Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists - who are they?

Penguin-style biographies for the twenty listed writers with essays, reviews and free fiction.

Last night Granta launched their "Best of Young British Novelists": volume 4. Having convinced anyone who reads the Sunday papers of the soon-to-be canonicity of their selection, I raced home from work to listen in on the announcement. I had heard of about four of them.

This is no bad thing. I set about discovering who they were, where they’d published, what they wrote. Below are my findings. In the interest of fairness, I decided to write them up in the style of a Penguin first-page biography - those oh so romantic and satisfying glosses that make writers’ lives sound so simple, and thrilling, and better than our own.

Where applicable, you can click the novelists’ names to read essays, review, fiction and columns published in the New Statesman.

Sunjeev Sahota

Sunjeev Sahota was born in Derby in 1981 and raised in Chesterfield. He studied mathematics at Imperial College London and was prompted to begin writing his debut novel, Ours are the Streets (2011), after the 7/7 London bombings. He lives with his wife and daughter in Leeds, where he is working on his second novel The Years of the Runaways.

Steven Hall

Steven Hall was born in Derbyshire, England, in 1975. He studied fine arts at Sheffield Hallam University and currently lives in Hull. His debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts, was published in 2007 and won the Somerset Maugham Award in 2008. Joyce Carol Oats referred to the Texts as “Heartfelt, lyrical ... Rendered with the precise attentiveness to psychological states of mind worthy of a hyperventilating James Joyce.” He is currently at work on his second novel, “an infinite text about the death of print and linear narrative”, titled The End of Endings.

Taiye Selasi

Taiye Selasi was born in London in 1979 and raised in Boston. She studied at Yale and Oxford Universities, and has since lived in Delhi and Rome. In 2005, LiP Magazine published her seminal essay, “Bye-Bye, Barbar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?), which was widely circulated and popularised the concept of Afropolitanism. Her debut novel, Ghana Must Go, was published in March 2013.

Ross Raisin

Ross Raisin was born in West Yorkshire in 1979. After graduating with a degree in English from King’s College London, he worked for a time as the manager of a wine bar, before studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmith’s University. His debut novel, God’s Own Country (2008), won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for both the Guardian First Book Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His second, Waterline, was published in 2011.

Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi was born in London in 1984. He parents are Nigerian. She wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl (2005), while studying for her A Levels. Her second novel, The Opposite House, was published by Bloomsbury in 2007, while her third, White is for Witching, was awarded a Somerset Maugham Award in 2010. Her fourth and most recent novel, Mr Fox, was published by Picador in 2011. She has lived in London, Paris, New York and most recently Berlin. She also writes plays.

Click here to read a free short story by Oyeyemi: "i live with him, i see his face, i go no more away".

Xiaolu Guo

Xiaolu Guo was born in south-east China in 1973. She studied film at the Beijing Film Academy and published regularly before moving to London in 2002. Her first books were published in China. Her first novel translated into English, Village of Stone (2003), was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, while her first to be written in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007), was shortlisted for the Orange (now Women’s) Prize for Fiction. Known equally as a director and producer, her most recent film is UFO in Her Eyes (2011).

Click here to read a free short story by Guo: "No Romance".

Nadifa Mohamed

Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa, Somalia, in 1981, and moved to London in 1986. She studied history and politics at Oxford University and is the author of al account of her father Black Mamba Boy (2009), a semi-autobiographic’s life in Yemen in the 1930s and 40s. The book was shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Guardian First Book Award, Dylan Thomas Prize and John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. She is working on her second novel.

Benjamin Markovits

Benjamin Markovits was born in California in 1973. He was raised in Texas, London and Berlin, and published his first novel The Syme Papers (2004) after a brief period as a professional basketball player in Germany. He has since published five further novels, the most recent of which, Childish Loves (2011), was the third in a trilogy about the life of Lord Byron. He has worked as a high school English teacher in New York and as an editor at the New Left Review in London. He currently teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Click here to read Markovits's NS sports column.

Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna was born in 1973 and raised in Suffolk and the Midlands. She has lived in the USA, France, Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic States, an experience which inspired her first non-fiction work, The Ice Museum (2005). She has published three novels, Inglorious (2007), The Birth of Love (2010) and Come to the Edge (2012), and has written for The New Yorker, London Review of Books and New York Times, among others. She was recently Writer-in-Residence at St Peter’s College, Oxford.

Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall was born in Carlisle in 1974. She studied English and art history at Aberystwyth University and creative writing at the University of St Andrews. She is the author of four novels: Haweswater (2002), The Electric Michelangelo (2004), The Carhullan Army (2007) and How to Paint a Dead Man (2009), and one short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference (2011), which was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize. She lives in Norwich.

Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan was born in 1977 in Livingstone, Scotland. She studied creative writing at Greenwich University and won a scholarship to Royal Holloway, University of London. After two collections of poetry – Urchin Belle (2009) and The Dead Queen of Bohemia (2010) – she published her debut novel, The Panopticon, in 2012. The book was selected for the Waterstones 11 most promising fiction debuts of the year. She lives in Portobello, Edinburgh, where she is working on a collection of short stories and a new book of poems.

Ned Beauman

Ned Beauman was born in London in 1985. He studied philosophy at Cambridge University. He is the author of Boxer, Beetle (2010) and The Teleportation Accident (2012) and has been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and Man Booker Prize. He writes regular criticism for The Guardian, FT, Dazed & Confused and others. He lives in New York.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is a novelist, essayist and critic born in London in 1975. She studied English at Cambridge University and is the author of the novels White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005) and NW (2012), as well as the essay collection Changing My Mind (2009). She lives in New York where she teaches as part of the creative writing programme at New York University. She was selected as a Granta Best Young British Novelist in 2003.

Click here to listen to Zadie Smith in conversation with NS culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire.

Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie was born in 1973 in Karachi, Pakistan. She graduated with a BA in creative writing from Hamilton College, New York, and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of five novels, the most recent of which, Burnt City (2009), was shortlisted for the Orange (now Women’s) Prize for Fiction and has been translated into more than 20 languages. She is a trustee of English PEN and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She lives in London.

David Szalay

David Szalay was born in Montreal in 1974 and raised in London. He studied at Oxford University and is the author of three novels: London and the South-East (2008), The Innocent (2009) and Spring (2011). He has won a Betty Trask Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. He was also named as one of the Telegraph’s “Top 20 British Writers Under 40”.

Naomi Alderman

Naomi Alderman was born in London in 1974. She studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University and creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of Disobedience (2006), The Lessons (2010) and The Liars’ Gospel (2012). She writes regularly on technology for the Guardian and was Lead Writer on the video games Perplex City (2007) and Zombies, Run! (2012). She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.

Tahmima Anam

Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1975. She was raised in Paris, Bangkok and New York, due to her father’s work with the United Nations. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1997 and earned a PhD in Anthropology from Harvard University in 2004. Her first novel, A Golden Age (2007), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was translated into 22 languages, while her second, The Good Muslim (2011) was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize.

Adam Thirlwell

Adam Thirlwell was born in London in 1978. He was educated at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School and Oxford University, where he studied English. He is the author of Politics (2003), The Escape (2009) and Kapow! (2012), an experimental text with unfolding pages published by Visual Editions. He has twice been selected for Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists and has also been the recipient of a Somerset Maugham and Betty Trask Award. He lives in London.

Click here to read Adam Thirlwell on central European literature.

Evie Wyld

Evie Wyld was born in 1980 and raised in London and New South Wales. She studied creative writing at Bath Spa University and Goldsmiths, University of London. She is the author of After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (2009) and All the Birds, Singing (2013), and works at an independent book shop in Peckham, south-east London and lives locally.

Adam Foulds

Adam Foulds was born in London in 1974. He graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English and studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia in 2001. He is the author of two novels, The Truth About These Strange Times (2007) and The Quickening Maze (2009), as well as the book-length narrative poem The Broken Word (2008). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in London.

Click here to read a free short story: "A Kindness".

Elsewhere in prize news, Adam Johnson has won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son (2012). The shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction has also been announced.

The new Granta young persons outside the British Council. Photo: Granta.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
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Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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