Kei Miller selects the UK’s 10 best emerging writers

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

The brief from National Centre for Writing and British Council was a straight-forward one: to select 10 of the most promising, most interesting new talents working in the UK right now. Emerging talents.

I got stuck on that word. Emerging. It was impossible not to ponder its particular resonance in this moment, after the year and a half we lived through – some of us, just barely. Covid-19 was a great wave of horribleness that washed over this country and the world. We haven’t fully emerged from it; many of us are still holding our breaths as if under water, looking up to an elusive surface that we can’t quite break. This is the question that kept niggling at me: what does it mean to emerge in 2021?

Nothing lasts forever, not even pandemics, and even with new variants, that elusive surface seems closer than it has for months. A new age beckons, and the thought of it excites and worries us in equal measure. Will it be the same old, same old? Will we make better choices this time? And who will help us to articulate the kind of world we want to emerge from this?

To that last question, I can think of no better answer than these 10 writers. Reading and rereading their works was undoubtedly the most fulfilling part of my own lockdown experience. They are “emerging talents” in the traditional sense of that phrase; they are only just at the beginnings of what looks like promising careers but already they are winning the big prizes; already, they are writing books that critics have slapped with epithets like “magical” and “essential”.

Still, it is more than that. In 2021, it has to be more. These are not just new and promising talents. More importantly, they are the writers of an emerging world – or, at least, the best that we might imagine that world to be. The list is unapologetically, triumphantly, diverse. These writers are differently raced, differently gendered and differently abled – and what they each can do with a pen is breathtaking.

Helen McClory.
‘Helen McClory’s boldly playful practice is poising itself to open up whole new genres for our new age.’ Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Daisy Lafarge and Steven Lovatt call our attention back to that place that we neglected to our detriment – the environment. Caleb Azumah Nelson shows us what black intellect and love can look like; Rachel Long adds to this the particularities of womanhood and being mixed heritage. Sairish Hussain shows us the absolute ordinariness of a Muslim British family grappling with the shifting shape of our modernity; Gail McConnell and Mícheál McCann are expanding the vistas of queer being, queer love and queer parenthood. Ingrid Persaud writes the contemporary Caribbean with more empathy than I have ever seen on the page. Jarred McGinnis’ darkly comic autofiction allows many of us to imaginatively navigate the world from a wheelchair. And writing out of Scotland, Helen McClory’s boldly playful practice is poising itself to open up whole new genres for our new age.

Please read these writers. Yes, they are among the best of the UK’s emerging writers, but it is more than that. Their books have the potential to buoy up a new and better world.

  • The International Literature Showcase is a partnership between National Centre for Writing and British Council, with the support of Arts Council England. You can book a free place to hear Kei Miller in conversation with some of his selected writers, on Thursday 24 June at 5pm.

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