Adjoa Andoh talks about how her parents’ reading tastes influenced her formative years - and why she is looking for books that have ‘an eternal life’ when reading for the Booker Prize
Adjoa Andoh is one of Britain’s leading actors, winning global acclaim as Lady Danbury in the hit Netflix series Bridgerton - a role that saw her nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress at the 2021 NAACP Image Awards. She was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature earlier this year.
Why do you think the Booker Prize matters and what’s special about it? What sets it apart from other literary awards, and how does the impact of the prize differ from, say, traditional book reviews or social media recommendations?
I think the reach of the prize is what makes it so special. My eldest daughter, for example, reads the entire shortlist every year - it has the ability to focus the attention of an entire readership.
The particularity of the prize – in being for English language writers from across the globe – means that it includes a real breadth of work, of perspectives, writing styles and communities. And it has the ability to transform the life of the author, which I’ve witnessed through my friend Bernardine Evaristo, who won the Booker Prize in 2019. It’s a fantastically exciting prize to be involved in.
Tell us about your reading habits under normal circumstances. what type of books are you usually drawn to for pleasure?
I often find it hard to make time for pleasurable reading because I generally read a lot for work. But when I can, I really love books that smuggle in history or additional information within the subtext. For example, the true story Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation by John Carlin, which I read in preparation for my role in the film version – Invictus – directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. The book highlights Mandela’s political acumen in seeing the power of sport to bring his newly inherited, fragmented post-Apartheid nation together, as well as giving the historical and political context of racially divided South Africa, all of which Carlin was able to smuggle in under the auspices of South Africa’s being awarded, preparing for, and miraculously winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Another example is the Easy Rawlins series of novels by Walter Mosley. They are a fantastic series of stylish crime novels, reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett, which I love. They’re novels that speak of a young man from the Southern states moving north during the great migration of the 1920/30s in America. He is building a new life in Los Angeles, as did many African Americans, descended from trafficked and enslaved people, as California and the North seemed to offer a way out of the Jim Crow Laws that blighted their lives down South. You get the history of burgeoning Los Angeles, of Black Los Angeles, of a young man growing into manhood, his family and friends and their trials and tribulations over a series of books that span the late 30s through to the 80s. All of this delivered through some fantastic proper ‘crimey’ crime fiction.
Aminatta Forna’s Ancestor Stones does the same history smuggling brilliantly. It’s about Sierra Leone, where her father was from and she grew up till the age of nine. The story is told through the lives of various of her aunts and encompasses the family and the nation’s history going back to the late 1700s, right through to the present day. Through the storytelling of these women, you get the story of the nation before and through colonisation and into independence. I love books that are delivering many things at the same time.
I’m looking for a book that transports me. I’m interested in a quality that I find expands my mind and my heart in new and unexpected ways - something that stays with me.
Tell us about your path to becoming a reader. What did you read as a child? Was there a book or author that made you fall in love with reading or that has stayed with you for many years?
I read voraciously as a child – I read from an early age and I read whatever I could get hold of. One of my earliest loves would be The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle - I loved the Beatrix potter-copies that came out in the 60s, the paper was of such quality, and the binding, they were so beautifully illustrated. I loved reading the book, but I loved the object of the book as well.
There was an Italian book called The Happy Farm, published by Gold Library Books, by C. Ciccione and translated into English by Fo Jenkins - it was full of gorgeous illustrations and just lovely stories.
I loved The Children by James Vance Marshall which is about two white children who get lost in an Australian desert. They are saved by an Aboriginal boy, yet in the end, they manage to cause his death. It is the most beautiful book, which was then made into a film with Jenny Agutter called Walkabout, which I loathed with a passion - recognising even as a child that the mutual gaze afforded all the characters in the book was definitely a white gaze in the film. While reading it, I sensed the fear that the white girl had of the Aboriginal child - and as a Black child in a rural English village, it made me sad.
I also read books my dad loved, including crime novels by Dashiell Hammett. I read all my mother’s Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer novels. They were historical novels, which were quite raunchy for a pre-teen, but not as raunchy as the romance/adventure Angelique series by Sergeanne Golan! I read a lot of Hugh Walpole because my mum had his books. I also read all of the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge, because my nana had those are her house. I read whatever was there - I just loved reading.
Tell us about one of your favourite Booker Prize-nominated books from previous years, and why you like it.
The Bone People by Keri Hulme, which I still read frequently - it takes me into a different cultural place in the world. And also A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, which has all the complexity and richness of Don DeLillo on top form but with Jamaican politics and daily life woven through. Those are books that will stay in my heart as a feeling way beyond the narrative of the book itself.
Judges of the Booker Prizes have to read several books multiple times. Away from this year’s prize, is there a book that you’ve re-read more than any other and, if so, what makes you keep returning to it?
I read Beloved by Toni Morrison a lot. I only read it on holiday because it makes me unbelievably sad, but I read it because the writing is so wonderful, as are the characters.
The Kent Haruf series, Plainsong Trilogy, just brings my blood pressure down with its effortless wisdom, stunning sentences and riveting stories of small-town life.
What are you particularly looking forward to or already enjoying about the process of judging the Booker Prize, and is there anything that’s surprised you so far?
One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed is hanging out – virtually – with the other judges and sharing our perspectives on the books. We’re all reading the same book, but we’re all bringing our own tastes, instincts and interests. To see the variety within the conversation and what everyone else is focusing on is hugely interesting. We are disparate people who are one jury, and I’ve really enjoyed watching as we circle and come in and focus on the books that we like.
What’s really fascinating, especially when you read this number of books, is to see the way authors from across the world are writing about the zeitgeist. Noticing the themes that are preoccupying lots of writers, and seeing the different ways those themes are approached. That’s been surprising for me.
What are you hoping to find in selecting books for the Booker Prize longlist? Are there certain qualities or attributes that you’re looking for?
I’m looking for a book that transports me. I’m interested in a quality that I find expands my mind and my heart in new and unexpected ways - something that stays with me. I want to walk around with it and feel the vibration of that book with me out in the world.
And that book has no particular setting or genre or gender or race. For me, it’s about the quality of the story, and the sentences and the way they hook into my heart, into my imagination and my intellect - I want to be stimulated on all fronts. It could be a very tiny book, or it could be something enormous, I have no boundaries. It’s about how it works on my intelligence, my spirit and my heart.
Has the experience of judging the Booker Prize changed the way you think about the act of writing fiction, or the way readers engage with it? Has it changed the way you read personally?
My husband is an author and so I hope I always read with due reverence for the sheer act of creative will it takes to bring a novel into being. Nonetheless, I do think I am reading more rigorously because of the enormous impact and significance of the prize. I want to know that the books that I’m considering are worthy of the prize and worthy of the influence and impact that winning the prize will bring the author.
I don’t think that it will change the way I read, long term. In reading for the prize, you suddenly get this enormously broad perspective because you’re reading a number of books from a variety of sources in one moment of time. It’s a different experience from general reading which is a narrow band over a much more extended period of time. There’s something very intense about it; it makes you resonate differently. It’s terribly exciting, but in general life, I imagine I will most likely read with a lighter eye.
There are over 600 books in the Booker Library, the archive of titles that have been longlisted or shortlisted for our prizes over the past 54 years. Is it possible to say that there are common characteristics that unite them all? in other words, what makes a booker book a booker book?
That’s a good question. I don’t know what the answer is, but for me, I think it has to be something that will last - a book that has a way of speaking to the reader which has a timeless universal quality to it. Even if it’s concerned with a very particular moment or consideration, it needs to have an eternal life that can speak into our sense of self, our sense of the world and our place in the world, beyond the lens of the author. It’s got to have longevity - I think that’s what I’m looking for.