Image Credit: Orion Publishing , 2019
‘Black Lives Matter Book Club’ is a weekly series, designed to complement the amazing work of the UoY Black Lives Matter Book Club. The project was created and is run by UoY Amnesty International Society, Literature Society and Feminist Society. The focus of the project is on education and re-education. Each week, a member of the Book Club will be writing a review of that week’s content, allowing further analysis for anyone to engage with and to hopefully further promote the material and the book club too. Those wanting to join the book club can do so by following along on social media: @uoyblmbookclub on Instagram and Facebook.
The Sunday Times bestseller and recent winner of the British Book Awards Book of the Year 2020, Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams was LitSoc’s choice for the third week of the BLM Book Club.
It was a bittersweet moment when Carty-Williams became the first Black author to win Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. It highlights a massive disparity in the publishing world. Though the novel is deserving of the accolade in every way, Carty-Williams published on Twitter:
“BOOK OF THE YEAR 2020. And the FIRST Black AUTHOR to win it let alone Black WOMAN since the prize BEGAN in 1994? Sorry for all the caps but what are you telling meee.”
This was followed by a tweet posted by Girl, Woman, Other author, Bernadine Evaristo who was awarded Author of the Year at the same event:
“Bittersweet history making. Still, the commercial & critical argument has been won. Let’s work towards a future where we no longer have these conversations because EVERYONE is included in the narrative: Asian, Black, disabled, LGBTQ+, white, working class.”
Both authors raise the achingly prominent need to uproot unconscious bias and white supremacy in the publishing industry. Here, steps can be taken to dismantle the system when we amplify the voices from marginalised communities.
Carty-Williams records a particularly tumultuous period of Queenie’s life. Spanning roughly a year, we watch Queenie emerge from an emotionally abusive relationship and try to find her feet while holding down a job that gas-lights and mutes her personal experiences. Along the way we encounter a range of imperfect characters. Among them are her friends, family and the men she engages with in order to grapple with the void she feels her previous relationship has left her in.
In the Book Club, we discussed the comparisons that have been made between Queenie and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. There is a habit of labelling and boxing-in literature in the industry, and this comparison perfectly exemplifies it. Comparing Queenie to Bridget is both naive and reductive. Yes, the plots between the two books share similarities. They both follow young female journalists, navigating the turbulent journey of adulthood and romantic relationships. Both are excellent novels in their own right. However, Queenie goes far beyond these parameters as Carty-Williams shares with us the experiences of living as a young, black woman in modern London, exposing deep rooted, systematic racism.
As a new journalist, Queenie is under pressure from her boss to deliver in the workplace, but her progression and passion is ultimately stifled by her superiors’ refusal to allow her to write about topics concerning Black Lives Matter. After requesting to write an article on the MeToo movement, Queenie is told it is not current enough and to perhaps write about little black dresses worn by MeToo supporters instead, illustrating a systematic flaw in the nature of journalism as she often finds herself in meetings surrounded by white men. Following Queenie’s journey of internal reflection, Carty-Williams exposes how Black women are perceived and treated by others - in particular, by white men, as Queenie engages in a number of relationships with white men who fetishise her body through explicit sexual messages on dating apps, during sexual encounters and insidiously through everyday discourse.
The portrayal of mental health is striking throughout. We see Queenie’s mental health rapidly deteriorate at the expense of the stability in her life, leaving her to fall onto the people around her for better or for worse. As the novel is written entirely through Queenie’s perspective we ride the rollercoaster of her mental health alongside her while still maintaining a voyeuristic position of ever-developing empathy, willing Queenie to succeed and get her life back on track. We encounter the stigmatisation of therapy and the trouble with asking for help, we see Queenie struggle to get to grips with what exactly is going on in her mind. Most importantly we see how valuable it can be when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open to healing.
What makes Carty-William’s novel so perfect is that Queenie is not a heroine; she is a raw, real and imperfect woman. It is also important to note that beneath the harrowing moments, and the important condemnations of society, Queenie is littered with humour and funny moments. Queenie’s wit and the narrative interjections of her friends in their group chat are a perfect example of modern day friendships and communication. Insightful, heartbreaking, and bold. Queenie is incredible and a must read. You can access an abridged, audiobook version of the novel here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p075drzy