British Book Awards: Evaristo & Carty-Williams become first black authors to win top British Book awards
Candice Carty-Williams and Bernardine Evaristo take book of the year and author of the year categories, as publishers face criticism for treatment of black authors.
Candice Carty-Williams and Bernardine Evaristo have become the first black authors to win the top prizes at the British Book awards, landing the book of the year and author of the year gongs respectively.
Carty-Williams took the book of the year accolade on Monday night for Queenie, her debut novel about a young black woman navigating life and love in London. She beat titles including Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite to the award, which is judged on quality of writing, innovation of publishing, and sales.
Carty-Williams said she was proud and grateful to win, but also “sad and confused” that she was the first black writer to receive the top award.
“Overall, this win makes me hopeful that although I’m the first, the industry are waking up to the fact that I shouldn’t and won’t be the last,” said the author.
Candice Carty-Williams: ‘When I was growing up, humour was a deflection’ “The power of Queenie is the way it makes you feel: energised; moved; comforted. It is such an assured and original piece of debut fiction,” said judge Pandora Sykes. “Weighty issues about identity, race, family, heterosexuality and mental health are distilled into prose which is easily digestible, but extremely impactful.”
In the week after a study found that black and Asian audiences were being overlooked by UK publishers, judges also praised Carty-Williams’s bestseller as “a book that was capable of changing industry perceptions of what stories can be commercially and critically successful”.
Evaristo, the joint winner of last year’s Booker prize for her polyphonic novel Girl, Woman, Other, was named author of the year at the British Book awards, also making her the first black writer to win in that category. Evaristo also won the fiction category, beating her fellow Booker winner Margaret Atwood to the prize. The novelist, who became the first black British woman to top the fiction paperback charts earlier this month, said she was honoured.
“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,” said Evaristo, who described her recent experience topping the charts as “quite surreal”.
“I was already adjusting to seeing my name on the bestseller list for 20 weeks, off and on, but then to hit the top spot and then to realise that I was the first woman of colour to get there since records began, well, it’s a lot to take in,” she said. “I’ve been writing for a very long time, and it’s incredibly gratifying to know that my work is finally reaching a wider readership. It’s also fantastic to see so many other books by writers of colour storming the charts. I’m pretty sure this is unprecedented. Of course, this has been triggered by the tragedy of George Floyd’s death and we should always remember that.”
The novelist, a signatory to an open letter from the newly formed Black Writers’ Guild which is calling for sweeping change in British publishing, said that publishers were “definitely listening to us today”.
“We’ll see if they deliver on their promises,” she said. “I hope they don’t revert back to the status quo once the heat has left the conversation around racism, as will inevitably be the case. It’s high on the agenda today, but history shows us that unless there is a crisis, such as riots or the Stephen Lawrence murder, racism as a topic and anti-racism as a cause soon gets demoted.”
Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer won crime and thriller book of the year, seeing off Lee Child and Val McDermid to become the first black author to win that category, too.
The British Book awards, also known as the Nibbies, are produced by the UK’s book trade magazine the Bookseller. Monday’s ceremony, which was held entirely online for the first time, also saw Taddeo’s Three Women win the narrative non-fiction book of the year, and Holly Jackson win the children’s fiction category for A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. Atwood’s The Testaments won audiobook of the year, while Elmer creator David McKee was named illustrator of the year.