In early 2016 I realized that the overwhelming majority of books I had read were written by white authors. It was one of those “duh” moments that formulated my privileged-white-person-becoming-aware-of-pervasive-systemic-racism process. To some extent, I blame American public schools, the media, and the publishing industry, but the bottom line is that I had neglected to examine all of the ways that white supremacy has seeped into the cracks and seams of my life. So, I made a resolution to only read books by authors of color for a year.
I highly recommend that other white readers do this: if not a full year of avoiding white authors, then a close examination of the diversity of the authors you’ve read and conscious effort to expand it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: listening to people of color has never been more important than it is now.
I’ve created a list of some of my favorites. I did my best to include a variety of genres, but there are definite trends.
Feel free to add your recs if you have any!
Nonfiction – Essays
Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay
This is a collection of thoughtful, well-written, and occasionally hilarious essays on gender, race, sexuality, body type, higher education, and Scrabble. Anything by Roxanne Gay is worth a read (I’m currently reading Difficult Women, which I love so far), and this award-winning bestseller is a fantastic place to start.
Okay, you caught me. Two items on this list aren’t physical books. To my knowledge, Oluo hasn’t published anything off the internet (except for the Badass Feminist Coloring Book, which I discovered while researching her and will be placing on my wish list right…now.) Nonetheless, her writing is far too important to exclude, especially now. I specifically recommend “Welcome to the Anti-Racism Movement” and “When a Woman Deletes a Man’s Comment Online.”
Nonfiction – History
God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis
This one was obviously written for people who either read about history for a living or want to read about history for a living. I am not one of those people. Still, it was worth pushing through the dense material in order to see a perspective on Medieval Europe that we never got in my overwhelmingly-white American public school.
Nonfiction – Memoir
The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin
Staceyann Chin, a lesbian speaker and activist from Jamaica, describes her childhood, biracial identity, adolescence, coming-out, and emigration to the United States. Her story is emotional, charming, and powerful, and the audiobook – which she narrates – absolutely blew me away.
Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama
This memoir was published long before Obama ran for president, and it beautifully outlines the way that his biracial identity and early activism uncovered complex issues about American race relations.
Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith
I think, at a minimum, every American needs to read or listen to this book. Smith uses his life experience to illustrate hard and complicated truths, not just about the experience of black men in America but also the experiences of women, LGBTQ+ people, people with mental illness, and people with multiple marginalizing identities. There’s an audiobook narrated by actor Kevin R. Free, and it is phenomenal.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
A lawyer in Alabama who started a non-profit organization to provide legal counsel for Death Row prisoners – among a myriad of other things – Stevenson uses tragic and horrifying case examples to highlight the cruelty and racism in the American criminal justice system. This is another book that all Americans – especially white Americans and/or people who feel complacent with our justice system – need to read or listen to. (Stevenson reads the audiobook.)
Fiction – Non-speculative
Trumpet by Jackie Kay
A famous jazz musician dies, and his death reveals to the world that he was transgender in an age when trans issues were even more poorly-understood than they are today. The book uses alternating points of view between between the late musician’s wife, adult son, and people with varying degrees of involvement in his life in order to weave a tragic and heartwarming story.
Burnt Shadows by Kamala Shamsie
I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Kamala Shamsie (see also: In the City by the Sea, Kartography), but this one is my favorite. It follows a survivor of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki as she transitions from houseguest in a British home in Delhi, to refugee in Pakistan, to wife and mother in Karachi, to elderly woman watching New York City struggling to recover after 9/11. There is love and tragedy and destruction and the sense that everything is endless and cyclical.
(Kamala Shamsie is my former creative writing professor, which is how I found out about her. I wish she were better-known because she is a fantastic writer with important things to say, especially about politics in the Middle East and the USA.)
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
Tragic and complex and layered, this series of interconnected anecdotes centers on two Native American families living on a reservation in North Dakota, meandering between time period and point-of-view as aimlessly as many of its characters wander through life. Several of Erdich’s other books are on my to-read list.
A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
This is a good one for people who like unreliable narrators and hazy, ambiguous non-solutions to mysteries (I’m told that many of Ishiguro’s books are like that, so check him out if that’s your thing). Slightly creepy, it’s a beautifully written study of mothers and daughters in post-WWII Japan and beyond.
Guapa by Saleem Haddad
A man in an unnamed Arab country narrates the 24 hours of his life after his grandmother discovers him and his boyfriend in bed together. As he attempts – and fails – to go about a normal day, we see commentary on politics, society (Arab and Western), marginalization, and family secrets, all through the eyes of a traumatized man trying to redefine himself in a world that consistently fails to understand him.
Fiction – Spectulative (Sci Fi/Fantasy/Magical Realism)
Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
Anything by Octavia Butler is necessary reading (I read and loved Kindred, and the rest of her books are on my to-read list). She was woke before most white people knew woke was a thing, and she used sci fi/fantasy to illuminate difficult truths about racism, sexism, and classism in America. These two books, about a new religion fighting to emerge in a harsh, dystopian America, are beautiful, tragic, and surprisingly prophetic. The second book in particular has some frightening parallels to our current political environment.
The Fifth Season/The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
The first two books in what is so far an incomplete series, these novels represent epic fantasy at its finest. My words can’t do them justice, except to say that Jemisin 110% deserved the Hugo award she earned for the first book. She is another author with several books on my “to-read” list. The audio books, read by Robin Miles, are also mind-blowingly good.
Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
Most people know Amy Tan from The Joy Luck Club, though I actually enjoyed this one more. This book fits the “magical realism” genre because the narrator is speaking to us not long after her tragic and sudden death, describing a group tour through China and Myanmar that goes horribly wrong in part because she isn’t alive to lead it. The Bonesetter’s Daughter is also a good real-world-fantasy book.
Infomacracy by Malka Older
In the somewhat-distant future, our political, social, corporate, and globalization systems will have undergone some massive changes. Two parts political thriller, one part biting social commentary, this book (the first in a yet-incomplete series) holds up a funhouse mirror to politics, capitalism, and the information age, showing us a caricature of where we could be headed.
Fiction – Young Adult
Akata Witch by Neddi Okorafor
I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed the Harry Potter series. There is magic, detailed world-building, compelling friendships, and an emphasis on standing up for what you believe in, even when it’s hard, even when it’s terrifying, and even when you have virtually no idea what you’re doing. (I also enjoyed Lagoon and Binti.)
The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Think Diary of a Wimpy Kid only far more profound and compelling, with an added focus on disability, segregation, poverty, death, and injustice to Indigenous people. At the same time, it somehow manages to be uplifting and occasionally hilarious. I fell head-over-heels for the protagonist and was genuinely upset when the story ended.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Another disabled-underdog protagonist with a sharp voice and compelling fish-out-of-water story; simply subtract the illustrations and add alternating points-of-view to create a more comprehensive look at this character’s life.
(If you liked one of the above two books, chances are good that you’ll like the other. Obviously, I highly recommend both.)
Shadowshaper by Daniel Older
This urban fantasy condemns police brutality, white supremacy, cultural appropriation, and gentrification. The magic is fascinating, the world-building complex, the story twisting and mysterious. The audiobook, narrated by Anika Noni Rose, is phenomenal to the point where I would almost recommend that over the written version. Her performance adds life and depth to the characters, sweeping you along with every step of the plot.
If You Could be Mine by Sarah Farzian
A teenage girl in Iran is in love with her (female) best friend, in a country where being gay is a crime but being transgender is not. This book uses the forbidden-queer-teenage-love story (see also: Finlater by Shawn Stewart Ruff) to explore issues of sexuality and gender identity in a way that is thoughtful, sad, and surprisingly uplifting at the same time.
Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta
A series of moving and beautifully written short stories about Nigerian women of different ages, classes, and sexualities. I also enjoyed Under the Udala Trees, which is a full-length novel about a gay woman growing up in 60s/70s Nigeria.
Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin
Yet another fantastic author who has produced a bunch of excellent works, Baldwin is particularly focused on the intersection between the black male identity and the queer identity in America.
Karma and Other Stories by Rishi Reddi
I actually read this series of somewhat-interconnected stories a few years ago. Each story depicts Indian American culture in a different way, presenting the different struggles, losses, and successes that Indian people of multiple generations face in America.
The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu
This one is actually a single short story, rather than a collection. It’s available to read for free here at Tor.com, so I’ll let the story speak for itself. Check it out!
(books and authors I enjoyed but didn’t include because I had to cap this list somewhere)
Nonfiction: A Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Non-speculative Fiction: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
Speculative Fiction: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino, The Between by Tananarive Due.
Young Adult: Waters Between by Joseph Bruchac, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova.
Short Stories: Let the Dead Bury Their Dead by Randall Kenan, The Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Other authors to check out: Isabel Allende, John Chu, Toni Morrison, Gene Luen Yang, Malinda Lo, Salman Rushdie.
Authors I haven’t read but I’ve heard good things about from multiple and/or reliable sources: Shamim Sarif, Audre Lourde, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Junot Diaz, Nalo Hopkinson, Gabby Rivera, Zadie Smith, Manil Suri.