Far Flung Citizens of the World to Young Literary Stars

By Leonard Doyle

WHEN the London-based literary magazine Granta named 20 "Best of Young British Novelists" this week, it caused a sharp intake of breath among the chatterati, as the columnists, talk show hosts and self-appointed pundits are known.

A majority of the young writers selected are either the children of immigrants, or were born outside Britain. Many hail and from far-flung parts of the world that in one way or another once fell under the sway of the British empire, including Pakistan, Jamaica, Nigeria and Australia.

The theme of migration doesn’t end there. Most of the book excerpts about to be published in the Granta magazine’s spring edition are situated far from Britain’s drizzly shores. The main character of Nadifa Mohamed’s "Filsan," is a female Somali Army officer and the protagonist of Benjamin Markovits’s "You Don’t Have to Live Like This," is a Cajun from Louisiana’s bayou country working his way through Ivy league Yale.

The list includes Xiaolu Guo, who grew up in a small fishing village in southern China with no access to books. She writes in Chinese and English. Mohamed was born in Somalia in 1981 and moved to London five years later.

"It happens that the big storytellers of this generation are people with a very complicated sense of home," said Granta’s editor, John Freeman.  

The experience of migration and dislocation can be traumatic, whether those concerned are economic immigrants or refugees. Whether it’s the unhappy circumstances they left behind in their home countries or the sense of cultural upheaval, the experience seems to be generating more good literature than ever before.

The Granta lists of writers are closely pored over and those who show up on them typically go on to earn fame and fortune for their efforts. And a majority of those picked are also women — 12, in fact, compared with 8 in 2003.

There are some real literary discoveries there too. Sunjeev Sahota had never read a novel until he was 18 – until he bought Salman Rushdie’s "Midnight's Children" at Heathrow Airport while on his way to visit relatives in India. He studied mathematics and works in marketing and finance and is completely outside the literary world. His first novel, "Ours are the Streets", was published in 2011 and explores the journey to radicalisation of a young British Muslim.

Throughout 2013, the British Council and Granta are presenting an international showcase of these contemporary  novelists.

The international events series will commence on 16 April and will take place in more than ten countries including Brazil, Canada, Kenya, Russia, Qatar, India and the United States. Books from each of the Best of Young British Novelists lists of 1983, 1993, 2003 and 2013 will be presented around the world.

For the next seven days, stories from five of the writers can he heard on the BBC’s Book at Bedtime program.

Leonard Doyle is the head of Online Communications for IOM