I'm the first black author to win book of the year. I'm proud, but not completely happy

Candice Carty-Williams
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

I have a funny thing about winning. I find it overwhelming. I don’t know how to cope or act when things are meant to be “good”. What do I do? Should I be happy? What is that? How many ways can I genuinely and meaningfully thank people who congratulate me? Do they understand that if I don’t reply to their kind messages, I’m not being rude – it’s just that I don’t know what to say?

It’s not that I’m not grateful when things go well, it’s more that I need to talk to a therapist about them. Anyway, imagine my discomfort when I was told that my book Queenie had won debut of the year at the British Book awards. Actually, my first feeling was relief that instead of having to attend a ceremony and have my picture taken, and get up on a stage and be looked at, I could just pre-record an acceptance speech on Zoom then go back to watching music videos all day.

Still, I was so nervous staring back at myself on screen that I forgot to thank my family and friends. And then, imagine my terror when I was told, on the same Zoom call, that Queenie had also been awarded book of the year. Book of the Whole Year. Wild. I asked the person who told me to repeat what they’d said, more than once.

I know how these prizes are meant to work. Having been in the industry for a while, and with the help of Wikipedia, I knew that no black woman, or indeed black person, has won that prize since the awards were started in 1994. Ever. So apparently, in the last 26 years, there has been no book by a black author seen to be deserving of that prize. I’m not downplaying my novel, I’m mainly proud of it, but still, I can’t feel completely happy about how things have gone.

In my second acceptance speech I ended up saying how sad it was that it had taken so long not just for a book like Queenie to be published, but to be given such attention in the industry and in the literary world. The last written words in the novel are #BlackLivesMatter, and it felt important for me to remind the overwhelmingly white publishing industry of this, especially at this time of great change and heightened awareness.

I’m hopeful, though, that my win marks a change and, more importantly, longstanding and sustainable change. Because, the playing field needs to be levelled. It needed to be levelled a long time ago.

So instead of celebrating myself, I’m going to celebrate the books by black authors that came before me, that deserved just as much attention. The ones that deserved to be book of the year. I’m going to celebrate the books by black authors that weren’t published prominently enough, that didn’t make it to print, and the ones that didn’t even make it on to the page for fear that they weren’t good enough. I’m hopeful that this award can show black writers who haven’t yet had the confidence to even submit their novel that they can be winners too.