What do you do when you’ve already read everything by Octavia Butler? (photo from Cultural Front)
Last year, I decided to read 50 books by writers of color.
This idea got started when I read an interview with speculative fiction author Nalo Hopkinson (author of The Chaos). At the time, I was writing a blog series about race and gender in dystopian young adult novels and I was stuck by how Hopkinson talked about how books by people of color tend to be overlooked. It is easy to read primarily or exclusively books by white authors without realizing it. She challenged people to read at least 50 books by people of color. I decided to take her up on that challenge.
I started late in the year and, by December, was struggling to hit 50. This year, I’m starting early and have already drawn up most of my reading list. Now, I’m not promising only to read books by women of color. I’d promptly break that vow once the final books in Karen Sandler’s Tankborn or Dan Wells’ Partials trilogies come out. Instead, I’m pushing myself to read at least 50 books by writers of color with an emphasis on women of color.
So who’s on my to-read list so far?
If you’ve read any part of my Girls of Color in Dystopia series last year, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of speculative and science fiction. I love Octavia Butler (and can’t recommend her short story “Speech Sounds” enough). Sadly, I’ve read all of her readily available books. Although I am planning a trek to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to read their (non-circulating) copy of her 1978 book Survivor, I know that I’m not the only reader wishing for more.
What’s an Octavia Butler fan to do when she’s read every Octavia Butler book?
Now, before diehard Butler fans hang me for heresy, please note that I am not saying that any of the (fabulous) writers on my list should replace Butler on your shelves or kindles. But Nnedi Okorafor, Jewell Parker Rhodes and Alaya Dawn Johnson all weave fantastic worlds which don’t whitewash all of humanity.
Never heard of them? Want to know more? Well, read on!
Nnedi Okorafor weaves Nigerian culture and settings into her YA novels Akata Witch and Zahrah the Windseeker. In these worlds are teenagers leaning about their magical abilities, having to hide them from their families and, in Akata Witch, attempting to catch a magical killer. I just found out that she’s written a sequel to Akata Witch called Breaking Kola. It’s not out until later this year, which gives you plenty of time to read the first book. While I wait, I’m going to read Kabu Kabu, her collection of short stories set in Nigeria.
Readers may remember my article about Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince. Though I like her YA, for adults Johnson has written the Zephyr Hollis books. Set in an alternate Prohibition-era New York City, the stories follow Zephyr Hollis, the daughter of a renowned vampire slayer. She’s a do-gooder who donates regularly to the local blood bank, rescues adolescent vampires, and irks political power brokers by constantly fighting for the underdog. While Zephyr is white (and originally from Montana), her love interest and several others in the series are not. Johnson doesn’t shy away from including scenes of real-life racism and discrimination in her alternate 1920s either. The ending of Book Two is a cliffhanger, so I’m hoping that 2014 is the year that Book Three emerges to clear up the mysteries.
Jewell Parker Rhodes’ lyrical Ninth Ward both captured my imagination and made me envious at her skill with words. Lanesha lives in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward with her grandmother just before Hurricane Katrina. She can see ghosts, including the ghost of her mother who died during childbirth. Curiously, as a ghost, her mother is still hugely pregnant with her and waiting to give birth. I’ve got her Marie Laveau series (also set in New Orleans) on this year’s To-Read list.
I’ve got more realistic fiction on my list as well. Bitch’s Online Editor Sarah Mirk recommended Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah which, from what I gather from the description, centers love, race and migration in and out of Nigeria. Mirk must not be the only one recommending it to her friends—I’m number 108 on the New York Public Library’s waiting list.
Lower East Side Librarian Jenna Freedman recommended Li Yi Yun’s The Vagrants, a novel set in late 1970s China where a young woman who has renounced Communism is set to be executed for her dissent. I’ve also got The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, a novel in verse about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, a nineteenth century feminist, poet and abolitionist in Cuba. I’ve never heard of Gómez de Avellaneda and the idea of a novel-in-verse intrigues me, so although it’s meant for younger readers, onto my list it goes.
As for memoirs, I asked the library to order copies of Janet Mock’s recently released Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. In the meantime, I borrowed Anchee Min’s book The Cooked Seed, the follow-up to Red Azalea, her gripping memoir about growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution. While The Cooked Seed is about Min’s years following the Cultural Revolution, I’m also planning to read a few women’s memoirs of their time in revolution, like My People Shall Live by Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who is perhaps most famous for two airplane hijackings, and Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli’s The Country Under My Skin.
After reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography last year, I found myself intrigued by his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Winnie Mandela has not one but two memoirs out: Part of My Soul Went With Him about her time as the wife of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and, more recently published, 491 Days about the time she spent in prison, much of it in solitary confinement (again because of her marriage to Mandela). Another prison-related memoir that I’m looking forward to reading is Deborah Jiang Stein’s Prison Baby. Stein was born and spent the first year of her life in a West Virginia women’s prison before being adopted by a family in Seattle. She knew nothing about this until she discovered a letter from her birth mother, which also revealed that she is mixed race. As someone who works with and writes about incarcerated women, many of whom have lost custody and contact with their children, I’m intrigued by her story. And, given that so little has been written about Asians incarcerated in the U.S., I’m curious to know what Stein finds out—and reveals—about her birth parents.
This is by no means my entire to-read list. I’ve got many more and am also open to suggestions for other fantastic reads by women of color. Share what you’d recommend to me and other Bitch readers in the comments below!
Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.