Diversity is an easy catchword. It might only be a way of seeing and talking about what the status quo allows, but real diversity includes a way of hearing. Who will you listen to? Who has the voice? Being in, writing from, and hearing London requires taking on the multitudes — because London houses them all.
Voices penetrate the brick, glass, and traffic congestion. The choir of London is neither sober nor quiet. Voice distinguishes a novel, and from Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith, voice has been a way for novelists to interrogate the seemingly infinite possibilities of London characters.
Here are five novels written with the multitudes in their sights and sounds. Some might call it writing with diversity in mind, but I like to see it as telling it like it is, of participating in the rich life of London.
Zadie Smith, White Teeth — Cricklewood
Undeniably alive, funny, brilliantly irreverent, this novel set the standard for new voices in London literature, and new ways of accepting who we all are, together and alone; our backgrounds clashing, or futures converging.
Andrea Levy, Small Island — Earl’s Court
A polyphony of voices, a weaving of time and characters, a depiction of London that breaks the mould and forces us to look again at what we believed we knew about post-war Blighty: Levy’s novel re-presents London history and makes way for other writers to do the same.
Luke Sutherland, Venus as a Boy — Soho
Sutherland’s character is a small island boy from Orkney whose life becomes destroyed by his own magical gift for sex — providing his partners with a kind of supernatural transcendence. With swagger and jazz in its sentences, the novel gives us a London through the eyes of a compassionate outsider, and it ultimately challenges the laws governing culture, beauty, and even physics, as the main character slowly turns to gold.
Bernardine Evaristo, Mr. Loverman — Hackney
A long married couple: a man in his 70s who has hidden his true sexuality for the entire 50 years of marriage; his wife who bears life thanks to her devotion to God — Evaristo’s characters sing with the struggle to be true to themselves. It’s a duet of shame and pain, in fragments, in humour, and in tender exploration of what lies beneath the surface of Londoners we think we know.
Olumide Popoola, this is not about sadness — Finsbury Park
This is a small book with a big voice, its spoken-word fluidity interweaving the lives of a young woman from Soweto and an old woman from Jamaica. They listen to each other; they reach across age and culture to speak about love and sexuality. The poetry of Popoola’s writing is respite for lonely Londoners.
Tessa McWatt was born in Guyana, grew up in Canada, and has been living and working in London for two decades. She is the author of five earlier novels and her book Higher Ed, set in east London and Willesden Green, gives voice to Londoners rarely featured in fiction: from EU migrants to students and public sector workers.