When Hafsa Zayyan met Stormzy she was awestruck. “I mean, I was fangirling a bit,” she says with a laugh, trying to play it cool. Their paths crossed in 2019 after Zayyan became one of the first winners of the rapper’s #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize, which gives under-represented authors the chance to be published. Now the 29-year-old is celebrating the recent release of her debut novel We Are All Birds of Uganda. Straddling two narratives, present day London and 1960s Uganda, it tackles the subjects of migration, colourism and race. Drawing on her experience of being dual-heritage and a full-time lawyer, Zayyan “wanted to write about the Black, South Asian and white communities interacting together. I think there is a sense of responsibility. If we don’t write these stories, nobody else is going to.”
Here, we asked Zayyan to recommend five of her most cherished books, ones that shaped the writer she’s become today.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
I loved the concept, how clever the writing is, the references to Shakespeare. This one stayed with me a long time after I finished reading it. Its central premise – a totalitarian society where there is no concept of familial relationships and everyone is therefore happy without having the burden of forming emotional attachments – seems like it has relevance no matter the time.
Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto
A pivotal translation
This is a beautiful translation of a Japanese novella largely dealing with the theme of grief. I fell in love with each of the characters, and the book packs a big emotional punch, despite its slim size. The kitchen (and food!) motif works really well to convey the sense of loss of home and security when the protagonist loses those she loves.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
The book that changed the way I view writing
This was the first Morrison I ever read, and I haven’t been able to find another writer since who I think compares. Her stories are compelling, her way of writing is just beautiful, and there’s a fluidity to the narration that I just gel with. I connect with Morrison’s writing on a whole other level. Beloved is a vital story about motherhood.
Noughts & Crosses, Malorie Blackman
The book that I grew up with
Much like Harry Potter (which I also adore) I grew up as Callum and Sephy grew up. I’d read pretty much all of Malorie Blackman’s books by the time Noughts and Crosses came out and it was different. The first book I read by Blackman that was very much about race (her other books, while featuring Black protagonists, did not focus on the issue of race, they were just normal children’s books which happened to have diverse characters). Of course Noughts and Crosses was not any ordinary story about race, but a subversive one, which was pretty thrilling.
I Am Not Your Baby Mother, Candice Brathwaite
A recent read I loved
There is a rawness to Brathwaite’s writing. She is unflinchingly honest, at times cringe-worthy and also just downright hilarious. I really enjoyed this memoir about Black motherhood and would recommend it to anyone, regardless of whether they are or intend to be a mother. She addresses issues which we, as a society, should all be aware of.