7 London Novels by Writers of Color
Fiction that celebrates the 40% of Londoners who aren't white
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I spent my formative years in London, the intonations of which will probably never fully leave my voice. For me, London is a metropolis of color, of people from all over the former empire who’ve helped to create one of the world’s greatest cities. Official statistics say that people of color make up about 40% of the city’s population. Around the same percentage of Londoners are foreign-born. This is the city of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, both superlative books about different ends of London (and much else) that you should read if you haven’t already. The below list, totally biased to old favorites and sparkling (personal) new discoveries, attempts to see the city on the page in all its transnational, ethnic, and cultural complexities and glories.
The Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo
The lead character of Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe is Zuleika, the daughter of Sudanese immigrants who’ve made good in London, A.D. 211. After the ingestion of traditional English Literature at school, reading a novel of olden days London not centered on whiteness thrilled me when it was first published in 2001. Yes, there were black people in Roman London—the novel emerged from Evaristo’s residency and research at the Museum of London. This city is an outpost of another empire. The brilliant realignment of historical perception aside, Evaristo tells a gripping and hilarious story of Zuleika’s boredom, which is soon alleviated when Emperor Septimius Severus arrives in town and the two begin an affair—all in verse. I adore how Evaristo imagines the then-and-now topographies of London. She writes of “the humid jungle at Bayswater,” “mud huts by the Serpentine,” and “grasslands” of Mayfair. The contemporary also creeps in with “Wild@Heart, the trendy ‘flower boutique’ / on Cannon Street.” Zuleika and her crew’s partying ways will be familiar to anyone who’s been out on the town in London. Evaristo—whose debut, Lara, also in verse and based on her own British Nigerian family—should have won all the prizes back then. Her latest Girl, Woman, Other shared the 2019 Booker Prize.
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Novelist Andrea Levy’s father arrived in the U.K. on the Empire Windrush, the ship which brought the first large group of colonial subjects from the West Indies in 1948. The Windrush generation helped build today’s Britain (and most certainly London, its language, and its culture). In Small Island, Levy tells the stories of Jamaicans, Gilbert and Hortense, as well as those of Queenie and Bernard, a white couple with whom they become entangled. Set in 1948, the novel moves between the characters, back to World War II, and across the world to India, and back to London with a twist at its end. Worth a read in light of the recent Windrush scandal. Another offering of Windrush stories to check out is the nonfiction Windrush: The Irresistible Rise Of Multi-Racial Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips.
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
“One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet.” From this start, Sam Selvon’s novel goes on to run riot over standard English with its Calypso-infused rhythm and creolized idioms. Selvon, born to an Indian father and an Anglo-Scottish mother in Trinidad, follows Moses, who acts as a one-man welcome party for Windrush-generation immigrants, and his friends in an often unwelcoming London. The city’s streets are sadly not paved with gold, as per the Dick Whittington lore. The Lonely Londoners is often considered a pioneering novel of Black British literature.
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
At the beginning of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, protagonist Karim declares: “I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories.” Karim, like Kureishi, is of mixed British Pakistani descent and hails from the south of the river suburbs. He escapes to the wilds of London and its theatre world, and in doing so, braves the frontiers of sex, sexuality, class, and race in London on the eve of Margaret Thatcher’s ascension to power. Meanwhile, his dad becomes a guru to white hippies. The novel’s soundtrack was interpreted by another South London boy, David Bowie for the BBC series of the novel, starring Naveen Andrews. A lyric highlight from the theme: “Screaming along in South London/ Vicious but ready to learn/ Sometimes I fear that the whole world is queer/ Sometimes but always in vain.”
The Study Circle by Haroun Khan
Haroun Khan’s The Study Circle offers a very different 2000s view of British Pakistani youth from a tower block of a South London council estate. The view isn’t for the tourism brochures:
“A sterile panorama of ashen granite that, from most vantage points, dominated the totality of your vision. Blotting out the rest of the world. A demand to be your sole reality. Spawned from the popular post-War Brutalist style, the estate consisted of half a dozen twenty-story towers. Monolithic structures that trust upwards and stood like forbidden sentinels, forever gazing.”
The gaze inwards comes from Ishaq, his friends, and the choices they have as young, urban British Muslim men amid the growing racism and radicalism around them. Khan, who based the book on his own life, writes the hell out of these margins. His characters—particularly Shams, whose early Tube adventures and job search got my heart—will linger, as will the characters’ conversations.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
A 25-year-old newspaper journalist, the British Jamaican Queenie breaks up with her white boyfriend and goes on a bender of finding love again. The novel has been called the “Black Bridget Jones”—and there is a Darcy here too—but Queenie has to navigate quite a bit more as a young black woman in the world. To take one example from her quest for love: an encounter with a Neo-Nazi with a fetish. With exuberant prose, Carty-Williams takes us inside millennial Black British life (and joyfully into friendships), and all around (gentrifying) South London.
The Living Days by Ananda Devi
On Portobello Road, the setting of a million London stories (and plenty of my own), Mary, a white woman slowly being overtaken by dementia, meets Cub, a thirteen-year-old Jamaican boy from Brixton. Their unsettling attraction to each other eventually leads to Cub moving into Mary’s decaying Notting Hill home. Devi’s prose is both exquisite and disturbing; she leads us into the world of a conflicted (though pre-Brexit) London. White supremacy, gentrification, and aging are amongst the book’s meditations. Devi who lived in London in the 1970s as a student offers an astonishing, flaneur’s love letter to the city in 2005.
“It was possible to love this city and die of it.
To love its hidden stars and its cemented sky,
To love its children who laughed in Leicester Square and who experienced life so immediately that nothing of it remained in their memories…
To love the old folks dying in Stockwell, sitting on a bench while the houses they’d bought and lived in for so long became luxury residences for the nouveau riche. No more space; no more space, except for the conquerors.”
Devi, who hails from Mauritius, writes in French. The novel was translated to English by an American, Jeffrey Zuckerman. The novel’s brew of memory (including Mary’s own of WWII), time (Devi talks about the novel’s 40-plus-year gestation here), languages, ethnicities, and nationalities makes it an especially eternal new novel of London.