (See Guardian essay for some of the titles – past and present.) I’m aware that this year I’ve neglected established authors with new books I’ve been dying to read. As I progress into the new year, I already have seven debut manuscripts waiting for me to provide quotes, just at a time when I really want to choose my own reading list. Because of this, I won’t be providing any more puffs beyond these seven books for the foreseeable future. I will post on social media about books I’ve read and loved, and might even do this on Goodreads, so all is not lost, but please don’t ask me to provide puffs. I need to spend time nourishing my own practice with books of my own choosing. My aim this year is to read a book a week: fifty-two books. I can’t wait.
Here are two books I’m excited to read in 2020. There are many others.
I have long travelled internationally as a writer and this year I was invited to do events in Holland, Hungary, Poland and, in October, at the wonderful Ake Arts and Book Festival run by Lola Shoneyin (also a brilliant novelist) and the Lagos Poetry Festival – both in Lagos, Nigeria, where my father was raised. It’s always special returning to Nigeria and this time I took two of my siblings, who had never been before. Our father passed in 2001 but his spirit lives on, especially in Lagos, which was in his blood.
I’ve taken part in other projects this year, such as judging the LGBT+ Polari Book Prize, which the novelist Paul Burston founded, alongside the monthly Polari Salon. The winner was Andrew McMillan for his collection, Playtime.
After the ceremony at the Southbank: Andrew is 2nd left & Paul is wearing the top hat.
Girl, Woman, Other, with its twelve co-protagonists and experimental fusion fiction, took five years to write and was a mammoth undertaking. I hope the next one doesn’t take as long, but I can never predict the length of time it takes to write a book – a book will dictate its own terms. I imagine there will be a lot of noise in my head while I’m working on the new proejct, but to be honest, that’s always the case. While I was writing Girl, Woman, Other, I was aware that Mr Loverman had proved popular with readers, many of whom felt very affectionately towards it.
What if everyone hates this new novel, I kept asking myself, while simultaneously reassuring myself, as I always do, that each new book will find its readers and that I have to write the book I have to write. I do expect that the noise inside my head for the new work will be louder than usual, and I will have to work hard at muting it.
I began this year still tweaking Girl, Woman, Other, which was finally signed off in February and published in May. The industry is ever-evolving and since my last book was published in 2013, Mr Loverman, I noticed that in January 2019, a big deal was made of the media’s lists of ‘the most important and exciting books’ to be published in 2019, in ways that hadn’t existed before. It felt as if these books had been sanctioned as the only books worth paying attention to, and indeed they were crucial for building hype around forthcoming titles, even though the books hadn’t yet been read, I imagine, and certainly not reviewed. I remember feeling disappointed that I only made two of these scores of lists at this time last year. Why were media bods not excited about my book, I asked myself? I’m not at all a self-pitying person and that moment quickly passed, but I want to register it here…
(I no longer wet myself, btw.)
And then the year happened and by the end of it, I was on over twenty important Book of the Year lists, including several major Top 10 lists, the Sunday Times Books of the Decade list, and then at the end of December the novel made Barack Obama’s 19 Favourite Books of 2019. What I really want to say to other writers out there, is to not be disheartened if you don’t make these lists in the coming weeks, and to remember that social media is a now a powerful space for you to share your work and engage with readers. We are no longer soley reliant on the mainstream media to get our work out there. You also don’t know what’s going to happen with your new book – you really don’t.
I’ll never get over the thrill of seeing a poster of the novel on the undeground, another first in a year of personal firsts. People travelling around London sent me sightings of the poster in numerous tube stations.
I could never have predicted the journey of Girl, Woman, Other through the year, or my own emotional journey, which began in January with a degree of trepidation and ‘business as usual’ and ended on such high notes. Winning the Booker changed everything.
2020 will be…
I feel so blessed and give thanks. Don’t give up, writers, artists. If you love what you’re doing then keep doing it and keep improving your skills.
We are powerful. Aṣẹ