Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe - a short and hugely moving story about colonialism
Caroline selected a book she had spotted on her bookcase one day and realised she’d never read, the classic ‘Things Fall Apart’, by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. Achebe, from eastern Nigeria, wrote about traditional ways of life and the conflict with colonialism.
“It reinforced my understanding of the devastating impact of colonialism through the eyes of individuals being affected directly.”
Caroline describes ‘Things Fall Apart’ as a short but hugely moving story, which reinforced her understanding of the devastating impact of colonialism through the eyes of individuals being affected directly.
The novel examines the impact of colonialism on a traditional cultural order. It helps us see this through the eyes of the characters and gives an understanding of the complex and intricate systems of community and co-operation. The destruction of this order on the arrival of the colonising forces is described in such a way that it leaves a feeling of decay, desperation and emptiness as people are pitted against each other leading to division and thus control of the community by the missionaries and colonial government.
Caroline recommends this book for the sense of perspective it gives us. It was written at a time when colonial rule in Africa was still going strong. Nigeria did not gain independence until 1960 and the book was written in 1958. In her opinion the book gives us a very different perspective on colonialism to what we might have learned about it through a Western perspective. It’s not a sentimental book, and it feels honest.
‘A Grand Place’ by Leighan Renaud and Elizabeth Lander - a beautiful picture book and love letter to Grenada
Hannah’s love of picture books and the illustrations on the front page of ‘A Grand Place’ immediately made her want to pick it up and start reading. It’s a story about Zora waiting for her Grandma to return home. It's also a nostalgic love letter to Grenada. It’s a debut children’s book written by Dr Leighan Renaud, a lecturer and researcher in English Literature whose primary research interests include Caribbean fiction and contemporary Black women's writing. The book was beautifully illustrated by Elizabeth Lander, who was born and raised on the Caribbean island of Grenada.
“You could read this book again and again and find more and more details in all the beautiful illustrations.”
Hannah loves the power picture books have to engage young children in the pleasure and wonder of reading. She loves the vibrancy, colours and tiny details throughout the book, and says it’s a book that can be read again and again and you’ll find more and more details in the beautiful illustrations.
Hannah has been following the newly formed Formy Books, who publish ‘A Grand Place’, They are a new independent publisher whose aim is to create a diverse range of beautiful and inclusive children’s books. She admires their passion for platforming and amplifying black creative talent in publishing, which is so important in an industry that has historically failed to promote opportunities for black illustrators and black authors. It’s really important to Hannah that all children see their everyday lives and experiences seen in visual and written form.
‘My Best Friend's Girl’ by Dorothy Koomson - a thought provoking tale about trust and friendship
Hayley has picked the book ‘My Best Friend's Girl’ by local author, Dorothy Koomson. She’s a Ghanaian writer who lives near her in Brighton, and has been described by The Independent as ‘one of Britain's biggest black authors'.
The title grabbed Hayley’s attention whilst browsing in a WH Smiths bookshop; she found it intriguing, and the back cover description pulled her in.The story centres around a woman who has severed ties with her best friend and fiance. These two important people in her life become involved - her best friend sleeps with her fiance, then falls pregnant and has his child. Years later the woman hears from her best friend - she is terminally ill and asks her to adopt her young daughter ahead of her death. The story then unfolds with reflection, confrontation and a decision made by the single, career-driven woman to take responsibility for her friend's daughter.
“Nothing is straightforward - emotions are complex - everything in life can change in an instant.”
Hayley found the story to be thought-provoking and it stayed with her after she read it. While it’s quirky and funny, Koomson builds layers into the narrative, with themes including betrayal and the complexity of loss/grief, with the storyline largely built around trust and friendship, past and future. Koomson challenges racial discrimination too - you learn that the main character is a white woman and her 'best friend' is a black woman with a black child. Koomson depicts the added complications the adoption process brings, and details how the woman is seen as the young girl's nanny/childminder rather than her guardian.
The book leaves you with the reminder that nothing is straightforward - emotions are complex - and that everything in life can change in an instant.
‘The Girl Who Smiled Beads’ by Clemantine Wamariya (co-authored by Elizabeth Weil) - a moving account on migration
A podcast episode on displacement and migration inspired Emily to read the memoir ‘The Girl Who Smiled Beads’ by Clemantine Wamariya. It’s the story of Clemantine, who is now a storyteller and a human rights activist, and her sister Claire, as they flee their home to escape the Rwanda massacre in the mid 90's. Clemantine was only twelve years old. We learn about the experiences the sisters have to endure throughout their journey.
“I’d challenge anybody to get through the whole book with dry eyes.”
The book starts with the six year journey of the girls migrating through various African countries, finally reaching the United States where they are both granted refugee status and settle in Chicago. The second part of the story takes the reader on a very different journey, and the two sisters’ lives start to diverge. Clemantine is taken in by an American family that raises her as their own, whilst Claire is thrown into a very different world, struggling as a single mother and often unable to make ends meet.
“It was a reminder to me to cherish the relationship that I have with my own sister.”
Emily particularly loved the fact that as a reader, you feel that the end of the story could have easily been the two sisters arriving in America and finally being granted refugee status after such a traumatic struggle to arrive in a safe place. But, this is the point where the story shifted and really impacted her. She realised that luck and privilege play such huge roles in the opportunities that will inevitably present themselves and shape each person moving forward; two people can have the same upbringing and start in life, and then veer off on totally different paths through circumstance.
Emily found the beautifully written account of her experiences moving and touching. Reading about the unbreakable bond between sisters reminded her to cherish the relationship she has with her own sister.
‘Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal’ by Aimé Césaire - poetry and prose on identity in the West Indies
Jamie recommends a book that he studied at university as part of a course on French African and Caribbean literature, and that is a must for anyone wanting a deeper sense of the West Indies. Aimé Césaire is a pioneering literary anti-colonial voice in the West Indies, who later became the mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique's capital.
Using a mixture of poetry and prose, Césaire expresses his thoughts on the reclamation of power and identity from colonial 'syphilisation'. Jamie loved the rhythm, tempo, originality and ferocity of Césaire’s words, and learned that creating new words - neologisms - is a powerful way to create ownership.
‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo - black women's stories made visible
Jo received ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by 2019 Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo, as a present from her sister. It’s a book with lots of interwoven stories, focussing on twelve different people, mostly black women, living in Britain, and spanning 1905 to present day.
She loved how the stories overlapped and bit by bit you discover connections, one character would attend the theatre production of another, or a character would turn out to be the grandmother of another.
“I was very frustrated that black British women weren’t visible in literature.”
‘Girl, Woman, Other’ is a really great representation of different people, different lives, different perspectives, but each person dealing with global themes of identity, love, family, struggle. Through the book you also uncover the various prejudices and struggles people have. It's intelligent, sharp and funny.
Jo especially enjoyed the insight into people’s lives which are different to her own, for example learning about the life as a gay black woman in 80s Britain, or as a present day teenager. She was pleased to see black British women made visible, particularly in a book that became a real must-read and much talked about book. As Evaristo says, on writing the novel:“I was very frustrated that black British women weren’t visible in literature.”
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi - immigration and acceptance
Hannah was given ‘Transcendent Kingdom’ as a birthday present by a friend. She loved the front cover and the word ‘transcendent’! It was written by Yaa Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. It’s about a scientist called Gifty who is striving to find answers within her life that have arisen from her brother’s addiction and Mum’s depression. The novel looks at her family’s immigrant experience of moving from Ghana to the US, the weight of expectations placed upon Gifty and her brother and the impact of poverty and racism on their lives.
The story made Hannah reflect on how learnt experiences in childhood change as you become an adult and the importance of finding your own version of acceptance and understanding. Hannah found that the book lingers in your memory months after reading, and she often finds herself thinking and reflecting on the character’s lives.
Which brilliant books by Black authors have you read and would recommend? Let us know!