Hey, readers! We know you like to be on the fringes of culture, sticking your eyeballs into all things great: the high and low, the innovative and the tastemaking. Well, we’re here to present a pick of the fresh, original, and ambitious writing from stars of tomorrow’s literary scenes. From memoir to poetry, political borders to soppy love stories, these are the debuts creating a buzz in 2021.
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We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan
For fans of personal history…
Hafsa Zayyan, the inaugural #Merky Books New Writers’ prize winner, wrote her debut in just six months while working as a lawyer, making this ambitious and polished novel even more impressive. Drawing from personal experience, the plot follows the journey of a successful London lawyer who is called back to his family home. While there, he learns how the South Asian expulsion from Uganda in the early 1970s affected his family. Zayyan educates readers on this history remarkably, while showcasing her abilities to write on generational divides, racial tension and belonging.
Lightseekers by Femi Kayode
For fans of contemporary crime…
Lightseekers is the start of a chilling crime-thriller series with investigative psychologist Dr Philip Taiwo as the main character. In this book, which has already won the Little, Brown award for Crime Fiction, three young students are brutally murdered in a Nigerian university town. Both the event and the attackers are caught on social media, so the world knows who murdered them, but not why. Kayode has described the book as an “exorcism” of his complex relationship with Nigeria, its youth and technology, its government and violence. The handling of these themes is masterful, especially for a debut.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
For fans of love stories…
Open Water is a first-rate love story that hasn’t been written before. Following the blossoming romance of two Black British creatives (with a lot in common), it is an essential and beautiful portrayal of race and masculinity intersecting with romance and security. Open Water looks at the vulnerabilities felt by a Black man battling with traditional masculine values, finding safety in love, and coping with losing it. The British-Ghanian’s debut novel was won by publishing house Viking in a nine-way auction and Nelson has since been titled by poet and writer Benjamin Zephaniah as “the future”.
Nightshift by Kiare Ladner
For fans of personal discovery…
Meggie is 23-years old, lost, and wants to break free from her normal routine. Then she meets Sabine, who works within the transient and uncertain world of night-shift work. Meggie decides to do the same, but lands in an ambivalent spiral of drink, sleep deprivation and obsession. Ladner’s gritty debut looks at the fringes of human functionality and underworld London, ultimately asking if we can escape ourselves by becoming someone else.
Little Gods by Meng Jin
For fans of migration stories…
Little Gods is a story of migration. The protagonist, Liya, is born in Beijing on the night of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Traveling from America to China with her mother’s ashes, she uncovers the parts of her mother’s story that were all but erased – including that of her father, who she has never met. Meng Jin’s complex and ambitious debut presents a story of life and legacy, of the known and unknown within a personal history.
Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan
For fans of relationships…
Writer and journalist Megan Nolan’s upcoming novel has been featured on a lot of lists this year, and with good reason. This debut promises to investigate relationships through a fresh perspective, taking us on a journey through the toxicity often found within romance, but never written about. Nolan’s ability to illustrate the rawest thoughts, neurosis and murky emotions is unrivalled. It’s a read that will get inside your core.
Dryland by Sara Jaffe
For fans of teen exploration…
Dryland is the Beth Ditto-approved, anti-coming-of-age, anti-coming out novel set in the early 1990s. Sara Jaffe’s first novel is an allegorical yet relatable characterisation of a teen exploring queer identity. The plot centres around protagonist Julie and the search for her lost older brother who was once a swimmer. An enthralling tale backed up by brilliant, candid and microscopically close writing, this debut has all the makings of a cult classic.
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Border Nation by Leah Cowan
For fans of peace…
“Borders are indisputably sites of violence,” states Leah Cowan in the opening sentence of her revolutionary debut. The former gal-dem Politics Editor interrogates Britain’s imperial history and with incredible precision, shining a new light on just how detrimental the political divide and violence caused by borders is. From the grim colonial and patriarchal origins of border policy, to the damaged view of migrants that exists today, this seminal text forms the grounding for a deep and vital understanding on how an abolition of Britain’s brutal border regime is needed to repair the harm caused by colonial legacies.
Gargoyles by Harriet Mercer
For fans of overcoming darkness…
Six weeks after her 40th birthday, author Harriet Mercer was struck by a rare illness. What followed was a long, painful stay at Charing Cross Hospital. There, whenever Harriet tried to sleep, the backs of her eyes came alive with soul-sucking gargoyles; she remained awake for the entire six weeks. This nonfiction narrative blends essays and memoirs, exploring this painful, unimaginable time. It’s a strange and unique dive into illness, memory, life and fear. Both haunting and empowering, it’s unlike any other book you’ve read.
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Comic Timing by Holly Pester
For fans of everyday life…
Holly Pester’s poems are personal. They’re life, but real life – the sort with landlords and medical emergencies. As the title suggests, these topics are expertly pulled together through a humour that sings across the pages but also, crucially, conveys life’s experiences succinctly and richly. The poems are rambles and ruminations, full of personality and plotline. It’s an extraordinary debut taking the mundane along with the checkpoints of life and turning them into moments that you’ll read for guidance and reflection again and again.