Acclaimed poet and author James Berry helped pave the way for a new generation of black writers


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James Berry was one of the first black writers to achieve public recognition in Britain. He rose to prominence in 1981 when he won the National Poetry Competition with Fantasy of an African Boy, while his five collections of poetry and his stories and poems for children received critical acclaim.

He was born in Jamaica and began to write stories and poems while still at school. During WWII, he worked in the US as a farm labourer for six years before returning to Jamaica. He recalled: “We soon realised, as we had been warned, that there was a colour problem in the United States that we were not familiar with in the Caribbean. America was not a free place for black people”.

Relieved to be back home in Jamaica, James soon began to feel the “the same old desperation of being stuck”. Salvation beckoned with arrival of MV Empire Windrush in Kingston in 1948. But he wasn’t able to get a ticket and had to wait for the second ship to make the journey in autumn of that year, the SS Orbita.

He was employed by the Post Office and attended night school to improve his education but life as a newly arrived Caribbean migrant in London became another kind of learning.
He became an early member of the influential Caribbean Artists Movement, founded in 1966 by Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Andrew Salkey and John La Rose, chairing it in 1971.

In 1976 he compiled the anthology, Bluefoot Traveller and in 1979 his first poetry collection, Fractured Circles, was published by La Rose’s New Beacon Books. He edited the landmark anthology, News for Babylon, in 1984, which was described as ‘groundbreaking’.

His use of both Jamaican patois and standard English legitimised patois as a form of poetic expression for a new generation of poets.

His 2011 book of poetry, A Story I Am In: Selected Poems drew on five earlier collections: Fractured Circles (1979), Lucy’s Letters and Loving (1982), Chain of Days (1985), Hot Earth Cold Earth (1995), and Windrush Songs (2007).

In 1987 James won the Smarties prize for A Thief in the Village and Other Stories, one of several books he wrote for young readers.

He was awarded the OBE for services to poetry in 1990.

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