Carty-Williams and Evaristo make history as first Black writers to win British Book Awards

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Candice Carty-Williams with her winning book, 'Queenie'

The British Book Awards, also known as the Nibbies, were hosted by the wonderful team at The Bookseller, this week. Entirely online from our new closest friend, Zoom, the Awards marked 30 years. This year, however, was extra special as Queenie author Candice Carty-Williams became the first Black author to win Book of the Year. This was coupled with Bernardine Evaristo, who having been the first Black author to win the Man Booker Prize, won Fiction Book of the Year for Girl, Woman, Other alongside Author of the Year. Both were won against other well-loved authors such as Margaret Atwood and Lisa Taddeo.

Since the Nibbies began in 1994, both women are the first Black writers to win such a prestigious and well-esteemed award, breaking through the publishing industry’s stigma often placed on Black female authors to, well, make history. The celebration also comes in the week after Bernardine Evaristo condemned the book industry for depicting “Black and Asian people as not a substantial readership, or to even be readers.” Much like Girl, Woman, Other does, Evaristo addressed the misguided beliefs about Black women head-on, making her win even more profound. The wins also follow a recent panel from the Scotland branch of SYP on the importance of diversity both in literature and in publishing houses.

When winning the award, Carty-Williams, author of Queenie, stated: “I don’t quite know how I feel about winning book of the year; I’m proud of myself, yes, and grateful to the incredible team that helped me get Queenie out of my head and onto the shelves. I’m also sad and confused that I’m the first Black and female author to have won this award since it began. Overall, this win makes me hopeful that although I’m the first, the industry are waking up to the fact that I wouldn’t and won’t be the last.”

Queenie follows the narrative of a Jamaican British woman living in London as she straddles two opposing cultures, none of which she feels entirely welcome in. It’s a novel of identity, of questioning ones self, of love but most of all, of Black women’s experience in comparing themselves to the normative White middle-class. The book was previously named Blackwell’s Book of the Year in 2019, coming runner-up for the Costa First Novel Award. It has also become popular amongst influencers since the Black Lives Matter movement.

When describing Queenie, the judges of the Book Awards stated that it’s a novel “that makes you feel: energised; moved; comforted. It is such an assured and original piece of debut fiction” that deals with “weighty issues about identity, race, family, heterosexuality and mental health, distilled into prose which is easily digestible, but extremely impactful.”

Carty-Williams also added in her acceptance speech: “The last words I wrote in Queenie were ‘Black Lives Matter’ and it feels really important to say that again here and say that as part of my acceptance speech because I’m really proud of who I am and I’m proud of where I’ve come from and against all odds, I’ve managed to get to this place and I just hope that more people like me get to do that.”

By winning Book of the Year, we can only hope that Carty-Williams has awoken the industry to the understanding that literature written by Black authors about Black experiences has existed for a long time and it’s time we actively buy their work and actively read their work rather than leaving it in a TBR pile or performatively placing it on our bookshelves. We need to educate ourselves through the literature, giving Black authors, Black women the recognition they deserve.

Alongside Carty-Williams, Evaristo, on her acceptance speech for Author of the Year and Fiction Book of the Year, described the experience as bitter-sweet, and “quite surreal”, stating: “This is such an interesting moment in our cultural history because the Black Lives Matter movement has generated an unprecedented amount of self-interrogating in the publishing industry.” Taking to Twitter, she further stated: “Let’s work towards a future where we no longer have these conversations because EVERYONE is included in the narrative: Asian, Black, disabled, LGBTQ+, white, working class.”

Carty-Williams and Evaristo have shone a glimmer of hope into many Black authors lives this week by proving that Black women’s voices are worthy of success. We can only hope this is the start of something new, progressive and hopeful for the book industry. This is the first step toward a future where we are no longer taken aback by two Black women winning three of the top Book Awards. Where inclusivity and diversity are not a one off, but the norm.

You can find the full list of 2020’s British Book Award winners here.

Words by Lucy Lillystone

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