Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has won this year’s Jhalak prize for writers of colour with her novel The First Woman, with Patrice Lawrence winning the award’s inaugural children’s and young adult category for her “unapologetic celebration of teen culture”, Eight Pieces of Silva.
Set up five years ago, the Jhalak is an annual award for a British or British-resident writer of colour, with previous winners including Reni Eddo-Lodge and Johny Pitts. The First Woman, Makumbi’s book of the year winner, follows Kirabo as she comes of age in Uganda in the 1970s and 80s. Lawrence won the children’s award for her YA novel Eight Pieces of Silva, about a gay teenage girl called Becks whose 18-year-old stepsister Silva has disappeared while their parents are on their honeymoon. Both prizes are worth £1,000.
Children’s category judge and author Kiran Millwood Hargrave described Eight Pieces of Silva as “a mystery, a drama and a comedy. It feels like a book that is entirely of the moment, but with qualities that will make it endure. We loved it for its unapologetic celebration of teen culture … It’s the perfect inaugural winner.”
Lawrence, who described herself as “surprised, joyful and downright grateful” to win said: “I wanted to write a traditional mystery book with clues. I also wanted to write a Black, working-class lesbian as a main character, because I think it’s disingenuous to want to write about representation and not think about the different types of representation and the people who are the heroes of books.”
In the book of the year category, The First Woman was up against books including Paul Mendez’s novel Rainbow Milk, Rachel Long’s poetry collection My Darling From the Lions and and Catherine Cho’s memoir Inferno.
Judge Peter Kalu described the Ugandan Makumbi as a “giant of literature”. “The First Woman has magnetic, tender, vindictive, generous oh-so-human characters whose journeys through the novel moved me – this block of stone known as me – to tears,” he said. “Makumbi is a supremely gifted writer and The First Woman an astonishing accomplishment.”
The prizes’ founder and director Sunny Singh said both of the winning books were “towering literary achievements, full of authorly courage, stylistic panache and great heart”.
“Both confront terrible realities, ask painful questions and experiment playfully with form, style and language,” said Singh, who set up the prize in 2016 with the author Nikesh Shukla. “Most of all, they both find strength, compassion and resilience in places and times where these seem entirely impossible.”