#Merky Books Champions Under-Represented Voices

When Lemara Lindsay-Prince went to the launch event in London of #Merky Books, a Penguin Random House imprint set up in association with the rapper Stormzy, she noticed something different in the people around her.

Different, at least, to what she might have expected to see at a publishing gathering.

“People seemed like me; they looked like me,” she said at the third event in the Autumn series of UEA Live, the successor to the UEA Literary Festival.

Lindsay-Prince went on to apply for a job with the new imprint and was appointed commissioning editor, a role she has held since late 2019.

Her aim, and that of the imprint, is to champion what she described as under-represented and intersectional voices.

“How do we make it easier for great voices or great talent who may not know the mechanics of the industry?” said Lindsay-Prince, who has both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the UEA.

“We’re looking to make things more transparent and break down the access barriers … I see a lot of other people with imprints. It’s important for us to be the first. To put a stake in the ground and say we’re interested in your story.”

One of the ways #Merky Books is helping to champion new voices is through its New Writers’ Prize, which is aimed at unpublished and under-represented writers from the UK and Ireland aged 16 to 30.

The 2021 winner is Jyoti Patel, who was born in Paris to British Indian parents and raised in London. She too is a UEA graduate, having completed a bachelor’s degree in 2014 before going on, in 2019/20, to study on the university’s renowned MA in creative writing course.

“I finished the master’s in creative writing late last summer, handed in my dissertation. I hadn’t thought of taking it further or applying to agents,” she told the event’s host, KR Moorhead, a UEA lecturer in creative writing.

“The master’s gave me a grounding in putting together a story, it helped me find my voice, but I knew there was a lot more work to do.”

Yet, after submitting her 1,000-word entry for the prize, she was initially long-listed, something that she was “really, really overwhelmed” by, before she went on to win ahead of 2,000 other entrants.

“When you haven’t seen yourself in books you’re reading and don’t have that many authors … from similar backgrounds, having that validation, it means so much,” she said.

Saying that she felt too British to fit in with the London Gujarati community, and too Indian to fit in with her British friends, Patel said the prize represented “the first time someone could read my work and totally understand what I was trying to do with it”.

Winning the prize has turbocharged her career. She is now anticipating the launch next year of her debut novel, Six of One, and has secured additional writing assignments.

“It’s unheard of for someone who’s not even a debut author to have these opportunities,” she said.

The road to becoming a published author was very different for the event’s third guest, Jade LB, who began writing and releasing online chapters of what eventually became her debut novel, Keisha the Sket, back in 2005, when she was just 13.

“I started writing about a teenage girl who was somewhat older than myself and her relationships with friends, particularly boys,” she said.

“I just started writing a story. I had a lot of books as part of my growing up. I went from the Chronicles of Narnia to Jacqueline Wilson, which was a lot more modern, but … all the girls were white.”

Keisha the Sket became, in the words of the UEA Live organisers, “a viral modern classic of Black British culture” and one that was widely shared among Jade LB’s peers at school.

The author had to work to strict deadlines when she rewrote sections of the book ahead of its hardback publication earlier this month.

“I wanted to make it accessible,” she said. “I wanted to depict the truth of the Black British working-class experience. There’s addiction. There are socio-economic problems. I talk about sex, violence, gendered violence.”

Keisha, she said, “has its own life” and is “so much bigger than me”.


– UEA Live continues with Elizabeth Day on October 27, Leonne Ross on November 3, Ed Miliband on November 10 and Malika Booker on November 17.

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