Podcasts, Recommendations

Afua Hirsch: ‘Discovering Toni Morrison was a life-changing experience’

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Writer, broadcaster and bestselling author Afua Hirsch joined host Yomi Adegoke for our latest ‘Bookshelfie’ episode of the Women’s Prize Podcast. As well as discussing her five favourite books by women, Afua talks about finding her own role and place within her Ghanaian heritage, her response to the recent UK race report, and why she is so “passionate about children’s literature being genuinely representative and reflective of our stories”.

You can buy her book choices from our Bookshop.org list, and listen to the episode in full here.

Song of Solomon

Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead was born shortly after a neighbourhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at…

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“As a child, it was really difficult to get hold of books about black people and stories about blackness. Discovering Toni Morrison was a completely life changing experience for me, because not only is she a black woman author, but her stories are so profoundly about the black experience. I love authors who really command language and do new things with words. Toni Morrison for me is the high bar.

 

I love magical realism, it resonates for me on a cultural level as well because  our cultures, people of African heritage, come from this background where the past, the present and the future coexist in different realms at the same time, and they’re part of our spiritual legacy.”

Girl, Woman, Other

This is Britain as you’ve never seen it. This is Britain as it has never been told. From Newcastle to…

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“Bernardine is somebody who has always intrigued me because she’s got an incredible longevity, she’s been an author for decades. And yet she never seemed to have the recognition that it seemed really obvious to me; I think it says something about being a black woman in Britain… Bernardine didn’t even have an international agent for her book when she won the Booker. So it was not only not being published in other countries, but it wasn’t even there wasn’t even a system around it for it to be published in other countries, which to me is bizarre. So it was fortuitous Bernardine she wrote what I think is her best book when I happened to be a Booker judge, because it is a masterpiece. I related to it so personally but that’s not why I voted to award it the prize – it was because I thought it was beautifully crafted, so cleverly structured, so seamlessly written and a real book for the ages. I think as black British people, this is a book that we will for generations hand down and feel that our story was told in this beautiful way. So this book always makes me smile.”

Americanah

“A wonderful book from a writer who makes words do extraordinary things. On almost every page there’s a sentence that…

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It was a bit of a toss up, because Half of a Yellow Sun is probably her best book in terms of a literary masterpiece, but Americanah was the one that got to me on such a deep level that when it was finished, I was in mourning.

 

It’s a story that I don’t think I’d read before, about West African characters who become part of that whole migration to Europe and America… the ways in which class and race play out when you move from Africa to the diaspora, and then the experience of going back. It was around the time that I had moved to Ghana for that reason. I wanted to fix the broken link in my heritage and return to the place that my ancestors are from, and I wanted to learn to navigate and be part of and contribute to it.

 

Americanah came out when I a lot of people were beginning a new wave of return that’s still happening now, and documented that moment in time for me in a way that was very personal. So Americanah is definitely one of my books for all time.”

The Warmth of Other Suns

From the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this is one of the great untold stories of American history: the migration…

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“It’s a totally unputdownable book, which is hard to achieve for narrative nonfiction. It’s the story of different individuals who made that migration from the South in America to northern cities, because they wanted to get away from Jim Crow and the legislative racism that characterised the South in that era. But until I read this book, I hadn’t understood how huge a phenomenon The Great Migration was, how it totally changed and shaped the character of America, when you go to America or when you go to New York, or you go to Chicago, you encountered the kind of black inner city, the black urban population, all these words we’re used to hearing about street culture and urban culture and the the music and the films that we’ve all consumed.

 

Isabel Wilkinson is a genius at telling true stories, the level of detail and the amount of insight she gets into people’s lives is just unlike anything else. So I really, really recommend The Warmth of Other Suns and I always praise it whenever I get the chance.”

Wide Sargasso Sea

‘There is no looking glass here and I don’t know what I am like now… Now they have taken everything…

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“I don’t think there is a single word in that book that is not perfection. It is so beautifully crafted, every sentence is just a work of art. Jean Rhys took about 30 years to write it because she wanted it to be perfect… it took her nearly a decade to finish the last 10 pages. That’s how much of a perfectionist she was.

 

It’s actually a really complicated story about the legacy of slavery, about how people are racialised, about love, about how women are treated. And Jean Rhys was herself a white person from the Caribbean who felt really out of place in Britain, because she felt very Caribbean but she was othered by white people because of her proximity to blackness. But she, in the Caribbean, was a white person who had the baggage of being descended from people who’d owned slaves. So she occupied that precarious place in her own identity. I suppose I’ve become more compassionate over the years and more intellectually curious about people like her. And I’m more appreciative of stories that don’t get told, and that for me, it was a story that I really hadn’t been familiar with.”

Yomi and Afua also discussed Afua’s Sunday Times bestseller Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, and her children’s book Equal to Everything: Judge Brenda and the Supreme Court which you can buy from Bookshop.org.

Remember to rate, review, and subscribe to the Women’s Prize Podcast in time for our three special 2021 Shortlist Book Club episodes, starting on Thursday 20 May with Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Otegha Uwagba and Raven Smith discussing shortlisted books The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, on the theme ‘SOCIETY’.

The Women's Prize Podcast


Tune into host Zawe Ashton and a host of inspiring guests on our weekly podcast full of book recommendations.