I am chair of the judges for the Desmond Elliott prize for debut writers this year and read through lockdown alongside my fellow judges Sonia Sodha and Sinéad Gleeson. We became immersed in 10 very different worlds, as grief and rage was rising in our own. As the pandemic has brought both the deep bonds of cooperation and solidarity within our communities, and the worst brutality of systemic racism, discrimination and gender violence to the fore, it becomes difficult to imagine what the future might bring or how writers might respond.
We have selected three extraordinary voices unafraid to tackle, with fresh narrative form and linguistic verve, the big, intimate themes we all face: family, sexuality, trauma, empire, race, migration and, of course, love.
In The Girl With the Louding Voice, Abi Daré brings the determination and spirit of young Nigerian Adunni to life in enthralling style. That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu, a novel in fragments about a Ghanaian British boy’s struggle for peace of mind, is full of startling images. The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu, is a funny and poignant exploration of a Manchester girl’s bond with her mother and friends.
We also celebrate that – in what might be a first for UK mainstream prizes – our shortlisted books are all by black writers. Racism takes a constant, vicious toll in the UK and across the world, and black, Asian and ethnic minority people remain underrepresented both in and by the UK publishing industry. It takes many people to create structural change: a book needs a writer’s self-belief and stamina; an agent, publisher, reviewers, and then, in the case of the Desmond Elliott, selection by a national network of readers appointed by the National Centre for Writing. They longlisted an unprecedented five (out of 10) books by black, Asian and ethnic minority authors. And so, to our shortlist of three outstanding books.
As a previous winner, I know this prize champions writers of all ages, social backgrounds and identities, refusing the tyranny that promoting a single story, or just one type of voice enforces. We can change the narrative, promote real talent, and hope. The achievements of these writers tell us that the future is here; and it is in good hands.