“In my last creative job I was the only Black person and I knew I could never be the only one in the room again. Inclusivity has to be more than just ticking a box,” says Lemara Lindsay-Prince, commissioning editor at #Merky Books, Stormzy’s imprint for Penguin Random House. “I never knew publishing could look like me, or sound like me, or might like my ideas but from the jump my opinion has been heard at #Merky Books,” she says.
Lemara arrived at #Merky Books with a hunger for more stories that “represent, reflect or hero the lived experience of different communities, and those of my friends, my family and my peers.” Fond of the expression “meeting people where they’re at”, Lemara appears to connect with books and authors in such a visceral way that listening to her talk about her favourites is truly infectious. Part of the Penguin WriteNow programme, Lemara is also writing a short story collection in the Jamaican Patois and is the co-editor of the independent journal Plantain Papers, a literary ode to plantain and the people who eat it.
This month marks the debut of #Merky Books’ new pocket-sized How To guides, which cover everything from activism in How To Change It to branding in How To Build It. All of the books in the series are beautifully designed and priced at £6.99. “I fought for that: I believe there should be no barrier to access,” says Lemara.
We spoke to her about why short stories deserve more praise, the case for a voice note book club and how to decode an industry that’s notoriously opaque.
Were you an avid reader as a child?
I wrote about it in an anthology called Well-Read Black Girl; it was all about the first time you saw yourself in a book and what that meant. For me that book was Masai and I – I mapped my whole small life onto that book and it carried me through to my teenage years. I grew up on an estate called Clem Attlee in west London and there was a little children’s library at the bottom of it which I always went to. I come from a home where reading is really embraced and celebrated. My parents got me reading books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor and Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman. I also loved Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve just finished Luster by Raven Leilani, which is ridiculously amazing. It takes you on a journey of feeling and it’s really direct and unabashed in its conversations around sex and relationships, what desire looks and feels like, as well as how a modern Black woman navigates her life through all of that. Bolu Babalola’s Love in Colour is divine, it’s really soothing me at the moment. I’m not racing through it like I do most books because I’m enjoying savouring it. I’m revisiting a book called The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty, which is nonfiction and follows his Afro-Jewish ancestry in West Africa and the [American] South. It’s an exploration of cooking as well as his family history and he really gets into the nitty-gritty of produce, the heritage of Black Southern food and his ancestry.
Have you ever been part of a book club?
Book clubs are about creating a community so in that respect they’re great but they just don’t work for me, you know why? I think book clubs should be on the road – they should be about meeting people where they’re at. I like the informal kind of book club that happens when you see someone reading one of your favourite books and you start having a conversation about it there and then. Which is not to say that I’m not a fan of them – I’m really fond of Well-Read Black Girl, Noname Book Club, Black Girl Book Club and OKHA, a queer and Black book club. Book clubs with a focus on uplifting stories and voices by Black and brown voices are vital for keeping histories and narratives alive and relevant but I’d still rather approach someone on a train platform or on the bus and chat about the book they’re reading. I do that with my friends a lot, mostly through voice notes.
I love that idea – a voice note book club – can we make that happen?
Everything should be a voice note. My friend gave me the best compliment, she said: “Your voice notes are like ASMR.”
Which three books would you recommend to a stranger?
I think I’ve found a way around this: short stories. I always come back to Young Skins by Colin Barrett. I love this book. If you have the paperback version, you can fit it in your back pocket and take it anywhere. My editor Ana Fletcher told me to read it and she’s never steered me wrong. Also, Lot by Bryan Washington, How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs and Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. That’s four but short stories never get enough praise. I always recommend The Parisian by Isabella Hammad. It’s superbly written: lyrical, historical, personal. It’s the kind of book I dream about writing. Also Mama Can’t Raise No Man by Robyn Travis, which should have received more attention. It explains the complexities and nuances of being a young Black male in Britain, which people get wrong so often. It’s a London book, which I’m always drawn to – you’re only a postcode away from something in this city.
shop 3 products
How To Write It – Merky How To
How To Build It – Merky How To
How To Change It – Merky How To
What other books capture London well?
The Scholar and Society Within by Courttia Newland. He started what I would call ‘Ends’ literature: books about Black youth culture, and Black communities in London. Real depictions of every single character who grew up in or on a council estate. He wrote about the ends and inner-city life in a way that offered insight and didn’t glamorise or condone but just was. There were so many layers to his characters – he wasn’t reaching in his characterisation; you could tell they were based off real people. I don’t think he gets his dues in terms of how it’s influenced popular culture.
What brought you to #Merky Books?
I remember sitting in the audience at The Barbican the night #Merky Books launched. I requested to be there because I felt this was something new, something special. Anyone in this industry at the other side of the table will tell you they’re in it because they love books and that is number one, but for me it’s also about making an impact, creating a legacy through literature and hopefully making a difference. What brought me here is knowing there’s a huge opportunity to ‘rewrite’ the British canon. I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that? Writers of colour are continually held up to this unfair scrutiny, our lived experiences not deemed readable at times. You hear the doubters – ‘I don’t get it, I can’t connect with it’ – but at the end of the day it’s just a story, what’s there not to connect to?
What are you looking for in a future title?
With fiction, a clear, smart voice and characters that really stick to me that I can’t let go of. I want something with great nuance – showing real people for who they are, flaws and all. I’m desperate for a submission that involves creating a completely new world. Something that speaks to the tradition of Afrofuturism but also something magical, spiritual and unearthly, like Octavia E. Butler meets Akwaeke Emezi. I’d love more stories that take us outside of London – tell me about life in Bristol, Leeds, Edinburgh – tell me about a part of the world I don’t know, with characters we’ve never seen and people we’ve never met. With nonfiction, I’d like to see books that rewrite or reframe history and culture, putting new voices and figures at the centre of that history like Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns or Akala’s Natives. Our aim is to uplift a new generation of writers and readers and I hope that all we publish leads to people seeing themselves represented more regularly within the pages of a book.
How do you go about finding new voices?
We find them in a myriad of ways. The established routes but also unsolicited submissions directly from writers through our DMs – that’s definitely a way in. I always say to meet people where they’re at. We try and get back to as many people as we can that way, just to show them we see them. There’s also the self-commissioning route like the How To series. That was the idea I walked into my final interview with and it’s a great representation of new voices. It’s important for me to have a mixture of emerging and established writers for each book so I can create the opportunity for someone to become an author who never thought they would be. When we say that we “champion underrepresented voices”, we mean wherever they exist. We’re trying not to be so London-centric. Writers should know from the books we publish, from the #Merky Books ethos and from our socials who and what we want to represent.
How do you choose what to read next?
It’s Lit! I love your series because you focus on inclusive people in the industry. I follow Well-Read Black Girl religiously, that’s my go-to. I love that they promote books exclusively for Black womxn and that there’s a lineage to it – a beautiful historical link between phenomenal Black womxn writers of the past and present. They hero Toni Morrison right through to Kiley Reid. That’s so important for the culture, to have a place where you can see that Black womxn have been writing histories and incredible stories for aeons. If they’re speaking about a book, I take that as a co-sign and will buy it. I also get recommendations from Book of Cinz on Twitter, she is an advocate of Caribbean literature which I’m incredibly fond of.
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
I used to live in New York and a big part of my weekend ritual was getting a coffee and going to my favourite bookshop: Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. That is where I really learned the value of a bricks and mortar bookshop and having a relationship with a bookseller. I would go in nearly every weekend to see Jess, and they would make time to talk to me to find out what I liked and recommend something new. In London, my favourite is hands down Round Table Books. I have a younger sister and a lot of nieces and nephews and I want them to love reading as much as I do and see themselves in books from a young and formative age. The focus on representative literature at Round Table means that is always going to happen.
Is there a book you revisit often?
There’s always something you miss on the first read. I’m always dreaming of Augustown by Kei Miller and anything by Jesmyn Ward.
It’s interesting to consider that you could read a book in one headspace and then read it the following year and have a completely different experience.
Exactly – I tried to read Heavy by Kiese Laymon and it felt like an assault. There’s something about his writing that is so close to the bone. I think because he is that honest and visceral of a writer, it stunned me at first and I couldn’t continue. Usually what I do if I reach that point is to read an interview or listen to a podcast with the author. If I listen to him talk about the book, about how the story came to be and why they wrote it, then I can empathise. I did that with Kiese and when I revisited Heavy I was like, bloody hell, what a great book and thank you for writing it.
Tell me about the How To book series. Who are they for and why now?
I got the idea from thinking about all the things my peers talk about – about creating something new, honing your craft, learning a new skill or trying to develop a new habit. As a generation we’re curious, we observe the world. We never shy away from new information or learning but sometimes we may lack the practical application: “I’ve got the idea, now what?” This series aims to fill those gaps, to empower a new generation with the tools they need to achieve success on their own terms. The books are a combination of expert and emerging voices which is really important – both voices are really honest about their journey – what was hard, what they failed at, what they overcame and what keeps them going. So often, expert information is delivered in panels or stuck behind a paywall and I wanted to democratise that as best I could. I’d love to see this used throughout our education system and to see adults feeling encouraged and motivated by what’s inside. I’d love mentors, peers and parents to buy this for someone in their life and give them the push and practical advice they need.
What would your advice be for underrepresented people who are interested in the publishing industry but don’t know where to start?
I would say do your research. Source interviews with all the Black and brown people who work at publishing houses and you’ll land on the position you’re interested in. Ask them realistic and honest questions about what the dullest or hardest parts of their job are, ask what keeps them motivated. You’ll find voices on representation and opportunities easily on social media, connect with them. DM them – yes, you can DM me! I came in fresh, even now I’m still asking, “How do I do this?” You should never be afraid to ask, it’s important to share the tools. Look for groups and initiatives that focus on bringing inclusivity into publishing. I’m part of the Black Agents & Editors’ Group and I think Spread the Word do awesome things. Before joining #Merky Books I was creating an independent magazine – we did everything from commissioning stories [to] line editing, marketing, distribution, event organising. I was doing all the things that there’s actual departments for within publishing, things that people get paid for. I think creating something close to the thing you want to do is important as a tool or a way to get in. It’s your calling card, your physical CV – use it.
Lemara’s Reading List
Masai and I by Virginia L. Kroll
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
Luster by Raven Leilani
Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola
The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty
Young Skins by Colin Barrett
Lot by Bryan Washington
How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs
Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
The Parisian by Isabella Hammad
Mama Can’t Raise No Man by Robyn Travis
The Scholar by Courttia Newland
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Natives by Akala
Augustown by Kei Miller
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon