At the start of the year, I vowed to read 50 books by people of color. The idea came from an interview with speculative fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson, who talked about how books by people of color tend to be overlooked by publishers and readers alike. If you just find books to read by browsing the most popular shelves at the bookstore, it’s easy to fall into reading books primarily, if not solely, by white authors. Of all the children’s and YA books that made the New York Times bestseller list last year, for example, only nine percent were by authors of color.
After 11 months of voracious reading, I’m happy to announce that I met my goal (with a month to spare)! I have now read 54 books by people of color this year. (By the time this article is published, that number may be actually 55, depending on how quickly my library holds arrive.) Of the fifty-four, most (37) were by women of color.
At first, it wasn’t easy. I rely on my local libraries and budget cuts have left shelves looking a little threadbare. Searching for books by authors of color sometimes proved challenging. But, as the year went on, I often ducked into the library looking for ONE book by a writer of color and walked out with four. Reading all these books by people of color made the absence of people of color and/or other cultures more conspicuous in novels by white authors. I started to think more about how whiteness is often written as the norm and I noticed when physical descriptions were absent from books altogether.
I decided to compile my whole list of 50 books—hopefully it’s a resource to other people seeking out writers of color.
Speculative Fiction, Sci Fi, and Fantasy
Readers who remember my Girls of Color in Dystopia series will not be surprised that science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction made up the bulk of my reading.
• Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
• The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe
• Voodoo Dreams by Jewell Parker Rhodes
• Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson
• The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino
• The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
Speculative fiction made up the majority of books authored by men of color that I read. At the start of the year, my friend and fellow freelancer Allison Brown introduced me to Daniel Jose Older’s Salsa Nocturna, urban fantasy set in modern-day Brooklyn. I read Walter Mosley for the first time, starting with his The Gift of Fire, which speculates what would happen if Prometheus broke his chains and ended up in modern-day Los Angeles, and moving on to Futureland, a collection of interconnecting short stories about a very dystopian future. I also tore through Cixin Liu’s very physics-heavy The Three-Body Problem, which starts during China’s Cultural Revolution and continues to the present. Other speculative fiction included:
• Long Division by Kiese Laymon
• The Executioness by Tobias Buckell
• On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
• Babel-17 by Samuel Delany
I devoured the first three books in Y.S. Lee’s The Agency series about a women’s spy agency in Victorian England. I also picked up Isabel Allende’s Ripper. My exploration of mysteries written by men of color also led me to Hong Kong writer Nury Vittachi’s The Feng Shui Detective, a collection of short stories about a cantankerous feng shui master in Singapore. I enjoyed it so much that I picked up his novel-length sequels The Feng Shui Detective Goes West and The Shanghai Union of Industrial Mystics, although neither were as good. This past month, I started reading Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series about a Black private investigator in 1960s California. I started with his latest, Rose Gold, loosely based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and recently finished its prequel Little Green. I’m hooked but, since I started at the end, I plan to continue reading the series backwards.
I didn’t manage to read as many memoirs as I had originally set out to do, but the ones I read were compelling and often heartbreaking.
• Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
• Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
• The Cooked Seed by Anchee Min
• High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society by Dr. Carl Hart (The sole memoir by a man of color came recommended to me by Truthout editor Maya Schenwar. Read this book. It will indeed challenge everything you think you know about drugs, crime and society.)
I didn’t read as many political theory books by women of color as I’d originally planned, but the ones I did get to this year were thought-provoking:
• Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts
• Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison by Paula C. Johnson
It’s not theory (nor is it by a woman of color), but Charles Cobb’s This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible is the fascinating and underreported history of the role of guns in the Black community during the Civil Rights era. Given the recent calls for non-violence in response to Michael Brown’s killing and the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, we should all know this hidden history behind the non-violent Civil Rights movement.
My conscious efforts to seek out writers of color introduced me to writers whose works I’d never known before. Bitch online editor Sarah Mirk recommended Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I had to wait until the 107 library patrons before me read and returned the book before I was able to dive in. But when I finally read the book, I loved it so much that I promptly borrowed her two other novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, both of which take place at different times during Nigeria’s military tumult. I can’t wait to read her next book.
Adichie’s wasn’t the only historic fiction I read. Challenging myself to read more by authors of color forced me to seek out titles that might have never been brought to my attention otherwise. Shirley Williams rewrites a historic slave uprising led by a pregnant slave in Dessa Rose while Jacinda Townsend’s Saint Monkey follows the lives of two Black girls in Kentucky during the Jazz Era. Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants depicts 1970s Communist China in brutally harsh terms while Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement shows the limited opportunities for women in the era before. Skipping across the Pacific, I also dove into Lisa See’s China Dolls, which follows the lives and fortunes of three women—two Chinese and one Japanese woman passing as Chinese—before, during and after World War II. I also found Margarita Engle’s The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, her fictional biography of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, a nineteenth-century Cuban writer, feminist and abolitionist. Her bio-in-verse prompted me to visit the research library to read Avellaneda’s most famous work, Sab, a novel about a slave in Cuba during the nineteenth century. The only historic fiction authored by a man of color was Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost about a Chinese boy seeking his mother during the Depression.
Cayden Mak at 18MillionRising recommended Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. As with Adichie, I liked Ozeki so much that, upon closing her book, I leapt to my laptop and reserved her All Over Creation from the library. Then I found her My Year of Meats, which toggles between a Japanese tv producer in the United States and the abused wife of the producer’s overbearing boss in Tokyo. I am eagerly awaiting what Ozeki writes next. I also devoured Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Jacqueline Woodson’s Hush.
I plan to continue the challenge to read 50 books by people of color in 2015. What would you recommend I put on next year’s To-Read list?
Related Reading: Five Black Sci-Fi Writers You Should Know.
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. Photo by Sarah Mirk.