Sabba Khan’s “striking” and “impeccable” debut, The Roles We Play, has won the Jhalak prize for best book by a writer of colour, becoming the first graphic novel to win the award. The children’s and young adult prize, meanwhile, was awarded to Maisie Chan for her “warm and funny” children’s novel Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, illustrated by Anh Cao.
In The Roles We Play, Khan, a second-generation Azad Kashmiri, explores what identity, belonging and memory mean for her and for her family, who were among the people displaced from Mirpur in Azad Kashmir when it was submerged by the waters of a dam built after partition. Approximately 70% of Pakistanis in Britain can trace their roots back to Mirpur.
Khan said the book was her contribution to creating a “cultural literary voice” for the community, which was so often portrayed negatively and associated with issues such as domestic violence and low employment rates. “I wanted the book to be about love and honouring [the community] while acknowledging the difficulties,” she said.
Judge Mary Jean Chan said she read and reread the book, and found it to be “a powerful, moving and thought-provoking story which shimmers with hard-earned wisdom and wonder, one that is beautifully written and vividly drawn”.
Fellow judge Chimene Suleyman said The Roles We Play showcased Khan as “an impeccable storyteller who commands the page in every way”, while judge Stephen Thompson called the book “unexpected and moving” and added: “There is a timeless quality to the story as it moves between time and place. This is a sumptuous book, and the images are absolutely stupendous.”
Khan is a designer and architect, and co-director of Khan Bonshek, an architectural practice she set up with her partner in Stratford, London. The Roles We Play was shortlisted for the Myriad first graphic novel award, and was also named one of the best graphic novels of 2021 by the Guardian.
Khan said that having the prize consider “the book as a piece of literature has blown my mind”, given that graphic novels were so often not included in general book prizes. “Hopefully [my win] will really open people up to the medium and open them up to the fact that there are so many ways of storytelling,” Khan added.
Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths is about an 11-year-old who loves drawing more than anything. His life is turned upside down when he is surprised by a visit from his former-maths-champion grandmother from China, who doesn’t speak any English.
Judge Patrice Lawrence, who won the inaugural children’s prize in 2021 for Eight Pieces of Silva, said she loved the book for the “warm-heartedness, humour and nuanced way it approaches the challenges of being a child negotiating multiple identities”. Nii Ayikwei Parkes called the book “subversive without ever losing its sense of unbridled fun”, and fellow judge Sufiya Ahmed said it was “warm and funny”, and a “great class read for schoolchildren everywhere”.
Chan’s book has also been shortlisted for the Blue Peter awards.
The Jhalak prize was first awarded in 2017, and was co-founded by authors Nikesh Shukla and Sunny Singh. Singh, who serves as director of the prize, said: “This year, the judges have picked two pioneering books that are courageous, full of heart and break new ground for publishing today and open pathways to writers and creatives of colour who shall follow. These are two books for the new literary canon.”
Both winning books are published by independent presses: The Roles We Play by Myriad Editions and Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths by Piccadilly Press.
The 2021 adult prize was won by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi for The First Woman.