Many wonderful opportunities came my way in 2020, my ‘Booker Year’, which I’d like to record here because it was so extraordinary. I had a year-long round of publicity because every day the offers poured in asking me to appear in the media, with more invitations this year alone than for my previous seven books put together going back to 1994. Lockdown made it very easy for me to appear on multiple television channels and in several countries at literary festivals in a single day. I gave over 120 interviews in the UK and internationally (especially around the publication of Girl, Woman, Other in different countries) and I made some 60 other appearances and wrote lots of short pieces for the papers and magazines. I was intereviewed by Natalie Portman and Adwoa Aboah separately on their Instagram pages, thereby reaching their fans, which run into the millions.
The novel has now sold into 35 languages, plus foreign rights for some of my other books have also been sold, totalling 46 editions. (Previously I’d sold 4 foreign rights out of 7 books.)
The cover of the Brazilian edition, Garota, Mulher, Outras, features Paris Apartment by the artist Toyin Ojih Odutola.
My planned international tour was, of course, abandoned, but I travelled the world from my study via video link-ups. I talked and talked and talked and had to dig deep to find new and interesting answers to familiar
questions. Hard Talk for the BBC World Service TV, with Stephen Sackur, was a special one, and really kept me on my toes. I’m glad that it came at the end of 18 months of talking about the novel, as I was better prepared to handle it. It has an audience of 70 million around the world — so you don’t want to fuck up, right? (Now available as a po
This was also the year that Girl, Woman, Other spent five weeks as the UK’s #1 bestselling paperback fiction novel. In total, the novel has now spent 44 weeks in the top ten list of bestsellers, either in hardback or paperback format, and it ended 2020 as the #2 bestselling fiction paperback novel of the year, and #23 for all books in all genres sold in 2020. I don’t think I’ll ever get over not only making the hit parade when I have never been anywhere near its radar, but also spending so much time on it. Every week my publisher would email me my position in advance of the Sunday Times list being published, which is the definitive record of book sales. Every week I was excited and suprised to see GWO still on the list and thought of all those readers who were encountering my characters, stories and ideas.
Many honours also came my way this year, and I feel grateful to receive this level of recognition.
Over the year I wrote twenty-nine essays including many book forewords and introductions. How could I turn down the chance to intro a new edition of Beloved, by Toni Morrison (Vintage) and For coloured girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange (Orion), both literary heroines of mine. Also intro’d the reissue of Black Teacher by Beryl Gilroy (Faber) and Loud Black Girls (Harper Collins) by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinene, their second anthology after Slay in Your Lane. I also wrote the introductions to each Black Britain: Writing Back novel. More on that later.
You can access here my New Statesman/ Goldsmiths Prize lecture: The Longform Patriarchs and their Accomplices. I also wrote five BBC Radio 4 A Point of View opinion essays, broadcast from June through to Christmas Day, covering topical topics of my choosing and taking me into unchartered terrain as a writer.
Tbh, it was demanding writing and recording pieces of 9 to 9.45 mins in length. All but one were recorded at home and like most of my public recordings this year, I was the writer, presenter and sound engineer. As a technophobe, I began lockdown pulling my hair out at having to get my head around so many different video platforms and tackling technical issues, but nearly a year on, I am resigned to it, and indeed, see the many positives of reaching audiences this way – beyond borders.
Some of the essays were published in 2020, many others are out this year. It was challenging entering many diffferent intellectual and cultural spaces with each essay, often at speed as the commissions piled up. But after each piece of work was completed, I felt a sense of relief and achievement. You can find a list of some of the essays here and watch that space for updates.
I also wrote a slim book about art, with visual images, specially commissioned by an artistic enterprise, but I can’t say any more than this until it’s officially announced later this year – she says mysteriously.
This was the year that I returned to writing drama, my first love. My monologue First Do No Harm , the last in a series about the NHS called The Greatest Wealth, was commissioned by Lolita Chakrabati for the Old Vic Theatre, directed by Adrian Lester, and starred Sharon D. Clarke. A second monologue was commissioned by BBC television’s Front Row Late which I read via Zoom for the programme: Queen Lipida (aka Covid-19) Speaks Out. A third, a community piece, The Weavers of Woolwich was produced on video and recited by local people for the Greenwich & Docklands Festival, as the finale to my year long role as the Woolwich Laureate in 2019. A fourth monologue will be announced and performed later this year. I was commissioned to write several short stories that appeared in the first half of the year in British Vogue, WeTransfer online mag, and the New Statesman. I was also commissioned by Valentino, the fashion house, to write the text for one of their campaigns, accompanying the photographs of the collections taken by Liz Johnson Artur, both of us older black women = interesting choices. The times they are a-changing!
In 2020 I curated Black Britain: Writing Back, a new series with my publisher of twenty years, Hamish Hamilton at Penguin UK, whereby we bring back books from the past which have been out of print or circulation. I researched and read many novels in order to come up with the six titles that made the list. The first six books were published this February 4th but the work was carried out last year. Series Editor: Hannah Chuckwu. Publisher: Simon Prosser. Six non-fiction books will be published Feb 2022. For years I’ve been talking about the invisibility of black British literary history and this has been an incredible opportunity to put some great books back into the limelight.
A totally unexpected offer to guest-edit the Sunday Times Style magazine arrived in late spring from the then editor, Lorraine Candy. I engineered a black women & womxn & queer-inclusive takeover featuring many young British womxn making inroads out there. Actually, I didn’t have to engineer it, Lorraine and her team were 100% receptive to the idea. Theresa Lola, poet, and then the Young People’s Laureate of London was featured (photo below), and many others including Ola Ince, theatre director; Lynette Linton, theatre director & AD of the Bush Theatre; Nicole Crentsil, CEO & entrepreneur; Minna Salami, writer & philosopher; Travis Alabanza, writer & performance artist; Konya and Isata Kanneh-Mason, classical musicians; ; Kesh, image maker. Also Diana Evans, Smita Patel, Yomi Sode and many more. I was so proud of this collector’s issue. I’m sure some of the regular Sunday Times readers had kittens when they opened the mag. I relished the thought.
It’s still online at the Sunday Times.
Appearing on The Southbank Show, hosted by Melvyn Bragg has long been a dream of mine. It came true this year, filmed before the first lockdown and broadcast in November. Desert Island Discs has likewise long been on my bucket list, and again it happened this year, interviewed by Lauren Laverne.
I was also a sitter for Portrait Artist of the Week for Sky Arts, an online version of the programme, painted live over four hours by portraitist Duncan Shoosmith and a couple of thousand people who watched online, painted and submitted their paintings onto Instagram. The winner was Frances Featherstone – her portrait is below.
I bought five of the portraits for my archive. A few months later I was the sitter for the semi-final for Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, in the Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Cente – socially-distanced, of course. Other highlights include being featured in a documentary about African writers, Africa Turns the Page, produced by David Olusoga and a documentary about the Booker Prize, hosted by writer Kit de Waal.
Here’s Kit and I at the Guildhall where the ceremony usually takes place. And here I am with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who hosted a discussion, broadcast live, for myself and Reni Eddo-Lodge at City Hall for Black History Month in October.
I participated in the Booker Prize 2020, in person at the Roundhouse in London for the BBC to an online audience, with all other participants other than the Chair of the jury, Margaret Busby, beaming in via Zoom, including Barack Obama who mentioned the Booker writers he’s enjoyed including myself. This year’s winner is Douglas Stuart with his mesmeric and heart-wrenching novel Shuggie Bain. I interviewed him remotely from the US to the UK at the Southbank Centre a few days after his win.
My early career in theatre was commemorated in two books this year: Black British Women’s Theatre: Intersectionality, Archives, Aesthetics by Nicola Abram, the first book of its kind, with a chapter on Theatre of Black Women. The cover features myself and Patricia St. Hilaire from our 1983 play, Silhouette; and The Palgrave Handbook of the History of Women on Stage, edited by Jan Sewell & Clare Smout, also groundbreaking, for which I wrote a chapter about the company from my personal perspective, in part honouring the many women in theatre who taught me at Rose Bruford College.
You can find both books on Amazon, at academic book prices. For those not familiar with the prohibitive cost, these books tend to be bought by libraries.
Other projects including working with Speaking Volumes on a ‘Your Local Arena’ film about the mixed-race punk rocker, Poly Styrene. The 3k Brunel International African Poetry Prize, which I set up in 2012, primarily funded by Brunel University, continues to run annually. 2020’s winner was Rabha Ashry from Egypt.
I’ve provided quotes for other writers for over fifteen years now and have decided to stop, in part because I need to expand my reading beyond that of my peers, and also because I think that having provided so many, they become devalued. I want to read more widely in the next few years in order to nourish my own practice, and so no more blurbs. However, if I like a book that I’ve chosen to read at leisure, I will post about it on social media. You can find me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
2020 was incredibly productive and intense. I wanted to enjoy my ‘Booker Year’ and this meant accepting many of the lovely offers that came my way. I barely caught my breath and sometimes regretted taking on so much. I worked with the most amazing people in my publishing house, at my agency, with my publishers in the US (Grove) and abroad, and all the individuals and organisations with whom I partnered on projects including The Southbank Show, the Old Vic, Greenwich & Docklands International Festival, Valentino, Sunday Times Style mag, Speaking Volumes, Sadiq Khan, Southbank Centre, Desert Island Discs and many others.
We writers are part of a cultural eco-system. We’re the ones in the public eye but only because there are people behind the scenes enabling us to produce our creativity and progress our careers. I count my blessings every day and give thanks to everyone who has supported me during this adrenaline-charged year where I rode the surfboard of my Booker win — er, does that even work as an image? Help! I need an editor. See what I mean?