Afua Hirsch, author and broadcaster, and Wimbledon High School alumna takes us through the books that have delighted and inspired her.
I think this is one of the most magical novels ever written. I discovered it long after it won the Booker Prize in 1991, but its story of a spirit child, destined to return to another realm but determined to remain among the living, is a hypnotic and timeless piece of work. I’m rarely phased by meeting celebrities, but I was so in awe of the author Ben Okri that when I met him decades later, I was a genuinely embarrassing fan. I later became friends with him – and he even helped me by looking at an early draft of my book Brit(ish) – which was a huge honour, and incredibly helpful.
At some point in my 20s I discovered that I loved magical realism. Marquez’s novel has been a literary sensation ever since it was published in 1967. The New York Times reviewed it as
“the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” It is an incredible feat of human imagination, but it also spoke to me more personally about families, heritage, and how we remember history.
I’m obsessed with this book, for reasons which have their roots during my time at school. Like generations of English GCSE students, we read Jane Eyre, and I was intrigued by the character of Bertha Mason, the violently unstable wife Mr Rochester married in the Caribbean, and keeps locked in his attic. As a black girl, I yearned for more characters who were connected to Africa and the Caribbean, but Bertha was barely developed and the West Indies a haunting yet undeveloped presence in the book. Rhys – who was of Creole Caribbean heritage herself – wrote Wide Sargasso Sea as a prequel, telling the story of Bertha from her own perspective. In the process she raises so many questions about Empire, gender, love and race that this book is a gift that keeps on giving.
If I were to pick one author who changed my life, and inspired me to write, it may well have been Toni Morrison. She was an exceptionally gifted storyteller, who bought stories about her own heritage – as an African-American descended from the experience of slavery – to a global audience. Song of Solomon is a coming of age story about Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead III, a black boy growing up in Michigan, told with typically beautiful prose and a masterful narrative. Morrison was that rare author able to reveal the sins of her nation to the world, while profoundly elevating its canon.
There is now a range of books by black British authors which tell the story of the black presence in Britain, but this was the first one I read, and for decades it was the most comprehensive, authoritative history. Fryer was a young journalist who happened to be at Tilbury Docks when the famous ship The Windrush arrived in 1947, and his fascination with the story of these Caribbean immigrants set him on a lifelong journey to understand the history of people of African heritage in Britain