The first novel to be published by Stormzy’s #Merky Books has scooped a prestigious £10,000 book award.
Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me follows the life of a boy called K from foster care to his birth family in Tottenham.
It has won the Desmond Elliott Prize, which is given to the year’s best debut novel in the UK and Ireland.
Author Preti Taneja, who chaired the judges, said they were “as shattered by the truths of the story as we were moved by the talent of its writer”.
Stormzy launched #Merky Books in 2018 to showcase writers “from all different walks of life, especially those who may have never had the opportunity to get into the industry so early”.
Owusu, 32, did have a foothold in the industry, working part-time for #Merky’s parent company Penguin Random House, and came to the attention of Stormzy’s manager after editing a collection of essays titled Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space.
That Reminds Me is his first work of fiction and is described as a novel in verse. The overarching story of K’s life mirrors the author’s own, from being in foster care in Suffolk to moving in with his biological family in north London before being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
He told BBC News why he created K as “almost an alter ego”, how the publishing industry can improve on diversity, what Stormzy thinks of his book – and how he’s also got the backing of Idris Elba.
How did K come to you?
I had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and had a string of suicide attempts so I was put into a place called a recovery house – like a mental health facility.
I was writing verses just to pass the time and eventually there was a narrative structure to them, and that’s when I created K, as almost an alter ego of myself, to try to understand what had led to me being diagnosed and having this breakdown. So I put K through a series of life events that I thought would lead to somebody having a breakdown.
How autobiographical is it?
About 20%. The majority of the life events that happen to K didn’t happen to me. The similarities are that he’s Ghanaian, he was in foster care, and obviously the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. But the details of his life are not details that are mine.
Did writing the book help you understand yourself?
I think it helped me understand other people and how I was relating to them, because I had to really put myself into the shoes of K when he’s interacting with other fictionalised characters, and then think, how would that person react to this?
It made me get a better understanding of the way I interact with other people, especially when I’m presenting symptoms. I’m more aware now of how it could impact on another person.
Do you know what Stormzy thinks of the book?
Yeah, he came to the launch and said he likes the book. He’s a very, very nice guy. He was just like, ‘I think you’re an amazing writer and I’m very happy to publish the book.’
What did it mean to be shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize?
I’ve been an avid reader for so long and always follow prizes. When the email came through that I’d been longlisted, I was really blown away. I didn’t write this to get published, I wrote it for myself.
And an award like the Desmond Elliott, they’re really trying to give debut novelists a platform to continue writing. The National Centre for Writing [which runs the award] is about giving writers platforms and opportunities. What they stand for is really important and something I’m really passionate about as well – getting more young boys reading and showing them they can write a book if they put their mind to it.
You recently signed a letter as a member of the new Black Writers’ Guild calling for change in the publishing industry – what does the industry need to improve in terms of race?
Where to begin? You can’t make promises about publishing more books by black authors if you don’t have any black commissioners.
Unconscious bias plays a part in everybody’s life. You read a novel, you understand the themes, they’re familiar to you, the person looks like you or is the same background – you’re more likely to like that than a book where the cultural references go completely over your head. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, though.
A lot of commissioning editors don’t recognise their own unconscious bias. Actually it starts with agents and the books that they’re getting in. There needs to be more people from more diverse backgrounds picking up these books, commissioning these books, and then editing these books.
Your next book is based on your attempts to encourage your younger brother to read novels – how did that come about?
I discovered literature so late in life – I was 24 – and as clichéd as it sounds it changed my life. After discovering it, I felt like I should be trying to get other people to read and experience this thing that happened to me.
I realised I was talking to so many people about books but I wasn’t talking to my brother. So I turned my attention to him and said, ‘I really think you’ll benefit from this’. I didn’t like where his life was at that time, and I thought reading a book would change that.
He has said to me he wants one book to change his life. I said, ‘You have to read many books and usually it’s an accumulated effect’. So I chose 12 books that I think will help you. He was umming and aahing, so I said, ‘I’ll give you £50 per book’, and he was, ‘All right’.
Is it right that Idris’s production company has bought the rights to that?
They’ve optioned it, yeah, and I think they are hoping to turn it into a TV series. That would be very exciting.