This International Women’s Day, The British Blacklist celebrates the lives of five extraordinary Black British women and their writing.
With stories of migration, assimilation, prejudice, joy, and grief, these authors have captured and distilled various personal and communal experiences of Blackness. I have compiled profiles on contemporary and classic authors to get familiar with this month.
Born in Guyana, Beryl Gilroy worked as a teacher before moving to London at the age of 27. After years of struggle entering the profession in the UK, Gilroy became the first black headteacher in London, and her difficult experiences inspired her novel in 1976 Black Teacher. She went on to write other works, including The Nipper Series (short stories for children), Frangipani House, and non-fiction writing Leaves in the Wind. Only in the 1990s did Gilroy begin to receive recognition for her services to education, and was eventually awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the Institute of Education in 2000. Gilroy was a member and co-founder of the Camden Black Sisters, a group of community activists supporting black women in Camden. She is also the mother of the academic Paul Gilroy, whose book The Black Atlantic offered a fresh insight into the Atlantic space of transnational connections for those of the African diaspora.
Jacqueline Roy is a novelist, whose work The Fat Lady Sings was recently re-published as a part of Penguin’s Black Britain Writing Back series curated by Bernadine Evaristo. Other novels and memoirs in this collection include Amryl Johnson’s Sequins for a Ragged Hem and Hannah Azieb Pool’s My Father’s Daughter. The Fat Lady Sings depicts the lives of two women admitted to a psychiatric ward in London, who bond over their shared vulnerability with honesty and humour. The novel is inspired by her own experiences, and her work is shaped by how institutions treat black people with mental illnesses. Roy went to university as a mature student in her 30s, and she went on to teach English at Manchester Metropolitan University for many years. She now works full-time as a writer and also writes children’s fiction. Her second novel for adults, The Gosling Girl, was published at the start of this year and is a crime thriller exploring the life of a young woman who murdered a child in her youth. The novel explores the complexities of readjusting to a new identity, institutional racism within the judicial system, and media interference.
Bernardine Evaristo is now a giant of British fiction, and the Booker Prize-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other catapulted her other works into the spotlight. My favourites of Evaristo’s works are Mr Loverman and The Emperor’s Babe. These two works alongside Girl, Woman, Other are a testament to Evaristo’s literary range: Mr Loverman follows the life of Barrington, a Caribbean man in his seventies, as he comes to terms with his homosexuality with his friends and family; The Emperor’s Babe, written in verse, is a vibrant and dynamic account of Roman Britain from the perspective of a young Nubian woman, Zuleika. Tapping into various versions of Black British life, Evaristo sheds light on often hidden or neglected aspects of Black identities and histories.
On her status as a bestselling author, she stated that “it was quite overwhelming but I also welcomed it. Because I have been in this game for 40 years now. So to suddenly breakthrough has been a great opportunity to use my platform in all the ways that one can.” She has spent recent years championing the work of other Black British authors, and those who came before her.
The debut collection of Theresa Lola, titled In Search for Equilibrium is a stunning observation of life affected by death and grieving. The 2019 collection is dedicated to her grandfather, whose memory loss and death cast a shadow over the poems. The poems attempt to find hope for the sake of survival; or the living’s search for equilibrium. Lola is a British Nigerian poet and was the joint winner of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize in 2018 and also became the Young People’s Laureate for London in 2019. She has been commissioned by the Southbank Centre, Edinburgh International Book Festival, as well as by many others. Most recently, she co-wrote the short film for the designer Osman Yousefzada for London Fashion Week SS22, titled What Happened to Last Season’s Collection?.
An accomplished novelist, Helen Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, when she was 18. It was published whilst she was an undergraduate at university. She has gone on to write six more novels, two plays, and a short story collection. Described as magical realism, she weaved ancient Yoruba mythology into The Icarus Girl, and she has continued to include mythology and traditions of the African diaspora in her work. She experiments with form, and her most recent novel Peaces is an eccentric tale set on a train journey. It was longlisted for the 2022 Dylan Thomas Prize amongst the work of other young novelists from around the world. She was named one of Granta’s ‘Best Young Novelists’ in 2013, and her short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours won the PEN Open Book Award in 2016.