That Reminds Me by author Derek Owusu has won the prestigious Desmond Elliott Prize, which is awarded annually to the best debut novel in the UK and Ireland. The book tells the story of K, a young boy who goes from being in foster care to then going to live with his biological family, and is inspired by the author’s own life. Writer Preti Taneja, who chaired the judges, said they were “as shattered by the truths of the story as we were moved by the talent of its writer”.
Owusu’s book was supported by British rapper Stormzy, who launched #Merky Books in 2018, to help put the spotlight on the spotlight on writers who may not otherwise be noticed, “especially those who may have never had the opportunity to get into the industry so early”.
Owusu worked part time for #Merky’s parent company, Penguin Random House, and was noticed by Stormzy’s manager after he edited a collection of essays titled Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space. That Reminds me is his first novel and is inspired by Owusu’s own life, in which he lived in foster care, moved in with his biological family, and was later diagnosed with with a borderline personality disorder.
In an interview with the BBC, Owusu explained that he began working on the novel while recovering from several suicide attempts in a recovery house. “I was writing verses just to pass the time and eventually there was a narrative structure to them, and that’s when I created K, as almost an alter ego of myself, to try to understand what had led to me being diagnosed and having this breakdown. So I put K through a series of life events that I thought would lead to somebody having a breakdown,” he said.
While the novel does take inspiration from his own experiences, Owusu said about 20% of it is directly based on his own experiences. They share some similarities, such as their ethnicity, time in foster care and struggle with mental health issues, but this is not an autobiography.
Stormzy attended the launch of the book and complimented Owusu on his writing, saying: “I think you’re an amazing writer and I’m very happy to publish the book.”
The author also recently signed a letter as a member of the new Black Writers’ Guild calling for change in the publishing industry. When asked what he felt need to change Owusu said: “A lot of commissioning editors don’t recognise their own unconscious bias. Actually it starts with agents and the books that they’re getting in. There needs to be more people from more diverse backgrounds picking up these books, commissioning these books, and then editing these books.”
The interview finished with Owusu explaining his next book will be about encouraging his younger brother to read novels, as he didn’t like the road his sibling was going down. In the end he offered him $50 for every novel he read. “I discovered literature so late in life – I was 24 – and as clichéd as it sounds it changed my life. After discovering it, I felt like I should be trying to get other people to read and experience this thing that happened to me.”
Finishing the interview, Owusu revealed that Idris Elba’s production company has optioned That Reminds Me, and hopes to adapt it into a TV series.