Black gay icon wins mental health award

PinkNews logo on a pink background surrounded by illustrated line drawings of a rainbow, pride flag, unicorn and more.

Black gay icon, Valerie Mason-John has won the Mind Book of the Year award for her first novel, Borrowed Body.

The award from mental health charity, Mind, celebrates writing that furthers public understanding of mental or emotional distress in all its forms.

Her first novel, published by Serpent’s Tail, is a moving portrait of a disrupted and immensely traumatic childhood. Aged four and a half the lead character, Pauline, is removed from foster parents and sent to live in a Dr Barnardo’s Village. She settles, becoming accustomed to her new family and developing a vivid imaginary world. Everything seems well until her mother re-enters her life and takes her to live in London, attempting to turn Pauline into an obedient African child by literally knocking the English out of her.

The narrative blends fictional memoir and fantasy; it explores the places that a child’s mind creates to escape from the darkness of her present. Judges Michèle Roberts, Fay Weldon and Blake Morrison felt that although Borrowed Body contains inventive, magic realist elements, what makes it so affecting is its authenticity, the real sense of someone reliving their Barnardo’s childhood. A share of the book’s profits is going to the children’s charity.

Kate Roach, Barnardo’s deputy head of after care, said: “Barnardo’s would like to send our congratulations to Valerie Mason-John for this well deserved award. Her book paints a very honest portrait of life as a Barnardo’s child and we would like to commend her for sharing her very personal accounts with a wider audience through this powerful book, and for the time she still contributes to the charity in highlighting the needs of black children in care.”

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said: “I’m delighted that in Mind’s 60th year we’ve seen such an inspirational selection of books nominated for the Book of the Year Award. Reading opens up other worlds to us, and the power of good writing to inform and educate cannot be underestimated. Congratulations to Valerie on her well-deserved achievement.”

Valerie Mason-John, or Queenie as she is sometimes known, was born in Cambridge in 1962. She is an author, poet and performer and also works as a trainer in anger management, conflict resolution and self-development. Previous accolades include the Windrush Achievement Award: Arts and Community Pioneer 2000 and winning the inaugural Shorelines Competition for Black British African, Asian and Caribbean writers. In 1997 she was named as one of Britain’s foremost Black gay icons.