By Bernardine Evaristo

16 January 2017 - 10:12

'Literature helps us understand who we are as humans.' Image (c) KIAT of Singapore, July 2015
'Literature helps us understand who we are as humans.' Image ©

KIAT of Singapore, July 2015

Who are the most compelling new voices of contemporary UK literature? Ahead of the British Council Literature Seminar in Berlin, we interviewed author Bernardine Evaristo, who will chair the event.

In an age of 24-hour news, Netflix and social media, why should we settle down with a book?

The experience of reading a book as a physical object, as opposed to reading a work digitally or online, is that it forces you to read more slowly, to have a deeper reading experience. One is better able to concentrate and engage with the words and meanings on the page, without all the distractions of the Internet.

One of the pleasures of reading literature, whether it’s fiction, poetry, or memoir, is that it transports us into experiences we would not normally have ourselves. Literature helps expand our imaginations. It helps transcend boundaries. It helps us understand who we are as humans.

What do writers from diverse backgrounds offer readers?

If we try to imagine a British literature history devoid of the contributions by diverse writers who have influenced and shaped the canon for the past 50 years, then it becomes very clear what would be missing.

Writers with cultural backgrounds rooted in other parts of the world, such as Britain’s former colonies, have brought, and continue to bring, all kinds of amazing stories, histories and visions to British literature, which would otherwise be absent. I think that the ways in which we add cultural, historical and societal value to this literature helps make it very rich, dynamic and exciting.

Which areas do you think are under-represented in contemporary British writing?

In terms of diverse writers and publishing, the genres of crime, thriller, fantasy, young adult and romantic fiction are especially under-represented. Most of our fiction is seen as literary fiction, which is of course wonderful, but there are other genres out there that have the possibility to reach wider audiences. I am a literary author myself, but I am aware that we need to extend the range of the kinds of stories we produce.

Which new writers we should watch out for?

The following poets spring to mind, who are writing books that might draw on their cultural backgrounds as well as other themes.

Malika Booker published her first poetry book, Pepper Seed, a couple of years ago. It’s a wonderful exploration of women’s lives.

Sarah Howe, who is a British-Chinese writer, published her first poetry collection last year, Loop of Jade, and won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award and T. S. Eliot Prize.

Mona Arshi is from a British-Pakistani background. She published her first poetry collection last year, Small Hands, and won the Forward Prize.

We also have Karen McCarthy Woolf, who published her exquisite first book two years ago, An Aviary of Small Birds, based on the stillborn birth of a child.

Others include writers such as Hannah Lowe, Roger Robinson, Nick Makoha, Inua Ellams, Kayo Chingonyi; these are poets publishing books and chapbooks, writing plays, working with poetry and music, poetry and dance, and generally making a name for themselves. Each of these writers is doing something very different from each other and they are all contributing fresh perspectives to British literature.

Then we have fiction writers. There’s Irenosen Okojie who is British-Nigerian and has published two books so far. She has just published her second book, Speak Gigantular, which is also an extraordinary collection of short stories drawing on Nigerian traditions of storytelling. I’m very interested to see what she does next. Diriye Osman is a gay Somali short story writer who published his first book of short stories, Fairytales for Lost Children, three years ago.

We have a couple of writers who published first and second novels recently. Yvette Edwards published The Mother last year, about a woman whose son is murdered; and Kit de Waal published her first book this year, My Name is Leon, about a mixed-race boy who goes through the care system. There are writers out there doing wonderful things, but there just aren’t enough. That’s the problem.

How would you describe the UK literary scene in one sentence, beginning with 'British writing today is…'?

British writing today is full of the possibility of publishing more voices who have been under-represented. We want to see literature published from all communities, in all genres: literature that truly represents who we are in this country.

The British Council Literature Seminar in Berlin takes place on 26 to 28 January 2017.

Register to attend, or watch the livestream, featuring readings by Bernardine Evaristo and other distinguished writers. You can also join the conversation on Twitter.

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