Like many people, in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests I have been constructing a reading list of books that I need to read on anti-racism and I’ll be blogging about them and what I am doing as a result of reading them as I go. Meanwhile, I wanted to blog about four of my favourite novels by black writers: N-W, The Long Song, Americanah and The Underground Railroad.
I am a huge fan of Zadie Smith. I read her debut novel White Teeth when it was published twenty years ago now and it was, I think, the first book I read on the experience of growing up black in Britain. Since then I have looked forward to her latest novels and hugely enjoyed On Beauty, and, more recently N-W (see my blog). One of the reasons I love her work is that Zadie Smith is the same age as me and I instantly recognise the temporal reference points in her writing, which take me back to an adolescence of 1980s comprehensive schools, road protests, great music and tumultuous world events. But her work shows me, through her characters, just how different the experience of growing up black in 80s and 90s Britain was to my experience of growing up white. N-W follows Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan, who are caught between the world they grew up in and have dragged themselves out of, and the lives they have carefully built since. But their old and new worlds co-exist geographically in a small area of north-west London. It’s, as always with Smith, beautifully written, and is an excellent read.
A few years after reading White Teeth I read Small Island by Andrea Levy, which is a wonderful book set in London in 1948, focusing on the lives of Jamaican immigrants dealing with racism and living in an England they fought for in the war but one that is not the place they imagined. This led me to The Long Song, published in 2010 (which surely has the best back cover copy ever written). It tells the story of July, a slave girl who becomes a maid in the house of the sugar plantation Amity in Jamaica in the 1800s. It is told as a memoir and it is a gripping style that draws you directly into the events it depicts. It is really hard to read the brutality, violence and murder of plantation life told in such a matter-of-fact manner. This is a fantastic book, full of complex relationships with an ending that leaves you wanting more.
I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in 2015 and loved it. It’s about a young couple in love and growing up in Lagos in Nigeria and I realised that, with the exception of the fantastic novels about Egypt by Ahdaf Soueif, I’d never read a novel before about contemporary Africa by an African writer. I therefore had no preconceived ideas about what life would be like growing up in one of Africa’s largest cities and was delighted to be immediately immersed into that world. It was a completely fascinating read from start to finish. The two main characters Ifemelu and Obinze end up leaving Nigeria for the US and the UK and their fortunes as outsiders trying to settle into American and British society respectively are brilliantly told. I then went onto read Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun also by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (see my blogs on Dublin reading and Thailand reading), which were both excellent and highly worth a read.
Last, but by no means least, is the The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This novel charts the story of Cora, a slave living in the southeast of the US who, like her mother before her, sets off to try and find her freedom in the north or in Canada, using the underground railroad. She and her fellow travellers are helped initially by a local bookshop owner who starts them off on the railroad, which in the book is imagined as an actual underground system of tunnels, rickety trains, stations and guards. Along this journey various appalling things happen to Cora, as she witnesses medical experimentation on fellow African-Americans, lynchings as weekly entertainment in one small town, and buildings full of black people living freely set alight. This book does not flinch, and nor should it, from telling this story as it was. There were points I just had to put the book down, look into the distance and pause before continuing, particularly the scene where a captured former slave is burned alive as entertainment for an all white plantation tea party as other slaves are forced to look on. This is the history of black people in America and it’s one everyone should know about.