The Women’s Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Winner

For the second time in four years, our shadow panel winner is a book that didn’t make the official shortlist. Elmet is a superb novel about outsiders looking at class, power, violence, gender and sexuality. I hope, considering the number of prizes the book has now been listed for, it has a wide readership.

The shadow panel discussions this year were the most intense we’ve ever had. There were some very strong feelings about some of the books and we had quite a discussion about what constitutes fiction.

The book that came a close second for us was Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing which shares some similarities with Elmet in terms of its themes but is also a book about race and time and how the America of today can’t be disconnected from its history. Again, I hope it has a wide readership.

The official winner of The Women’s Prize for Fiction is announced tonight. There’s coverage on The Women’s Prize’s social media channels from 6.45pm.

Cut from the Same Cloth edited by Sabeena Akhtar

Occasionally I use this blog to write about projects that I think are important/necessary. Today it’s one that’s being crowdfunded via the innovative publisher Unbound. Cut from the Same Cloth is an anthology of essays written by British hijabis and edited by the brilliant Sabeena Akhtar, who you might know from her work with Media Diversified, Bare Lit Festival and Tilted Axis Press.

From the Unbound website:

Perceived as the visual representation of Islam, hijab-wearing Muslim women are often harangued at work, at home and in public life yet are rarely afforded a platform of their own.

In books and in the media we are spoken on behalf of often by men, non-hijabis, and non-Muslims. Whether it is radical commentators sensationalising our existence or stereotypical norms being perpetuated by the same old faces, hijabis are tired. Too often we are seen to exist only in statistics, whilst others gain a platform off the back of the hostilities we face.

Cut from the Same Cloth seeks to tip the balance back in our favour. The collection will feature essays from 15 middle and working class women of all ages and races who will look beyond the tired tropes exhausted by the media and offer honest insight into the issues that really affect our lives. From modern pop culture to anti-blackness, women’s rights, working life; this first of its kind anthology will examine a cross section of British hijabis and the breadth of our experiences. It’s time we, as a society, stopped the hijab-splaining and listened to the people who know.

It’s time for change.

This anthology will include essays from Sabeena Akhtar, Azeezat Johnson, Hodan Yusuf, Myriam Francois, Ra’ifah Rafiq, Raisa Hassan, Rumana Lasker, Shaista Aziz, Sofia Rehman, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Suma Din, Sumaya Kassim and Yvonne Ridley.

Back in December 2015, I was part of the #DiverseDecember campaign. It feels as though things have begun to move on since then – The Jhalak Prize was founded in 2016; The Good Immigrant was crowdfunded in three days, went on to be a best seller and was voted the British public’s favourite book of 2016 at the Books Are My Bag Readers Awards; four of the six books that make up this year’s shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction are written by women of colour. But there remains a hierarchy of acceptability with regards to whose voices appear on our shelves and in our media, whose voices we listen to. I’ve contributed to Cut from the Same Cloth because, to quote Flavia Dzodan, ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’. As I type, the project is 69% funded; if you’re able and would like to contribute to the project, the crowdfunding page is here.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 Shortlist

The Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced very early this morning on BBC Radio 4 after the list was leaked. On it are three debut novels, although only The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a first book. Elif Batuman previously published a non-fiction book The Possessed and Jessie Greengrass published an excellent short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk According to One Who Saw It, which won The Edge Hill Prize and was shortlisted for Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer Award (winning the shadow panel prize for which I was a judge).

Those of you who read the blog regularly will know that I am a huge fan of Meena Kandasamy and her second novel When I Hit You in particular. It was my book of the year last year and my favourite to win the prize.

The more established novelists who complete the shortlist are Kamila Shamsie for Home Fire and Jesmyn Ward for Sing, Unburied, Sing which has already taken the National Book Award in the USA. I loved Home Fire, it’s gripping, nuanced and utterly relevant. Sing, Unburied, Sing is beautifully told and completely heart-breaking. I sobbed through the last three chapters.

The list shares four titles with our shadow panel shortlist and four with my own personal list. The title missing that the shadow panel and I expected to see is Elmet. I hope it’s inclusion on a number of prize lists in the past few months means that people do read it.

The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 will be announced on June 6th.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 Shadow Panel Shortlist

With the official Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist due today, here’s the books the shadow panel felt should make the shortlist.

I’ve reviewed three so far, if you click on the covers of Elmet, A Boy in Winter and Home Fire it will take you to my reviews. The rest are on their way!

This is the fourth year I’ve run a panel and it was our most varied discussion yet. We’ve never had such a wide range of opinions on the same set of books, which mirrors both the range and quality of the longlist. We also discovered that some of us fundamentally disagree on what constitutes fiction and what its job should be. That introduced an interesting element to our conversation!

We’re looking forward to seeing what makes the official shortlist. Apparently the announcement is happening this morning on BBC Radio 4…

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal

‘There’s a trick to time […] You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or longer,’ he says.

The Trick to Time begins in the present day in a southern seaside town. Mona, nearing 60, runs a shop from which she paints, dresses and sells collectible dolls. Before the end of the first chapter it becomes clear that some of these dolls serve a particular purpose. A woman arrives with a carefully wrapped parcel; she’s grieving:

‘I’ll tell you what, let me give you this.’ Mona takes a business card from the counter and writes her address on the back. ‘That’s me. Shall we say next Wednesday at 4.00 p.m.? Would that suit you?’ The woman nods and Mona smiles. ‘I just need the weight.’

The woman’s voice is a whisper when she speaks. ‘Five pounds seven ounces,’ she says and looks around as though she’s told a secret.

The dolls Mona paints and dresses are made by a local carpenter. She collects them from his workshop every few days. Their conversations suggest they have a working relationship but Mona’s observations show she worries about him too. He lives alone in the workshop and is haphazard at taking care of himself.

Alongside the now, de Waal contracts time and tells the story of Mona’s youth and young adulthood. In these sections of the novel we see her grow up in a small Irish town, raised by her father after her mum dies of cancer. In 1972, she leaves for Birmingham and meets William who, after a short courtship, she marries.

The Trick to Time considers the impact events that happen when we are younger have on our lives as we get older; how our desires and youthful optimism can be eroded, and how we can either weave these events into a new version of life or allow them to dominate it. This is exemplified by two of the minor characters, Karl and Bridie, as well as Mona.

Karl, who Mona spots looking out of his flat window at 5 a.m., is grief stricken after his friend Andreas’ death. Mona begins dating him after they bump into each other in a café; he becomes a catalyst for change in her.

Bridie lives in the village near Mona and her father. They visit her every month.

‘Why doesn’t she visit us instead?’ asks Mona. She is fourteen.

‘Good question,’ her father replies as though he’d never thought of it before.

‘At least then I could do some mending or shell the peas while she has the clock stopped.’

Her father laughs and squeezes her arm in close. ‘Ah, she’s a conjuror all right is Bridie O’Connor. I’ve never known a longer hour. But.’

And his ‘but’ says everything. Mona knows the words that come after. But she’s family, sort of, and she loves you. But she’s lonely. But she lives alone. But it’s the right thing to do. But we have to think of more people than ourselves alone. But have a heart, Mona.

In her debut novel My Name Is Leon, de Waal examined the difficulties of working class, single motherhood and the care system for children of colour with diligence and without descending into sentimentality. In The Trick to Time she applies the same focus to grief, compelling the reader to invest in these characters and their lives, taking us to the dark places which have shaped who they’ve become. There are points where the novel is difficult to read but it isn’t without hope; sometimes the control of time is ours.

Thanks to Viking for the review copy.

This Is How It Ends – Eva Dolan + Q&A

Ella looked away from the dead man’s body. Dead, she thought, but didn’t know, because she couldn’t bring herself to touch his skin again. She could feel the places where he’d touched her. Knew they would be bruises tomorrow, perfect impressions of fingerprints.

At a party celebrating reaching the crowdfunding target for her book, Ella kills a man. No one sees it happen. The flats where the party takes place are due to be knocked down, only six residents remaining. Ella’s part of a campaign to support the residents, protesting against the gentrification of the area, as high-rise tower blocks appear next door and all over London.

The only person Ella tells is her friend, and resident of the flats, Molly. At 60, Molly is a veteran campaigner and has witnessed her fair share of violence. Together, they move the body to the lift shaft and push it down. Molly cleans the flat where the incident has taken place, ensuring no traces of blood remain. She assumes that once the body’s discovered, the police won’t pay too much attention to a building marked for demolition.

Here the story diverges into two strands. The present-day section follows Molly’s first-person narrative as she and Ella wait for someone to discover the body and the police to arrive. Molly attempts to look after and manage Ella, scared that she will crumble under interrogation, while trying to continue as normal herself. She’s involved in a relationship with a younger man, Callum, who also lives in the flats, and she works as a photographer. One of her most famous shots is of Ella being beaten by a police office at student protest.

Ella’s narrative travels backwards, slowly revealing who she is and what she’s been through. Her story’s entwined with several men: Dylan, who she meets for sex; Quinn, a campaigner who prefers more violent methods of protest and has just been released from prison, and Sinclair, a journalist who’s writing a book on a history of the protest movement. Probably the most significant man in her life though is her father, ACC Alec Riordan.

In her first standalone novel, Dolan explores themes of protest, violence and female friendship. The feminist slant on the protest movement, looking at women’s involvement in a number of big campaigns including the miners’ strike, is an interesting and welcome one. Bar Greenham Common, much of women’s contribution to these events has been erased. The friendship between an older and younger woman is also significant. It’s rare to see this type of friendship depicted in literature, particularly taking such a central role.

This Is How It Ends is a triumph. Gripping, thoughtful, feminist; I loved it.

I’m delighted that Eva agreed to answer some question about the book and her work.

This Is How It Ends has two protagonists: Ella, who’s in her 20s, and Molly, who’s 60. What interests you about women’s stories and why did you choose to make your characters such different ages?

I’m interested in telling the stories of women who might be considered outside the mainstream, narratives which aren’t driven by marriage or motherhood or competing over lovers, because there are plenty of writers doing that already and doing a better job of it than I would. Specifically I wanted to write about intergenerational female friendships because they seem quite rare in fiction. Happy for recommendations if I’ve missed those books!

I suspect age gap friendships are quite scarce in real life as well, but I’m not sure why. I cherish the friendships I have with older women, they bring a different perspective and experience I simply don’t have, some are a steadying influence but some are much wilder than me; all of them are very similar to my mum, which is probably significant. I’m lucky enough to have a fierce and amazing mother who I’m very close to, and I think that’s why my fiction keeps coming back to characters who don’t have that great relationship and how the lack of it affects them.

I wanted to put all that stuff on the page.

Molly has lived the life she expects Ella to commit herself to and she believes she can help Ella live it better than she did by showing her all the pitfalls and essentially fast tracking her along with advice and contacts. Will Ella take that advice? Will she learn from Molly’s mistakes or repeat them? I also wanted to explore a proxy mother/daughter relationship, the kind you see with people who are bonded by profession or beliefs. Does it fall into the same patterns as a blood bond? Does social conditioning drive the parties into that familiar pattern because we don’t know any other way to conceive of intergenerational female friendship except through the lens of maternal instinct? That turned into quite a big theme of Molly and Ella’s relationship.

One of the themes of the novel is the idea of protest – historic ones such as Greenham Common and contemporary ones against gentrification. Why did you choose this as a central theme?

My earlier books have all been about individual outsiders or marginalised groups crushed by society and I suppose, in some small way, I wanted to write a more optimistic story this time around; individuals coming together to fight the system, solidarity in the face of overwhelming opposition. Also, it does feel like we’re experiencing a moment right now – from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to #MeToo – there’s revolution in the air. I can’t think of another point in my lifetime when protest has felt so necessary and so, maybe, hopefully, capable of prompting real and positive change.

Crime fiction prides itself that it operates on the bleeding edge of social issues and this is a development which has been crying out for attention for a good few years now. There are tiny hints towards it in the Zigic and Ferreira books – my way of alluding to something I was itching to write about – and this time I got to plunge headlong into it, writing about subjects which I couldn’t before; the social cleansing of our cities, the legacy of Greenham Common, the importance of direct action and the personal sacrifices people make to try and change the world for the better.

The novel has an interesting structure, Molly tells events from the discovery of the dead body to their conclusion, while Ella’s sections move backwards slowly revealing aspects of her past. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way and were there any challenges in the writing of it?

It’s not a spoiler to say that Ella is responsible for the dead body she and Molly hide. This Is How It Ends is as much a whydunnit as anything and I wanted to put the reader in a similar position to Molly – wondering if she did the right thing in helping Ella cover up her crime. So I decided we’d gradually unpeel Ella’s layers, just as Molly does, catching her out in small lies and then discovering the reason for each of them as her storyline unspools backwards. Without a hefty police strand in the book this seemed the best way to dig into Ella’s past and the events which brought her to that room with that corpse.

Honestly, there was a lot of swearing and hair pulling while I tried to make the two intertwining narratives work. It was important that they touch in lots of places to help the story stay clear and those moments of crossover were some of the first things I plotted. Once those big events were fixed fitting the rest of the plot in around them was a much more relaxed process.

This is the first time you’ve set a novel in London rather than Peterborough; why did you decide on the change?

It’s a subject I’ve wanted to explore for a few years but it felt like it needed a bigger setting than Peterborough and also wouldn’t work within the confines of a detective novel. London was the natural choice because the property market there is super charged, awash with money of dubious provenance and with developers seeming to operate with very little in the way of constraints from the various councils. The more research I did the more opaque it seemed; essentially lawless and massively damaging to a precarious working class population who are being put out of their homes to make way for ‘lock up and leave’ investment opportunities, as well as the young who are finding it impossible to get a foot on the property ladder. It’s also where the vast majority of protests are being mounted, so the natural setting.

This is your first standalone novel following four Zigic and Ferreira books. How did it feel to write something different?

Liberating! The police procedural genre is attractive because it comes with a fairly firm structure built into it – your detectives investigate a murder, you know roughly where you’re going before you even start to plan. But, after four books published and lots more written and stowed away in the drawer, I felt like I needed to push myself and see what I could achieve without that helpful skeleton in place.

I discovered that I really like being free from the constraints and from my series characters – sorry Zigic and Ferreira. With This Is How It Ends I got the opportunity to write lead characters who were more like me, who share my political beliefs and who were, finally, operating on the other side of the law. Laws, in this case, which are frequently unjust and stacked firmly against the people. That was hugely freeing.

What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’m massively superstitious about discussing works in progress but I can say it’s another standalone, also set in London, but this time the political intrigue takes place at the other end of the social scale. It follows three women who are locked in a power struggle with each other and the system which they work within.

My blog focuses on women writers; what are your favourite books by women?

Ooh, so many! Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout, Autumn by Ali Smith, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, NW by Zadie Smith, Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark. Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre.

It’s only been the last few years that I’ve realised how my reading habits have skewed male and canonical ever since my teens, so I’m in the process of plugging the gaps in my reading right now.

Thanks to Eva Dolan for the interview and to Bloomsbury for the proof of the novel.

Books of the Year 2017

Due to life interfering, I read half as many books this year as I have in previous years. What I have read though has, on the whole, been incredibly good. I’ve selected the ten I loved the most and included five others I highly recommend at the end of the piece. If I’ve reviewed the book in full, there’s a link at the bottom of the description.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

The story of a marriage between a young, educated woman and a university lecturer. When I Hit You is both a tale of domestic violence and of a woman becoming a writer by writing her way out of her situation. Kandasamy’s experimental style frames the experience as though the narrator is witnessing the horror brought upon her. It’s brutal, it’s thoughtful, it’s shocking. It’s incredibly relevant in 2017.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Meena Kandasamy here.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky – Leslie Nnedi Arimah

Hands down the best short story collection I’ve ever read. Arimah does things with the form that shouldn’t be possible. In the first story, for example, the protagonist is held in a moment while the back story of everything that led to that point is revealed and yet the tension holds sharp. Many of the stories are concerned with the way women are shaped by/shape themselves around men, all of them carry an emotional punch.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Two sisters, Effia and Esa, born in West Africa in the 1770s are separated. One becomes the wife of a slave trader, the other is shipped to America as a slave. Gyasi follows the two lines to the present day. Each chapter focuses on the next branch of the family tree and works as a short story in its own right. Alongside this runs the story of the creation of the black race, its reasons and consequences. It’s an incredible achievement.

My full review is here.

Attrib. and Other Stories – Eley Williams

Williams’ debut short story collection is full of animals, clever word play, humour and love. While all of these elements contribute to intelligent, engaging stories, it’s the emotions at the core of the tales which elevate them to something special. The reader’s transported to the position of the narrator, feeling their anticipation at the potential lover standing next to them or their loss at the one who’s just left.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Eley Williams here.

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties, exploring her marriage to an older man, Edwyn, and the impact previous relationships, both romantic and familial, have had on who they are now. Almost everyone in Neve’s life is abusive in some form; Riley conveys this through a range of incidents told from Neve’s perspective, leading the reader to question whether or not she’s telling the truth. Searing and utterly pertinent in 2017.

My full review is here.

Vernon Subutex 1 – Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne)

Vernon Subutex once ran a legendary record shop in Paris. When his benefactor and musician friend, Alex Bleach, dies, Vernon is left homeless. Subutex moves between the houses and apartments of friends and acquaintances before ending up on the streets. Despentes gives a searing commentary on Western society’s views of a range of hot topics: social media, hijabs, the rich, sex workers and a whole lot more.

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

An unnamed narrator gives birth to a boy as floodwaters rise in the U.K. Soon London is covered and the narrator and her new family can’t return to their flat. They move to their in-laws and then on to a refugee camp. Also works as a metaphor for the first year of motherhood. Taut and compelling.

My full review is here.

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

A collection of stories about ordinary people at their worst, it’s a mirror held up to today’s society: to the misogyny, to the privilege, to the hypocrisy. Some of the characters know better but can’t be arsed to do better; some of them make an attempt but fall flat at the first hurdle. The collection’s full of characters for whom, essentially, nothing changes. Only Moshfegh could pull that off.

My full review is here.

Elmet – Fiona Mosley

“Daddy“ builds a house in a copse in the woods for himself and his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy. The land on which he builds is owned by Price, the most influential man in the area. Daddy is fully aware of the antagonism this will cause, but, as the best bare-knuckle fighter in the U.K. and Ireland, he wields his own form of power. From this moment, the two men are pitted against each other; it’s a matter of when, not if, the violent tension will explode. An exploration of gender roles and what happens if you transgress them, as well as a commentary on class and privilege.

I wrote about why Elmet is an important working class novel for OZY.

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

At a party, Lucina feels a pain and blood begins to fill her eyes. She begins to go blind. The doctor tells her he can do nothing other than monitor the situation, leaving her to adjust to a life in which she has to rely on others to help her. She is furious and her anger increases as the story progresses. Told in flash length chapters with short, spiky, repetitive sentences. Horrifying and brilliant.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Lina Meruane here.

And the highly recommended:

Tinman – Sarah Winman

Ellis and Michael are inseparable until Annie arrives in their lives and Ellis marries her. A story of hidden love, friendship, AIDS and art. Beautiful and heart-wrenching.

A Book of Untruths – Miranda Doyle

A memoir about Doyle’s family. Every chapter reveals a lie that’s been told while questioning the reliability of memory and the purpose of memoir writing.

A Manual for Heartache – Cathy Rentzenbrink

An indispensable guide for when the worst happens to you or someone close to you. My piece about it is here.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

The love story of performers Rose and Perrot and also a scathing commentary on patriarchal society’s treatment of women, particularly with regards to sex and shame.

My full review is here.

The Other Half of Happiness – Ayisha Malik

The sequel to Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. Sofia’s married to Conall but there’s a whopping great secret he hasn’t told her. Has a punch the air, feminist ending.

My full review and interview with Ayisha Malik is here.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I’ve reviewed the Man Booker shortlisted Elmet/written about why it’s an important working class novel for Ozy.

I’m delighted to have contributed to the new, extended books section on the site. It’s edited by the brilliant Sarah Ladipo Manyika, who wrote the Goldsmith’s Prize shortlisted Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. I highly recommend having a look around, there’s some great pieces on there.

The Handsworth Times – Sharon Duggal + interview

In the first two chapters of The Handsworth Times, one boy is turned into a fire ball by petrol bombs thrown during a riot and another is killed, knocked off his bike by an ambulance. It’s one of the most arresting openings I’ve ever read.

The character who connects both of the boys is Mukesh Agarwal, father of the boy who is killed and saviour of the one who is not.

The churning alcohol in Mukesh’s stomach begins to rise up towards his mouth, scorching his throat along the way. He takes in a long, deep breath of the smoky air through his nostrils and it halts the acidic bile attempting to rise up through his body. Sobriety hits him suddenly and he too becomes transfixed by the burning boy just a few meters ahead. Without thinking he begins undoing the small, transparent buttons on his work shirt with clumsy fingers. Finally, the damp shirt is undone and he removes it fully before pushing his way through a small gap in the crowd. He strides towards the burning figure.

The Agarwal family are a family of seven living in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1981. Mukesh works at Hardiman’s Sheet Metals and spends his wages in the Black Eagle. His wife, Usha, gets up at six o’clock every weekday and five on Saturdays to scrub the house of imaginary mice piss. There are five children, two boys and three girls. Billy dies at the beginning of the novel and, while they attempt to come to terms with their brother’s death, the others have their own issues to deal with too. Kavi, the other boy, starts skipping school and withdrawing from his friends. When one of them suggests he should make the most of life, regardless, he responds:

‘Make the most of it – make the most of what? What have we got here in Lozells or even in Handsworth? What have I got to look forward to, or you? Bloody teachers who decide we are thick before we even open our gobs just because our dads have an accent? And then what, the dole? A dead-end job like my dad who is already miserable enough for the whole family? Fuck off, Marcus, there is nothing for me here.’

Kavi isn’t convinced by Marcus’ attempts to get him to join Handsworth Youth Movement but Kavi’s sister, Anila is when there’s a recruitment drive outside her school. The eldest sister, Nina, leaves for university in Leeds, corresponding with her siblings via letter and the odd telephone call, while the other sibling, Kamela, falls in love.

It’s Usha who’s at the heart of the family and the centre of the story though. As she deals with her grief over the death of Billy and tries to hold her family together, she recognises the importance of community. While Thatcher does her best to destroy it, Usha and her friends work together to build something that will bring their area together.

I spoke to Sharon Duggal by phone to ask her about the book.

The opening two chapters of the novel are dramatic and memorable. Where did the idea come from and were they always the opening of the book?

It was an idea that evolved. I had a strong sense of wanting to start with a riot but not make it the whole story. I also had a visual image of the burning boy. I saw a photograph, maybe years ago, of lanterns that float upwards. I think quite visually.

I wanted all of the family to be responding to something but in different ways and I wanted that something to be a consequence of the events at the beginning of the book. The opening chapter was always going to have the girls in the bedroom and the riot. Initially, they were that way around but I received a New Writing South bursary for a reading from The Literacy Consultancy and Rachel Trevize advised switching the bedroom scene and the riot. It made absolute sense; why didn’t I see that?

The book’s the story of a family with a number of issues told from multiple perspectives. How did you manage both the issues that arise and the different points of view?

I wanted to show that even within one family there are multiple stories going on. Minority stories are often linear. However, I didn’t start out thinking I wanted to include all of these issues, I wanted a cramped, claustrophobic household.

I’ve no idea how I managed it! I plotted each thread out separately. Having Nina leave was practical. Kamela was more difficult, she’s strong and feisty. There was a danger it could all seem a bit samey, especially the sisters, so I wanted their stories to be quiet different.

The book’s set in 1980’s Birmingham but there are clear resonances to current society. Was now the right time to write it or was it just coincidence?

It’s coincidence. It was finished pre-Brexit but as it came closer to publication these issues became more popular. Brexit gave people permission to be racist. Not that everyone who voted leave is racist but the way views were aired via mainstream politicians allowed them to become acceptable.

There are lots of references to 80’s culture in the novel. What sort of research did you do?

I was 13/14 in the early 80s and the references stick with you because you’re formulating who you are. Music, particularly ska, was a huge thing for me and ‘Ghost Town’ [by The Specials] was released in July 1981. I spent time checking references and dates. In an early draft, there was a reference to Neighbours but that didn’t start in the U.K. until 1986. I’ve had mixed reactions to it, one book group thought it was too much, others have called it rich in period detail.

You use some dialect in the book. Why did you decide to include it and did you come up against any resistance?

I didn’t come up against any resistance. I didn’t want to do the whole thing in dialect but it’s so much a part of who Brenda was. I wanted it to feel Brummie and I think dialect makes things richer but I didn’t want to replicate all the different dialects. The poet Liz Berry does it beautifully. I didn’t want to be heavy handed. The story takes place in a particular time and place but it is also universal. I still call Birmingham home and people there still call you ‘bab’.

The book is Brighton’s City Reads for 2017. How does it feel to have an entire city celebrating your work?

Absolutely amazing. I’m going to hold onto it for the whole year. You think you’ll never get published and then you realise the hardest thing is getting someone to read it. It meant that some were gifted to prisoners and socially isolated elders. I visited a lot of groups where I was asked unexpected questions and found love for the book. It’s really great to have anyone reading it, never mind a whole city. It encourages people from all walks of life to read it. There was a rough sleepers project. I had a shared meal with them and we discussed the setting and the challenges of family. Having a shared read connects people.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a second book which is very different. It’s just beginning to formulate. I’ve had a very busy year and I’m itching to get on with the next book. There’s going to be lots of writing this year.

My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Hannah Lowe. Her book Long Time No See is about Chick, her Chinese Jamaican gambler father. It’s about the different strands of who she is.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, particularly Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah.

Buchi Emechetta’s book Second Class Citizen was the first time I realised you don’t have to be posh, white, old and live in a big house to have books written about you.

Also, the Brontës, Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge.

Thanks to Sharon Duggal for the interview and to Bluemoose Books for the review copy.

When We Speak of Nothing – Olumide Popoola

The what to do and when to place it. The how to undress and how much to leave underneath. The give someone all that could hurt oneself. Or them. And then stand still. Just stand.

Karl is Abu’s ‘brother from another mother’. The pair are seventeen years old, studying for A Levels and living with their families in the King’s Cross area of London. The novel opens with them walking home from school.

Then, out of nowhere, three wannabe guys they knew from sixth form jumping them, right at the corner to Leigh Street. Like real jump. Two of them at Abu calling him Abu-ka-ha-ba-ha-ha-ha-r-pussy and other things that shouldn’t be said in front of anyone, twisting his arm back in its socket like they just got their GCSEs in bullying.

It was crunching. Abu whined.

Being beaten up is a regular occurrence for their pair. The reason for this is revealed as the story unfolds: Karl is transgender and some of his classmates take this as a reason to be abusive towards him and Abu.

And Karl would be all, ‘You know you can just tell them you ain’t gay and be done with it. It’s just me this is for anyway.’ And Abu would be, ‘For real? Bruv, do I look like I have a problem with gay or anything? They know we ain’t gay. I’m not even going to go there. When have I ever let you down? Tell me? Do I really look like I will talk to some pisshead? Got better things to do with my time, mate. If you want to preach again find yourself someone who doesn’t know how to act. Ain’t me.’

Part of what makes this book great is the level of acceptance for Karl from Abu, Abu’s family and Karl’s mum. This isn’t a story about someone transitioning, it’s a coming of age tale of a teenager trying to find their place in the world.

The narrative’s driven by Karl’s lack of contact with his father whom he’s never met. While his mother, who has Multiple Sclerosis, is in hospital, Karl opens a letter from his Uncle Tunde. In it, he tells Karl’s mum, Rebecca, that Karl’s father is ill and now knows of Karl’s existence. He wishes to see Karl. With some manoeuvring that involves Karl, his guardian, Godfrey, and Abu’s family lying to Rebecca, Karl flies to Port Harcourt to meet his father. Things don’t go as expected though: Karl’s father is mysteriously absent and Karl begins to fall in love with a young woman he meets. Back in London, violence is escalating, not only against Abu but across the city following the killing of Mark Duggan.

The novel could’ve been weighed down by the issues it covers. The story meets at the intersections of race, class and gender and considers what it’s like to be a transgender teenager in two different communities; how single parents with health issues cope, and why people respond to a range of situations with violence. However, Popoola’s management of these areas is skilful: she refuses to offer any easy solutions – much of the novel operates in the grey areas of life; there is a clear story about two teenagers negotiating their entry into adulthood, and her use of language is thoughtful and aids in making these characters convincing. She interweaves the vocabulary and speech rhythms of London and Port Harcourt. It isn’t simply a matter of throwing in some dialect or imitating an accent, the grammatical structures echo the spoken word.

When We Speak of Nothing offers a view of teenagers, and of London, rarely seen in literature. It is a tale of friendship, of acceptance, of deciding what’s worth fighting for.

I spoke to Olumide Popoola about writing teenagers, creating a transgender protagonist and playing with language.

Jendella’s playlist is here.

When We Speak of Nothing on Amazon and Waterstones.

My review of The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. The Book of Memory on Amazon and Waterstones.

Thanks to Olumide Popoola and Cassava Republic for the interview and for the review copy of the novel.