*Manically Googles 700ft bookshelf*
Last summer, the UK’s first academic study on diversity in trade publishing and fiction came out. Authored by Dr Anamik Saha and Dr Sandra van Lente, the report, called Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing, found that among reasons for the UK publishing industry’s glaring diversity problem was publishers’ concern about the lack of ‘quality’ work from writers of colour. It also found that books by Black and POC authors were considered a commercial risk.
“Negative remarks about the ‘quality’ of writers of colour are disingenuous especially when nearly all editors who participated in our research admitted that they had put out books that they did not necessarily think were ‘good’,” says Saha – citing things like Love Island biographies (sorry Maura) as an example.
“It is a very narrow conception of ‘quality’ that is based on a particular education that has historically privileged European literature over non-European. When the entire publishing workforce essentially shares the same education, then this narrow conception of ‘quality’ becomes dominant and universal.” (According to the Publishers Association, as of 2019 a staggering 86% of the publishing workforce are white.)
You need only skim the below list of books by Black and POC authors dropping in 2021 to convince yourself to sell a kidney and use the money to build a wall to wall library. We’ve chosen them in the knowledge that they won’t get half the recognition they deserve, but also because they’re just brilliant books that we’ve a hunch you’ll enjoy reading as much as we have.
From Raven Leilani’s exceptional debut Luster, to Selina Flavius’s no-nonsense Black Girl Finance, 2021 might not be the Nirvana we had hoped it’d be last March, but at least we’ve got good books to sustain us.
As Such A Fun Age author Kiley Reid recently told MC Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot, “Finding something that I can’t stop reading is one of the great joys of my life. I hope that the characters stick with [readers] and I really hope that they lose themselves in it like I think all art should make you do.”
With every pick on this list guaranteed to make you feel just that, here are some of the best books by Black and POC authors hitting shelves this year…
Best new books 2021: expert recommendations
“Books by Black authors are proving to be increasingly popular. In January alone we had over 30 newly published books come into the store, and we have even more in February,” says Carolynn Bain, owner of Afrori Books, an online independent bookshop that stocks the largest selection of books by black authors in the UK.
“Choosing favourites for the year is an impossible task and so I have limited myself to the best of British and even then, it grieves me to have omitted so many others from the list.” (We tasked her with choosing just three.)
“I would encourage readers to look at our Coming Soon collection to keep up with all the new titles coming this year,” she adds.
So what’s on Carolynn’s wish list?
Weirdo by Zadie Smith and Nick Laird (pub 15th April) | Available for pre-order
“It’s Zadie Smith! It’s a children’s book. What is not to love? A book about being yourself, even when yourself is not what others expect. I’ve seen some of Magenta Fox’s illustrations on this and they are beautiful, mixed with Zadie Smith and Nick Laird’s beautiful prose. I think this will be a bestseller this year.”
Witches Steeped in Gold (pub 20th April) | Available for pre-order
“Massive bias here. I love fantasy novels, black British authors and debut novels. Here we have all 3 in one package. It’s rare to find fantasy novels that are set in Jamaica, so again these are all wins for me. I suspect this author will taking up shelf space for lots of fantasy fiction fans over the next few years.”
Unspoken: Toxic Masculinity and How I Faced the Man Within the Man (pub 18th February) | Available for pre-order
“This is his second book and I am particularly looking forward to hearing his views on toxic masculinity and how he has navigated that over the years. It is so important that we hear young black men talk about toxic masculinity and sexism and his is a voice that has the ear of young people across this nation. Making this a very important book for 2021.”
For inclusive publishers, too, 2021 is shaping up to be quite the year.
“I am of course biased that I think the books I publish are the best,” says Sharmaine Lovegrove, the publishing powerhouse behind Dialogue Books – the Little, Brown imprint committed to championing voices typically excluded from the mainstream.
“There are hundreds of manuscripts I turn down, so everything goes into the books I am publishing as I believe that they above others deserve scores of readers. Finding unique voices that tell us more about the world we live in, wake us up from our privilege and expose the challenges individuals face is an honour, and one I am always delighted to share with curious readers.”
On Sharmaine’s TBR pile? Three dazzling new books from Dialogue, coming soon to a (virtual) shelf near you.
Cold Sun by Anita Sivakumaran (pub 1st April) | Available for pre-order
“A fresh new voice in crime fiction, Anita Sivakumaran brings us a troubled and conflicted DI Vijay Patel trying to solve a big crime on a new beat. Three women are murdered, each draped in a red sari and the killer desperately needs to be caught. But Patel finds himself a stranger in his homeland, unable to grasp his bearings.”
The Sex Lives of African Women (pub 22 July) | Available for pre-order
“By interviewing scores of women from the African continent and its diaspora, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah has created an important, explosive, revealing and truthful book which candidly and sensitively explores a vast range of sexual experiences and identities from women who are usually silenced.”
The Giant Dark by Sarvat Hasin (pub 8th July) | Available for pre-order
“This award winning novel, Sarvat’s third, is about love and fame. Aida is a rock star at her peak with a devoted cultish fanbase who follow her every move. When she disappears into a complicated love affair with an ex, they are determined to uncover her truths.”
But there are many more where that came from. Here are some more of the best books by Black and POC authors to put on your 2021 reading list.
(And be sure to follow MC Book Club @MarieClaireUK to send us any recommendations.)
"This was our book of the month for January," says Carolynn. "It was stunning and took me on a journey that I didn’t know I needed to take. A book that will stay with me for a long time."
Sharp, hilarious and occasionally brutal, Raven Leilani's debut follows office-worker Edie as she unwittingly finds herself living with her white middle-aged boyfriend, his wife, and their adopted black daughter. Something tells us that this one is going to (deservedly) win every prize going in the coming year.
New from the prize-winning author of Lot, Memorial follows queer couple Benson and Mike as they reassess their relationship in the wake of family tragedy.
In bookshops now, Owusu's moving literary memoir recounts her experience of abandonment by her mother as a toddler, her father's devastating death when she was a teenager, and her process of hauling herself out of the wreckage as a result of both.
Set in an alternate world where slavery and colonialism never happened, Newland's latest novel has been dubbed, "A timely exploration of social inequality and a story about love and the search for the truth."
On sale March but available for pre-order now, "This compelling debut takes us deep into the life of 14 year old Oto as he struggles with identity and acceptance as he comes to terms with his desire to live as a girl," says Sharmaine. "Set in Lagos, this richly woven debut encompasses African folklore, fractured families and an inspirational journey we can all learn from."
Another dazzling debut that's just landed on shelves is Open Water – a story of two young Black British artists (he a photographer, she a dancer) falling in and out of love. And reader, it's gorgeous from first page to last.
Set in Boston, Susie Yang's debut (yes, another one) tells the story of Ivy Lin, a Chinese immigrant growing up in a low-income apartment complex in the city's outskirts. Challenging ideas of class, race and family, it's a salient tale of the lengths a person will go to in pursuit of acceptance and assimilation.
Arriving on (virtual) shelves early next month, this smart as a whip debut short story collection from former Beijing-based investigative reporter Te-Ping Chen charts a diverse cast of characters navigating contemporary Chinese life.
This one isn't expected until June, but it's well worth saving a space on your shelf for. (And it's already available for pre-order.) Touted as Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada, this acutely observed thriller follows two young black women navigating office politics in the cloistered world of book publishing.
Jointly edited by Garth Greenwell and The Incendiaries author R.O. Kwon, this brilliant anthology of literary short fiction features a starry list of contributors – from Roxane Gay to Brandon Taylor – writing on desire, love, sex and all of the messy bits in between.
The only downside to Jhumpa Lahiri having a new novel out is that we have to wait until May to get our hands on it. Tracing one woman’s thoughts, dreams and lonely wanderings through an Italian city, longtime Lahiri fans won't be disappointed. Pre-order it stat.
The first financial guide of its kind, Selina Flavius's Black Girl Finance is full of practical tips, tricks and tools, as well as goal-setting exercises, straight-shooting advice, statistics and personal anecdotes from the author. Out now, this one's liable to be talk of the group chat in coming months.
Hitting shelves later this month (18th February), Neema Shah's stunning debut is set in Uganda during the expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin. Telling the story of a family fleeing from Kampala to London, it's a closely observed account of leaving your home behind and trying to start afresh.
Due early March, the second novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Behold the Dreamers promises to be as moving as its predecessor. Charting the revolt of a fictional African village against the environmental devastation wrought by an American oil company, it's a story of the power of collective action, and a community's determination to hold onto its ancestral land.
In bookshops now, this remarkable debut set in contemporary India follows three characters whose ordinary lives are upended following a devastating attack. It's both unputdownable and unforgettable.
We're being treated to not one, but two new Zadie Smith books in 2021. (Granted, one of them is for children, but yes, we will still be buying and reading in earnest.) Not due until November, Smith's 21st century reinterpretation of Chaucer's The Wife of Bath is set to be riotous, ribald and very, very Smith. Get in ahead of the heard and pre-order it now.