From coming-of-age stories to remarkable tales of women at war, we’ve compiled a selection of fiction that pays homage to the Black women authors of the Booker Library, their writing and their experiences
This year, the theme for Black History Month is ‘Saluting our Sisters’. It aims to focus on and celebrate the vital role Black women have played in shaping history – inspiring change and building communities, within their own spaces and across the world.
Literature, as we know, has the power to effect social change and, over the years, Black women have made significant contributions across all types of fiction – not always receiving the recognition they deserve. More often than not, Black history is reduced to stories of trauma and slavery and not enough is said, or told, of sisterhood, female empowerment, friendship, community, and love. In recent years, however, the Booker and International Booker Prizes have recognised the work of a number of Black women, writers who have given voice to a range of female experiences, 10 of which are listed here. Let us continue to celebrate their achievements and keep amplifying their voices and stories – beyond Black History Month.
Bernardine Evaristo’s critically acclaimed novel follows the interconnected lives of an eclectic group of Black women as they navigate contemporary Britain. Over a single weekend, I devoured the 12 stories in Girl, Woman, Other, relishing the tales of women, their families, and lovers, across the country and through the years. I can vividly remember where I was when Evaristo won the Booker Prize in 2019 – the first Black woman to ever do so. I was living and working in Fiji at the time, trying to get my son ready for nursery whilst trying to get a decent internet signal to watch the livestream of the winners’ event on my phone.
Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda’s debut novel, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2004, is one of my favourite reads of all time. It is the first book written by the author, one I read as a 15-year-old girl; the same age as the protagonist in this book – Kambili. Written in the first person, the book is about the coming-of-age of a shy, Catholic teenager, who struggles to express herself as the daughter of a controlling, devout father, whose relentless violent outbursts cast a cloud over the family household. As a reader, you would be hard-pressed not to champion Kambili, who despite experiencing trauma from her father, is able to overcome this and find her own freedom and peace.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010, Andrea Levy’s powerful and unforgettable novel is about the last days of slavery on a plantation in Jamaica. The protagonist, July, is the real hero, whose indomitable spirit and survivor who will leave you thinking about this book for a very long time.
Levy died in 2019, aged 62, and in her time, was a passionate advocate for diversity in literature and worked tirelessly to promote the representation of Black voices in the publishing industry.
Zadie Smith’s third nomination for the Booker, which was longlisted in 2017, is a dazzlingly energetic and deeply human story about two ‘brown’ girls who both dream of being dancers, even though only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas about rhythm. While they are close, they have a complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly as their lives diverge. Set between North-West London and West Africa, and spanning decades, Swing Time is a nuanced portrait of identity and friendship.
Based on a true story, The Shadow King shines a light on the African women who went to war during Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. The main protagonist, Hirut, inspires other women to take up arms. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020, Mengiste’s book explores female power and what it truly means to be a woman in conflict. That year, the Booker Prize judges said it was ‘a beautifully constructed historical fiction’ that was both ‘meticulously researched and lyrical’.
This is the story of Darling, a 10-year-old girl who is uprooted from her family home, called Paradise, in Zimbabwe, due to the ongoing violence and war. The opportunity of a new life in America is a dream come true, though when she moves to Michigan, she realises it is far from the utopia she imagined. Darling is a bedazzling life force with a rich, inventive language all her own; she is funny and perceptive but still very much a child, who, as a reader, you cannot help but champion. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013, this was Bulawayo’s debut novel. She was shortlisted once again in 2022 with her novel Glory.
Set in Bordeaux, France, Ladivine is a mesmerising and heart-stopping psychological tale of a trauma spanning three generations of women, whose seemingly cursed lineage is defined by the weight of origins, the pain of alienation and the legacy of shame. Exploring the intricate relationships between mothers and daughters, it is a beguiling story of secrets, guilt and forgiveness and was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2016.
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s dark novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer has a distinct theme running throughout the book: blood is thicker than water. It is a clever tale of two sisters – Ayoola, a serial killer; and Korede, the resentful, yearning enabler. But the tables turn when Ayoola sets her sights on Korede’s crush as her next victim. My Sister, the Serial Killer is a blackly funny – at times, sidesplittingly so – yet disturbing story of familial obligation, sisterhood, and tribe. It was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019.
Firstly, let us both ‘salute’ and ‘celebrate’ the fact that Leila Mottley is the youngest author to have ever been nominated for the Booker Prize, when she was longlisted in 2022 for her debut novel, Nightcrawling. Mottley was previously Oakland’s youth poet laureate, and that lyricism is evident here, in this haunting story set in her hometown in California. Centred around Kiara, a young girl who must take care of her two young brothers and is forced to find work on the street for them all to survive. Kiara navigates life through a dark lens, experiencing abuse and misogyny at the hands of a corrupt police force, all of which Mottley based on a harrowing real story about the sexual exploitation of a young woman by members of the Oakland Police Department.
This unforgettable story, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020, is about the hope and potential of a young girl called Tambudzai. The third in a trilogy, This Mournable Body rejoins Tambu’s attempts to escape the entangled forces of neocolonialism, patriarchy, poverty, and history’s ever-present effect on daily life in modern-day Zimbabwe. Written in second person, Dangarembga’s emotional story charts the evolution of a woman driven to breaking point.
It is also worth celebrating Dangarembga’s other achievements beyond the world of writing: she studied medicine at Cambridge University while working as a copywriter for two years and has written numerous plays. She also founded the Images Film Festival for Women in Zimbabwe and the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa where she works as director.