I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

This book will always occupy a special slot in my bookshelf - and my heart - as it allowed me to fully devour and appreciate the wonderful writings of the phenomenal woman that was/is Maya Angelou. There’s something quite beautiful about the prose and the raw emotion that sings from each page.  As a writer, I read as a writer. But Maya Angelou has the power to take me away from everything but the story and is able to seamlessly transport me to the time of segregation, unjust laws and brutal racism. It also forces me to witness the horrors of child abuse, only to leave me with a confusion which mirrors that of the young narrator.

Lola Jaye

Lola Jaye

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley

At the age of thirteen, this was one of the first autobiographies I had ever read and at a time when all I desired were the latest Michael Jackson and Madonna tapes.  Forced into it by one of my brothers who had shrewdly decided to package it up as a birthday present, I am now ever so grateful for his foresight. This book changed everything for me. It was a rude awakening, a coming of age experience which allowed me to develop a real sense of who I was as a black child growing up in the UK.

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

This book is very important. It highlights the existence of Black People in the United Kingdom long before the much documented time of the fifties. It widens the narrow vision of a British history that black people were very much a part of. Indeed, they fought with the British during the First and Second world wars and during the third century, North African soldiers occupied the British Isles. This book is that much longed for history lesson I never had during my school days. To simply say this is an important piece of work, is an understatement.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I read this book having just arrived in America during the summer of 2014 and at the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement.  America’s long standing issues with race was now highlighted to the world as I attempted to start my life in Atlanta, home of the 50‘s & 60‘s Civil Rights movement. For the very first time, I was not a tourist, but an immigrant just like the main female lead, Ifemelu who arrives from Nigeria to live in the United States. Like her, I was not identifiable as an African American (evident as soon as I opened my mouth) and this became a talking point with almost everyone I met.  Reading this novel felt like perfect timing because it contained so many references that gave me a number of ‘aha moments’. What it meant to be a black person living in America, as well as being ‘the new girl in town’ were all themes that I recognised and could relate to on a personal level.

Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama

This is one book I wish to read slowly and over time.  A book written by someone who was to become the most powerful black man in the world.  Barack Obama’s story is über inspiring and all the more sweeter because it is recent history.  This book and the existence of its writer, tells us that we can be anything we want to be...

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Even though I read this absolute classic more than fifty years after it was first published, it could have been written in the 21st century.  The racism built into the criminal justice system is all too familiar. Yet, seen through the eyes of a white child gave it an extra layer and allowed me to feel the subtlety of Scout’s shattering innocence.  I was truly able to appreciate the risk Harper Lee -a writer from the deep South-  took in choosing to tell this story during the 1960‘s. What a risk. What an outcome.

Small Island by Andrea Levy

I was excited with this book and to learn more about the migration of black people to post war Britain because up until that point, the information was scarce and reduced to grainy footage of families arriving on Empire Windrush back in 1948. But being the child of Nigerian immigrants meant I still lacked the knowledge of my recent history. Perhaps the seeds of my new novel Orphan Sisters were being planted as far back as when I first discovered this work. Perhaps I longed for someone to also tell the story of Nigerian Immigrants...

The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks  by Rebecca Skloot

Ask any scientist and they are very likely to have worked with HeLa cells - an immortalised cell line that has been used in scientific research for decades. However, ask them who the abbreviation HeLA is named after and they’re likely to draw a blank. The name actually belongs to an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks. Her cells were taken without her permission and has led to breakthroughs in Leukemia, Parkinson's disease, Cancer, AIDS, IVF and many more. It can be argued that she is the most important woman in medical history. Yet little was or is known of Henrietta Lacks as a person; her humanness blanked out by a system that deemed her unworthy because of the colour of her skin.

Kindred  by Octavia Butler

This book is able to marry both historical fiction and sci fi quite beautifully, throwing in a satisfying dose of black history into the pot.  A time traveling black woman who is transported back to the era of the transatlantic slave trade is enough of a hook to get anyone interested. But Octavia Butler cleverly manages to explore the danger and complexity of that time in a way that also educates. Reminding us of the burden and horrors of slavery and without apology. It’s also very important to remember that Octavia E. Butler was one of the first published black female sci fi writers. What an achievement!

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga by Pamela Newkirk

Another shameful yet little known story is that of Ota Benga, a young Congolese man and a member of the Mbuti people, who was featured as an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. His entire family and many of his people had already been wiped out thanks to the governing King Leopold II. Ota’s life taking yet another horrific turn when he was bought by white supremacist Samuel Phillips Verner, who then took him to America. It was there that Ota Benga spent his days sat in a cage with an orangutan, as spectators watched and pointed.

This particularly shameful and least known history of African men, women and children placed in cages for amusement, is a recent past that should never, ever be forgotten.

Orphan Sisters by Lola Jaye

Of all the novels I have ever written Orphan Sisters contains the most about black history in the UK.  I was struck by the lack of books that focused on the Black British experience, let alone that of the migration of Nigerians to the UK.  My family made Britain their home during the fifties and it was important for me as a writer to document their story, which is essentially my story.  In some ways this was probably why I wrote Orphan Sisters through the eyes of a child.  Researching my book gave me a surge of pride, knowing that even though my parents, uncles and aunties not only faced daily hostility from the British people along with the cold weather and that yearning for home, they stuck it out. They worked hard, studied even harder and raised families. This book is for them.

Orphan Sisters by Lola Jaye (Ebury Press) is out now.