(Re)Presenting Romance prize: read the love story that was crowned our winner

Written by Stylist Team

Nothing gets our hearts racing like a good romance novel, but not everyone can see themselves in their favourite love stories. The (Re)Presenting Romance prize, launched in April by HarperCollins and The Good Literary Agency in partnership with Stylist, sought to change that. And now we have a winner… 

What do you look for in a love story? Does the slow-burn longing of One Day get you going, or is the frisson of Pride And Prejudice’s enemies-to-lovers arc more your thing? Often, the most important element of any romance novel is the immersive experience – we want to imagine ourselves there, in the characters’ shoes, feeling all their feelings. But if who you are and how you love is rarely represented in the pages of a book, this life-affirming experience can be difficult to find. 

The shortage of diverse love stories is exactly what (Re)Presenting Romance was dreamt up to change. A mentorship scheme open to writers typically underrepresented in mainstream publishing – including writers of colour, disabled writers, LGBTQ+ writers and working class writers – it received a huge number of exciting submissions. Judged by Martha Ashby from HarperCollins, Kemi Ogunsanwo and Callen Martin from The Good Literary Agency, Stylist features editor Meena Alexander and authors Sareeta Domingo, Talia Hibbert and Lindsey Kelk, whittling down the list was a tricky but gratifying process. 

“It is a wonderful thing to see love depicted in a way we rarely get to see in publishing, and the submissions we received as part of our (Re)Presenting Romance scheme were a reminder that there are many forms of love and they all deserve to be celebrated,” said Ogunsanwo.

But one entry shone so brightly that it had to take the crown. Jessica Chinegwu’s Lovers, Friends And Something In-Between, a collection of interconnected love stories following a group of friends from south London, won her the top prize of a £1,000 grant from HarperCollins and a year of mentoring from The Good Literary Agency. The judges praised Chinegwu’s flair for vivid characterisation and storytelling, which she says is driven by her belief that Black women deserve to be represented more positively and tenderly in literature. She cites Bolu Babalola’s Love In Colour and the anthology Who’s Loving You edited by Sareeta Domingo as key influences on her work. 

Writer Jessica Chinegwu is the winner of the (Re)Presenting Romance prize.

“I’m overjoyed and honoured to have been selected as the winner of the (Re)Presenting Romance scheme. I am really looking forward to receiving invaluable mentoring and advice from The Good Literary Agency and can’t wait to see how my writing develops over the course of a year,” she says. “I wholeheartedly believe that love makes the world go round, and I’m delighted to bring stories oozing with tenderness, romance and love in all its forms to life.”

For a taste of Chinegwu’s talent, dive in to an extract from her winning entry below – and keep an eye out for her name in a bookshop near you. 

Chapter 3: Come On, Come Over

Extracted from Lovers, Friends And Something In-Between by Jessica Chinegwu.

Dionne Ekwueme ripped out her earphones and shut her laptop forcefully. The thumping was back, the low ceiling above her head was literally vibrating. The residents of Flat 62B were partying again. For the fourth time in the past week and a half.

She couldn’t stand it anymore. Yes, everybody living in this block of flats was a university student, but this was getting ridiculous. Mannerless and ridiculous. How was Dionne supposed to write her (overdue) coursework essay in these conditions? She scrubbed a hand down her tired face and let out a weary exhale from the pit of her stomach as the obnoxious sounds of a Digga D song transitioned clunkily into a Drake one.

Dionne stormed into the kitchen of her dilapidated university flat, ready to blow. Her flatmate and best friend Mina looked equally disgruntled, leaning against the counter with her arms folded across her chest.

“Can you hear that?” Dionne huffed.

“You mean the dulcet tones of none other than one Aubrey Graham? Of course I can,” Mina replied, voice brimming with its usual sarcasm.

Dionne grabbed the broom collecting dust in the corner of the room. She swung it upwards and bashed its handle against the ceiling, hoping it would be loud enough to send a direct and unmistakable message to the heathens who lived upstairs.

The noise above them dwindled almost instantly. Feeling slightly surprised, but no less vindicated, a sigh of relief escaped Dionne’s lips. Mina let out a satisfied hum, her lips twitching into a smirk. Seconds later, however, the sounds from upstairs returned. It was even louder now. This time, the blaring music was accompanied by a chorus of stomping footsteps, mimicking the same rhythm Dionne had knocked out moments ago.

Grumbling under her breath, Dionne swung her arm back like a professional baseball player. She whacked the broom against the ceiling three times, each thump with more vim than the last. Like clockwork, the pounding footsteps came again, matching Dionne’s beat in a mocking call and response.

Insulted and aghast, Dionne was too stunned to speak. Her body moved faster than her mind sometimes. This was one of those times. Without thinking, Dionne stuffed her feet into a pair of her trainers from the haphazard row by the front door, puffed out her chest, and squared her shoulders, prepared to scrap. Passive aggression seemed futile, so now it was time for action. She crashed the front door open and marched up the stairs leading to the flat above.

“Where are you going? What are you gonna do?” Mina called from the doorway, mild concern detectable in her voice.

“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out when we get there,” Dionne said offhandedly.

If there was one thing about Amina Zinogbo, it was that she was along for the ride. So, instinctively, as a best friend would and should do, she trusted the process and followed Dionne’s lead.

Walking up the flight of concrete stairs reminded Dionne that this was an old building, a block of flats in desperate need of refurbishment. She and Mina had only been living in Flat 62A for a couple of months, but they already knew that it was the type of poorly ventilated accommodation that would be unbearably cold in the winter but swelteringly hot in the summer. It was their own fault, really. Dionne and Mina had started looking for a place to live far too late in their first year, which meant that they were lumped with the leftovers. The landlord had all but rubbed his hands together with glee when he realised that he could convince two desperate students to pay extortionate amounts of rent in exchange for crumbling foundations, flickering industrial lights, and a shoddy roof over their heads.

The lease the girls had signed had failed to mention that sound permeated through the fabric of the flat. They could hear noise from each and every angle. The floorboards above them constantly creaked and groaned. Any and all loud conversations from above, below or either side, raucous laughter, and vicious arguments could be heard.

Dionne hadn’t met her noisy neighbours yet. She had only heard their ruckus and rumbling. This was enough to convince her that she need make no attempt to find out who they were. It hadn’t taken Dionne long to find out that headphones which claimed to be noise-cancelling only worked to a certain point. Eavesdropping became inevitable. From her deductive reasoning, she knew it was a household of boys, at least four of them. Against her will, Dionne had learned that they liked throwing parties. They liked playing FIFA, as well as shouting at the tops of their lungs whenever one of them scored a goal. Dionne also knew that they liked entertaining a roster of girls who often left satisfied, only to turn up again days later, heartbroken, howling about apparent betrayal. She would be lying to herself if she didn’t admit that sometimes it was entertaining to listen to. Most of the time, however, it was a nuisance.

For a first encounter, this wasn’t going to be pleasant. When Dionne reached Flat 62B, she curled her hand into a fist and hammered on the door with the energy of an angry bailiff. She geared herself up for the confrontation, ready to drag whoever greeted her at the door within an inch of his life. She was going to ask him whether he had any home training. She was going to demand to know why he and the rest of these bastard boys thought they had the right to be so inconsiderate of everyone else who lived in this block of flats. Despite Dionne’s mother’s incessant pleas for her daughter to remember that she came from a good, Christian household, Dionne was going to use every expletive under the sun.

As soon as the door swung open though, the words died on her tongue.

At the door stood a tall, strikingly good-looking guy. His body was hard, angular, the sleeves of his tracksuit top rolled up to expose his toned arms. It contrasted with his gentle visage, soft brown eyes which crinkled as his mouth twisted into a small, sheepish smile.

He looked familiar. Dionne recognised him from somewhere. Her brain finally kicked into gear, trying to figure out where and why she had seen him before. She recalled a distant memory of a Tinder match. More recently, they had matched again on Hinge. That time round, they had messaged regularly and made plans to meet up, until it all fizzled out unceremoniously when Dionne had decided she wasn’t ready to take the plunge and be serious about dating. They had unwittingly spent the past few weeks orbiting each other like satellites, passing without getting close enough to touch. This, this was Dionne’s neighbour? She would have never imagined that her late-night exchanges and promises of something more had been with one of the boys who lived directly above her. She suddenly felt lightheaded.

“Oh,” Dionne said.

The guy’s brows furrowed. It seemed that he was trying to figure out whether Dionne and Mina were on the guest list or if they were actually here to shut the party down. His eyes lit up for a second as the answer came to him.

“You live downstairs, don’t you?”

While Dionne was temporarily disarmed, Mina surged forward with her hands on her hips. “Oh, so you do know that other people live in this block? Ever heard of volume control?” she snapped.

The guy opened his mouth to speak, probably to give some piss poor excuse for the excessive and extended racket. A small audience had assembled. Partygoers poked their heads round like a mob of tipsy meerkats.

One of them asked, “Who’s at the door, bro?”

The voice belonged to Seun, a sleepy boy who Dionne vaguely recognised from her seminars. At nine o’clock on most weekday mornings, he could be found at the back of the lecture hall with his head tipped back and mouth slack, sleeping soundly through the professor’s presentation. This was the most animated Dionne had ever seen him.

“The girls from downstairs,” the boy at the door shouted over his shoulder. He turned back to face Dionne and Mina. “Hey, I’m Arinze.”

Of course, Dionne knew this already. Arinze held out his hand in a pathetic peace offering. Mina looked him up and down, her feline eyes narrowed with barely concealed distaste.

“You lot were the ones banging on the floor? That’s proper rude, you know,” Seun joked. “If you wanted an invite that bad, you could have just asked. Join us, still.”

“Shut up, man,” Arinze said, not unkindly. He looked back apologetically. “He’s kinda right though. I feel like we owe you. The least we can do is offer you a drink or something.”

“Well, we’re not really dressed for a party,” Dionne muttered, gesturing to her three-quarter zip fleece, cargo trousers, and the passion twists scraped up in a precarious bun atop her head. Mina stood beside her, decked out in a cosy knit dress. Their outfits were just about presentable enough to be worn outside of the comfort of their home, but certainly not up to the standard of a night out.

Arinze’s eyes settled on Dionne, meeting her gaze squarely. “Well, I think you look good. Come in,” he insisted after a pause, stepping back for the girls to enter the flat.

Dionne tried to ignore the prickling heat rising rapidly from her chest to her face and turned to Mina to ask the silent question of what to do next. The options were relatively simple: Dionne could either return to her flat and continue fighting for her life to complete her essay whilst eating the struggle meal of room temperature rice and stew. Or Dionne could join the festivities hosted by a bunch of boys she had wanted to engage in hand-to-hand combat with just moments ago.

Mina shrugged, the offer of free drinks enough to tempt her inside. All seemed to have been forgotten and forgiven. She wandered into the flat as if she owned it, and Dionne shuffled behind. Inside, there were more people than the flat could accommodate. Almost immediately, Mina bumped into someone she recognised, drunk and delighted to see her, who swept her up into conversation.

Dionne turned around when she felt a presence behind her. It was Arinze, smiling his tender, tentative smile.

“You want a drink?”

“Yeah, all right,” Dionne said.

Then Arinze’s hand was at her elbow, steering her in the direction of a rickety dining table that the boys were using as a makeshift bar. Empty plastic cups were strewn across the crepe tablecloth, scattered amongst half-drunk bottles of alcohol and jumbo discount fizzy drinks. Dionne watched him pour her a cup of rum and coke, and mumbled a ‘thanks’ when he passed it over to her.

“What was your name again? I don’t think I caught it at the door,” Arinze asked, grabbing a fistful of ice from the cooler underneath the table and dumping it into his own drink.


“Dionne,” he repeated, somewhat contemplatively, tasting her name on his tongue.

In spite of herself, Dionne traced the movement of Arinze’s mouth as he said her name. The strange, tingling heat had returned. Feeling mildly embarrassed, Dionne swiftly changed the subject, “Whose bright idea was it to perform Stomp the Yard upstairs, by the way?”

Arinze cut a fleeting, sideways glance in Dionne’s direction. “You’re funny, you know,” he said, his mouth twisting reluctantly into a smile.

A small smile bloomed on Dionne’s face. “Funny? You’re lucky I didn’t file a noise complaint,” she retorted.

“Nah, I appreciate that,” said Arinze, clasping his hands around his cup as if he was praying, a sign of his gratitude. He lowered his voice conspiratorially, “If anyone asks though, it was definitely Seun.”

Dionne played along, “Okay, good, good. Now I know exactly who to report when the time comes.”

“You wouldn’t dare.” Arinze feigned shock.

With the theatrics of a pantomime villain, she assured him, “Oh, trust me, I would.”

Arinze leaned against Dionne, shoulder to shoulder. His weight against her didn’t feel uncomfortable, just there, steady. Dionne gave into the gentle pressure. She pressed back, taking in his warm, woodsy fragrance. The notes of a silky VanJess song floated through the flat, a soothing soundtrack to this moment between them that felt private and oddly intimate. Dionne bopped her head along, letting the beat wash over her. At her side, she could feel Arinze’s shoulder rising and falling in a subtle shimmy that matched the tempo of the music. They caught each other’s eye and grinned.

“I’ve been trying to figure out where I know you from,” Arinze mused, puncturing the sweet silence between them.

“…We’re neighbours?” Dionne offered an answer.

Arinze shook his head, still thinking. “Yeah, fine, but that’s not it.” He snapped his fingers together, the realisation dawning on him. He exclaimed, “You’re the Hinge Babe! Rah, it’s so mad that you live here. What are the odds?”

“I think the universe was sick of me airing your messages,” Dionne teased, a glint in her eye.

Arinze threw his head back and laughed a deep, infectious laugh. “Well, it’s nice to finally have that drink,” he said good-naturedly, tapping his cup against hers. “You sure know how to make a guy wait.”

Dionne held up her hands in mock surrender, swivelling to face Arinze. “I’ll admit, ghosting isn’t usually my style,” she said honestly. He was still a stranger, to an extent, but it was easy to open up to him. “I wasn’t really in the right headspace. I dunno why I was on any dating apps to begin with.”

The stress of starting a new year of university following her disastrous first year exam results, a nasty breakup over the summer, the wounds of which were still scabbing over, all bled into one monstrous emotional cocktail. If Dionne was being truthful, she had redownloaded dating apps as a meaningless distraction from it all.

“How are you feeling now?”

Dionne meant it when she said, “Better. Yeah, better, I think.”

“That’s good.” Arinze sounded earnest.

They fell back into that pleasant silence, sipping on their drinks and casually resting against each other.

The bubble burst dramatically, however, when a girl emerged like Moses cutting through the Red Sea. Dionne smelled her before she saw her. A masculine oud melded with a sharp vanilla to create a uniquely cloying scent. The girl came into view, her knotless braids cascading down her back, immaculately curled ends stopping at her waist. She wore wide leg jeans, a lurid pink crop top, and the ring hooked on her nose glistened under the overhead lights.

“Oh, Arinze. There you are. I’ve been looking for you for ages,” she husked.

Kayla Adewole-Prewitt, president of the university’s African-Caribbean Society and resident Bad Bitch at East Bridge University. Girls wanted to be like her, boys wanted to be with her. The ACS website claimed that Kayla had been voted in democratically. In reality, hustings had simply been a front for the popularity contest that she won by a country mile because of her pretty face and undeniable influence amongst East Bridge’s Black student body.

“Oh, hi,” Kayla said sweetly, the saccharine tone of her voice too affected to be sincere. Her eyes roved up and down Dionne’s body, making her acutely aware that she was dressed like she had emerged from a late-night library session or a midnight run to the supermarket. “We’ve met before. You’re Dionne, right? Or is it Diana?”

“No, you were right the first time,” Dionne sighed.

“My bad, girl,” Kayla sneered, waving her perfectly manicured hand in the air dismissively. She pointed a bejewelled finger between Dionne and Arinze. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

Arinze looked to Dionne, brow raised for her to confirm or deny whatever the hell was going on between them.

“Nah, you’re good,” Dionne said reflexively.

Kayla nodded, smug, effortlessly cool and self-assured, almost as if she had expected Dionne’s reply. In one deft manoeuvre, she slipped her arm through the crook in Arinze’s. Dionne had to admit, there was an artfulness to Kayla’s movements. She lowered her eyes coquettishly, wispy lash extensions fluttering, and Arinze was like a helpless moth drawn to a gleaming flame.

As Kayla hauled Arinze away, he reached out and squeezed Dionne’s arm gently. Just before disappearing into the throng, he called out, “Nice meeting you properly. Catch you in a bit, okay, Dee?”

Dionne’s stomach flipped involuntarily at the nickname Arinze had so easily bestowed upon her. Feeling distinctly bereft now that he had left her side, Dionne let out the breath that she didn’t realise she had been holding. She wanted to bury her face in her hands and scream. She didn’t though. Instead, she sloshed the remainder of her drink around in the cup in her hand, watching the brown liquid splash from side to side. She downed it in one gulp. 

Images: HarperCollins

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