In the wake of worldwide conversations and initiatives surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s become clear that the publishing industry still has huge steps to make in terms of inclusion and racial diversity. Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, recently became the first Black British author to top the U.K.’s official book charts, while novelist Candice Carty-Williams became the first Black British woman to win the prestigious Book of the Year award. These milestones being achieved in 2020 prove that while publishing is starting to become more representative of its readers, there’s still a ways to go.
And while Black literature should be just as widely read, enjoyed and accessed as literature from any other demographic, unfortunately nonwhite voices are still not heard as much as white ones. So we’ve compiled a list of the best fiction books by Black British authors – as recommended by literary salons, Bookstagrammers and writers – to widen your reading lists and direct you towards imaginative and inspiring literature. We’ve also covered the best books to read about Black British history, the best anti-racist books, and the best books to read about race to your kids.
Though it’s Evaristo’s eighth novel, Girl, Woman, Other has dominated the book charts, awards ceremonies, and the pages of basically everyone on Instagram. Following 12 different characters – predominantly Black British women – Evaristo tells their stories across different eras and locations. Exploring themes of Black womanhood such as patriarchy, racism, and colourism, Evaristo weaves a complex, sprawling narrative through her experimental writing style (which largely omits full stops). The novel not only comes widely recommended by our sources, it’s also universally acclaimed. Girl, Woman, Other made Evaristo the first Black woman to win Author of the Year at the British Book Awards this year, and the first Black woman to win the Booker prize in 2019, which was shared with Margaret Atwood.
Recommended by: Mikaela Loach (climate justice and anti-racism activist), Kishani Widyaratna (commissioning editor at Picador Books), The Black Book Blog, Chocolate Covered Pages (Bookstagrammer and Book reviewer).
Considering this debut novel took home Book of the Year at the British Book Awards last month (making Carty-Williams the first Black British author to receive this accolade), it’s no surprise that Queenie comes highly recommended. Written from the perspective of Queenie Jenkins, a 25-year-old Black woman in London, Carty-Williams’ novel paints a funny, topical portrait of a relatable protagonist. Through Queenie’s candid narration, the story tackles issues such as consent, racism, classism and the mental health struggles of younger generations, in a refreshingly honest way.
Recommended by: Kishani Widyaratna, Mikaela Loach, The Black Book Blog, Diana Evans (author of Ordinary People), Chocolate Covered Pages, Sofia Akel (race-in-education specialist; founder of Accessible Books Campaign, which offers free books by authors of colour for those who can’t afford it).
Diana Evans’ 2018 novel opens with a party celebrating Obama’s 2008 inauguration, and follows the interconnected lives of two middle-class Black couples in South London. Set against a soundtrack that heavily features John Legend, the story delves into themes such as faith, monogamy, gentrification, infidelity, art and motherhood. Much like in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, the multiculturalism of London is an underlying and integral theme in the narrative, as are ideas of black identity and womanhood.
At 25 and fresh out of university, Zadie Smith published her debut novel, White Teeth, in 2000, and quickly became one of the most important British voices in the literary world. With White Teeth, Smith introduced a writing style that would be emblematic of her later work: highly descriptive, matter-of-fact, candid, funny, sometimes sparse, and often ambitious. Tracing three families across generations, cultures and life events, Smith’s debut tackles family, friendship, war and cultural identity with wit and warmth.
Recommended by: Chocolate Covered Pages.
Recently adapted for screen with the BBC, Malorie Blackman’s highly-acclaimed young adult novel exists in an alternate history where Africans have colonised Europe, with dark-skinned people known as ‘crosses’, and light-skinned people known as ‘noughts’. Following the tortured relationship of childhood best friends Persephone (or Sephy) and Callum, Noughts & Crosses reimagines structural racism and inequality from a different perspective. The first in a hugely successful series of canonical young adult books, Noughts & Crosses has been adored by readers of all ages since its release in 2001.
Recommended by: The Black Book Blog.
Period narratives are often whitewashed, excluding the experiences of marginalised groups in favour of the privileged ones. Sara Collins’ The Confessions of Frannie Langton takes place in 1826 London, and tells the story of Frannie, a maid to the wealthy Mr and Mrs Benham - and the prime suspect for their murder. Collins writes from Frannie’s point of view, centering the protagonist in her own story as she is put on trial for the murders. Tracing Frannie’s life from a Jamaican plantation to Georgian London, this ambitious novel introduces a bold new voice from a lesser-seen perspective.
Like Ordinary People, Rainbow Milk features era-defining songs throughout its narrative, alongside being something of an ode to the accepting, diverse community of London. Fleeing everything he knows, including his Windrush-generation family and their Jehovah Witness faith, 19-year-old Jesse comes to London, where he comes to reckon with his identity. Mendez’s debut shines a light on the experiences of Black gay men in the UK, particularly those who engage in sex work; exploring religion, race, sexuality and more with a compassionate hand.
Described as “dark and lyrical”, these short stories from British-Nigerian author Irenosen Okojie span in subject matter from a Grace Jones impersonator, to a goddess of the sea, via some dimension-hopping monks. Surreal, absurd, and poetic, these stories are equally digestible and poignant. Okojie’s debut novel, Butterfly Fish, won a Betty Trask award in 2016, and follows similar themes of magic realism and a focus on the African diaspora.
Recommended by: Black: The Literary Salon.
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