David Olusoga and the Guardian’s Gary Younge head a list of six authors shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak prize, launched last year specifically for writers of colour.
The two nonfiction heavyweights are competing against a children’s author, two novelists and a short-story collection in a list the judges said showcased “the variety, scope, depth, and literary excellence” of work by black, Asian and minority ethnic writers (BAME) in Britain.
Worth £1,000 to the winner, the Jhalak prize was launched last year in response to the poor representation of writers of colour in UK publishing, with a longlist of 12 books announced in January. Bafta award-winning broadcaster and historian David Olusoga’s TV-tie-in Black and British: A Forgotten History explores the history of Britain’s black community. Olusoga was inspired by his upbringing on a council estate in the north-east of England. Prize judge and author Catherine Johnson said she had been waiting for such a book for 20 years. “It puts us firmly at the heart of this country’s history and makes the facts accessible to as wide an audience as possible,” she said.
In Another Day in the Death of America, Younge meticulously researched the stories of 10 young people murdered on 23 November 2013, in a book about the impact of lax US gun laws. Chair of judges Sunny Singh said: “Disturbingly sensitive and moving and profoundly insightful, the book is both timely and timeless, and an absolute must-read.”
At the other end of the shortlist, Abir Mukherjee’s debut thriller A Rising Man is one of two crime novels featured. A “postcolonial subversion of a beloved genre” that transcends its genre, according to Singh, the novel is the first in a series to feature first world war veteran Captain Sam Wyndham investigating crimes in a vividly drawn Raj-era Calcutta. Jacob Ross’s The Bone Readers is the second thriller on the list, the first part of a trilogy set in contemporary Grenada and a departure into genre fiction for the British Grenadian writer best known for his short stories.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s debut The Girl of Ink and Stars is the only children’s book shortlisted. Described by the judges as “a future classic”, it is the story of mapmaker’s daughter Isabella Riosse and weaves myth, magic and monsters in a classic adventure story. The book was inspired by a family holiday to the Canary islands undertaken by the author when she was 19 years old, as well as atlases in her parents’ home.
Irenosen Okojie’s short-story collection Speak Gigantular completes the shortlist. This eclectic collection ranges from stories of lovelorn aliens abducting coffee-shop waitresses to a single mother whose son is growing a tail.
Announcing the shortlist, Singh, who cofounded the prize with writer Nikesh Shukla, said: “The diversity of backgrounds, themes, forms and genres are testament to the wide spectrum of great writing being produced in the country.”
Controversy has dogged the launch of the prize: two weeks before submissions closed, Singh revealed only 51 books had been submitted by publishers, despite it being open to all genres, forms and self-published writers. When the longlist was announced last month, comedian Shappi Khorsandi, whose novel Nina Is Not OK was up for the prize, withdrew the book from contention because, she “felt like my skin colour was up for an award rather than my book”.
Few prizes have been directed only at minority writers. The Jhalak is the only prize for published works across all fields, and joins the four-year-old SI Leeds literary prize for unpublished fiction by black and Asian women. The 2016 winner was Amita Murray for Marmite and Mango Chutney. Last week, the Guardian and publisher 4th Estate launched their joint short-story prize for BAME writers for 2017.
The winner of the inaugural Jhalak prize will be announced at the Authors’ Club in London on 17 March.
The 2017 Jhalak prize shortlist:
- The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (Chicken House)
- A Rising Man by Abir Mukhergee (Vintage)
- Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie (Jacaranda Books)
- Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga (Macmillan)
- The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross (Peepal Tree)
- Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge (Guardian Faber)
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