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Black History Month: Five Authors You Should Read (by Jack Boaden)



It’s Black History Month! Today we celebrate the achievements of black writers in the UK, who are often under-represented in the publishing industry. The month-long celebration of Black History Month has been nationally recognised in the US since 1976 as an acknowledgement and appreciation of Black heritage and its effects on culture. With that being said, here are five writers you should get to know!


1) PAUL MENDEZ


Paul Mendez was born in the West Country to Jamaican parents and raised a Jehovah's Witness, he left his community aged 22 to study acting in London, paying his way through with sex work. His debut novel was published last year at the height of the pandemic; Rainbow Milk is a semi-autobiographical account of his life so far, pieced together from 15 years' worth of the author's personal journals.


Using a mix of Jamaican patois and local dialects, the novel feels similar to Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, discussing themes of race, sexuality, and labour - despite the subject matter, the West Country dialect is a pleasure to read: "It's a shame, int it, in your culture, for the wife to be out doin' all the work while the 'usband's at home?"


While there's no official word on a new book from Mendez, something is floating around on the internet called 'UNTITLED PAUL MENDEZ (2022)' - only time will tell what the future brings.


You can follow Paul here and purchase Rainbow Milk here.



2) YRSA DALEY-WARD


Hailing from Chorley, Lancashire, Yrsa Daley-Ward is a writer and poet of Jamaican-Nigerian heritage. Her poetry is of varying length - sometimes several paragraphs with mixed-length stanzas, other times just a couple of sentences, using the sparseness of the white space to magnify its themes: love and trauma, spirituality and healing.


It's been a busy couple of years for Yrsa: in 2020, she worked with Beyoncé on Black is King, a visual companion to one of Queen B's albums. Daley-Ward also has a new book on the way; The How: Notes on the Great Work of Meeting Yourself will be released next month.


Yrsa is very active on Instagram with a rapidly-growing following. It's here that she offers 'the utter,' a free newsletter with poetry, existential musings, and ‘Ask the Utter,’ the last of which offers the writer's insights as well as being super-informative and very helpful for navigating life’s challenges.


Her new book The How: Notes on the Great Work of Meeting Yourself is due in just a few weeks - in the meantime, readers should pick up her first collection of poetry: bone (2014) or The Terrible: A Storyteller’s Memoir (2018).


You can follow Yrsa here and pre-order The How here.



3) JACKIE KAY


Born in 1961 to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, Jackie was adopted as a baby by a white Scottish couple. She is a poet, playwright, and novelist, who has published a myriad of material in different styles and formats.


Jackie’s debut novel was released in 1998; Trumpet tells the story of fictional jazz musician Joss Moody, assigned female at birth but who lives as a man – unbeknown to everyone including Colman, his adopted son. The novel's themes of course include race, sex, and gender, but it also highlights the role of the press, who seek to exploit Moody’s identity for profit. The novel is largely centred around duality – black and white, male and female – but this is juxtaposed by the freedom and liberation both jazz and instruments provide.


Jackie has won a lot of awards since 1991, including the Somerset Maugham award, and was shortlisted for Scottish Book of the Year twice. She was awarded an MBE in 2006 and a CBE in 2020, both for services to literature. In 2015 she was appointed as the chancellor to the University of Salford - I remember hearing her speak at my graduation; I wasn’t familiar with her before but she was totally electric – very funny and hugely inspiring, telling the room about the challenges and prejudice she faced as a black lesbian (her words!). You can read more about Jackie's life in Red Dust Road: An Autobiographical Journey (2010).


No news on any new Jackie Kay projects quite yet, but she has a wealth of material from 1991 - 2017 that's worth digging into.


You can follow Jackie here and purchase Trumpet here.



4) DAVID BECKLER


Born in Ethiopia in 1960, David Beckler is an ex-firefighter and thriller writer from Manchester. He has a few titles under his belt, including the 'Sterling & Mason' series: hard-boiled, cat-and-mouse thrillers set in Manchester’s dangerous underworld.


Beckler's latest novels The Money Trap and The Profit Motive (both 2019) are fine jumping-off points for the series, but readers may prefer to go right back to the beginning with Brotherhood (2014). Here, the two central characters Byron Mason and Adam Sterling are drawn into a violent game that escalates the more you read. Beckler keeps this violent intensity up throughout and adds some police procedural elements for good measure too.


Racial undercurrents run through the series as a result of the author's own experiences in 1970s Manchester. Of his two biracial protagonists, David says: "It would be dishonest if I wrote a minority character who didn't experience any racism... They've both had varied experiences, so react in different ways to how people respond to them. I set Brotherhood in 1998, and although racism wasn't as overt as in the 70s, it was inescapable."


Beckler hopes to get a new Sterling and Mason book – Unprotected – out in 2023. The author tells me he is working on other projects in the interim period – very little is known so far but he hopes to announce details soon.


You can follow David here and purchase Brotherhood here.



5) OKECHUKWU NZELU


Born in 1988, Okechukwu Nzelu is a writer and teacher from Manchester. His debut novel The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney was released in 2019 and has been shortlisted several times over for multiple awards.


Nzelu’s debut novel is centred around its titular character, Nnenna Maloney – a half-Nigerian teen living in Manchester with her mother, Joanie. Nnenna is trying to connect with her heritage and starts asking questions about her absent father, which her mother refuses to discuss further.


The book is a treat to read, although it will be a lot more insightful and relatable to BAME people – I have seen several reviews praising the recognition of anxieties around being ‘black enough’ in a white patriarchal society. It’s definitely a fun and upbeat coming-of-age story filled with laughs that doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions around race and gender throughout the novel as themes of racism, parenthood, belonging, and connection are explored.


Okechukwu Nzelu has a new book out soon: Here Again Now will be released next March. Readers can also find an essay by the author - ‘Troubles with God' - in a contribution to Derek Owusu’s anthology Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space (2019).


You can follow Okechukwu here and purchase The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney here. You can also pre-order Nzelu's new book Here Again Now.



It's been a great year so far for black literature. In recent times, improvements have been made for BIPOC communities more generally, but there is still lots of work to be done. People of colour still suffer today at the hands of archaic systems and institutionalised oppression, summarised by the Center of American Progress as displacement, exclusion, and segregation. Here you can find links to lists of UK anti-racism charities and black-owned businesses, courtesy of Stylist and The Strategist.


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