Turning a new page: the rise of #Merky Books

Malorie Blackman sold her life story to them, other hot authors are lining up. What makes Stormzy’s imprint so different?

In a glass-walled meeting room on the fifth floor of Penguin Random House headquarters in Pimlico, Theophina Gabriel is talking about her love of reading while laughing at her trigger-happy printing: “The last thing that came in I found so magical, it was 329 pages and I printed it all… Don’t worry I checked if I was allowed to first!” She’s part of a team that makes up one of the year’s most exciting literary imprints, #Merky Books. Today, the team is gathered around, drinking coffee and chatting about their pop-up event in east London the week before, which invited a community of young writers to dance and seek writing advice from the likes of playwright Inua Ellams and musician Wretch 32.

The team are all characters worth reading about themselves. Twenty-two-year-old editorial assistant Gabriel, who routinely dresses all in purple (today she has a crop of lilac hair, violet glasses and a purple jumper), currently on an internship programme, was the first in her British Grenadan family to go to university, and publishes a radical zine, Onyx, which celebrates black creatives. Emma Wallace, 30, the senior audience and brand manager, is British Sri Lankan and English, and previously worked at start-ups and the BBC doing social media. The softly spoken founder and editorial director Tom Avery, 36, brings 13 years of publishing experience. And there’s 31-year-old commissioning editor Lemara Lindsay-Prince, who made her name as a writer, curator and founder of the acclaimed fanzine Plantain Papers, a homage to the delectable carb, which told stories across the diaspora.

#Merky Books was the unlikely result of a meeting at which Avery invited Stormzy to write a book for Penguin in the summer of 2015. “One of the reasons I first approached Stormzy is that I loved the music and recognised something in that DIY attitude,” says Avery. “Stormzy’s incentive for creating the imprint was that he just felt like, ‘I know all these incredible writers that are just not getting very far.”’

The slang term “merky” (loosely meaning something great) has also been adopted by Stormzy for his record label. If the heritage of the Penguin brand gave #Merky legitimacy in the publishing world, the Stormzy name broke down some of the barriers to access, reimagining the kind of stories that might “get far”. Launching in July 2018, it has gone on to publish three books: That Reminds Me, a fictional narrative told in verse by Derek Owusu about his troubled boyhood; Taking Up Space by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi, which they describe as a “black girl’s manifesto for change”; and Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far charting Stormzy’s career, co-written by Jude Yawson.

The recent signing of Malorie Blackman, the former Children’s Laureate, to publish her autobiography, is a major coup for the imprint. “I have been thinking about writing my memoirs for a while now, but the right moment never presented itself until a meeting with #Merky Books… an imprint that embraces new methods and ideas,” she tells me over email.

The #Merky Books Instagram account has 17.5k followers and no shortage of submissions. Stormzy’s team has been proactive in putting forward promising young writers. The most recent signing is 20-year-old Jeremiah Emmanuel. I meet him in Creams, on Brixton high street, a dessert café filled with the heady scent of Oreo waffles. “I used to come here all the time after school,” grins Emmanuel between icy slurps of his blueberry and strawberry slushie. He explains how Creams and McDonald’s ended up being places to gather after funding cuts hit youth clubs in the area.

Emmanuel’s memoir, Dreaming in a Nightmare, touches on wealth disparity, class and British Nigerian identity through youthful observations. “Once when I was about eight, I stayed on the 345 bus from Brixton to South Kensington,” he says. “By the time you got to Chelsea, you knew the floor looked the same colour as the day it was paved. There was no litter on the ground. There’s a chapter called ‘345’ about that.”

The identity of #Merky Books is still in its formative stages. The team agree that the only prerequisite is that writers are “from under-represented communities”, which includes writers of colour, black writers, queer writers and beyond. It’s telling, then, how the wider publishing industry perceives it.

A quick call around a few publishing houses to get their impressions on the new imprint elicits a range of responses, from “a home for young black men” to “a music imprint”, which gets a laugh in the room when I share it. In reality, the sheer breadth of the #Merky roster quietly makes the point about the thrill of diverse writing without labouring the point which should by now be obvious: that universal stories can come from anywhere. Next year, they’re itching to take on science fiction, historical narratives, crime thrillers and short stories.

I ask Avery whether things such as Michael Gove’s changes to the GCSE curriculum in 2015, which saw To Kill a Mockingbird replaced by books which met a more stringent definition of “English” literature, turned young readers off. “It’s hard to think that it wouldn’t have had an impact,” he says. Lindsay-Prince adds: “My parents are Grenadan and Jamaican and would centre black children’s books in front of me when all I was getting was Biff and Chip. The folklore they put in front of me was the antithesis to the school curriculum.”

A 2018 Publishing Association report on workforce diversity in the industry found that just 11.6% of respondents identified as BAME, a decrease on previous years. I ask Lindsay-Prince if the #Merky team looks different to staff elsewhere in the Penguin building. “100%!” she laughs. “It’s one of the reasons that I thought publishing was impenetrable before I saw this position advertised and thought, ‘Yeah, go on then.’ But I’ve never been in a room where we’re the majority and that feels really important and powerful in terms of cultural reference points.” Gabriel agrees: “Writers are becoming a lot more discerning. They want to be with people who get them.”

Later in the week, I meet another #Merky Books writer Hafsa Zayyan in a café in Holborn just around the corner from the office where she works as a lawyer in dispute resolution. “My double life!” she laughs. She sits down and takes a deep breath – she’s been up since 1am finishing the first draft of the manuscript for her debut novel, which won the first #Merky Books new writers’ prize (alongside co-winner Monika Radojevic). We Are All Birds of Uganda was written in snatched moments, on weekends and after work, into the dead of the night. It will be published next July and focuses on South Asians in Africa – her father is Nigerian and her mother Pakistani. “It’s specifically about Uganda because there’s quite an interesting story there,” she explains. “The second half of the story is set in the modern day and it’s about Sameer, whose family are Ugandan South Asians from the Gujarat province who ended up in Leicester after the expulsion. He’s living in the UK just trying to understand how he fits in and why his history is important.” The writing is poetic, recalling the cadence of Qawwali devotional songs, which may have been influenced by her years of reading the Qur’an in Arabic.

Birds of Uganda is perhaps a useful illustration of the direction in which the imprint could go next. For now, they are focusing on crucial points of business: curating an in-house playlist for the team to share in the office and focusing on projects they hope will define the stories of a new decade. Right now, what the books all have in common is that they are inherently political, exploring everything from taking up space to celebrating social housing, and gearing up for a new decade in flux. “There’s lots of reasons people want to get lost in other worlds,” says Lindsay-Prince, leaning back on her chair. “We’re giving new readers somewhere to escape to.”


Kieran Yates

The GuardianTramp

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