This year, inspired in large part by Rewire.News‘ podcast What Else Happened and its question of what brings joy, I’ve decided to share the books that have done just that as I continue to report on stories of the trauma, violence, resilience, and resistance inherent in the nation’s jail and prison system. Every few months, I’ll be writing about some of my favorites for Rewire.News readers, both to share some of that joy and to encourage folks to pick up these books and show publishers, bookstores, and libraries that people do want to read books by women of color.
You can find reviews of some of the first 14 books I’ve read here and here. Here are a few more that have kept me company during nor’easters, spring showers, and long subway rides. They would be wonderful reads on the beach, in the park, or during any summer staycation.
Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”
In 1931, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to interview Kossula (or Cudjo Lewis, as he was renamed in the United States). Kossula, then in his 90s, was the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. Captured at age 19 by the Dahomey king’s famous women warriors, Kossula was sold into slavery and brought to the United States 50 years after the transatlantic slave trade had been outlawed. Once emancipated, he and other Africans, unable to afford passage back to their homeland, formed their own community in Alabama, which is where Hurston found him decades later.
Hurston spent three months in Alabama visiting Kossula. She asked him about his childhood and young adulthood in Africa, his time in the barracoon (or stockade where the Dahomey kept the people they were planning to sell), his experiences during the Middle Passage, his enslaved days in the United States, and his life post-emancipation. But during the Depression days, few publishers were willing to take a chance on the life of a formerly enslaved person, recounted in his own words rather than standard English. So Hurston’s manuscript sat in the Howard University archives, unpublished until this year.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Unlike a typical biography, Hurston remains present throughout the book. She describes each and every encounter with Kossula—walking up to his house, the watermelon they eat together, the sugar cane he cuts for his grandchildren, and the tears he sheds as he recounts his life and losses. It’s inspired me to add Hurston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, in which she recounts the three-month-long process of interviewing Kossula, to my reading list.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective
Speaking of histories (and herstories) that might otherwise be lost to the ages, Taylor interviewed founding members of the Combahee River Collective, a group of radical Black feminists operating in the 1970s. But this is not a static reflection of the group’s politics and actions long ago. Taylor also includes interviews with Black feminist activists like Barbara Ransby and Alicia Garza of #BlackLivesMatter, making this slim volume a series of lessons that individuals and groups today can apply to their own organizing. As Ransby notes in the concluding essay:
If we take to heart the spirit and politics of the Combahee River Collective Statement, what we go away with is this: (1) never be afraid to speak truth to power, and (2) in the face of racist, misogynist threats of violence and attacks, when you have the impulse to either fight or flight, what do you do? Fight! And, (3) always ally yourself with those on the bottom, on the margins, and at the periphery of the centers of power. And in doing so, you will land yourself at the very center of some of the most important struggles of our society and our history.
In India, Phoolan Devi was popularly known as the Bandit Queen. Born into a poverty-stricken low-caste family in the 1960s, Devi suffered sexual violence at the hands of her (much-older) husband as a teenager and, not much later, from police officers and men from higher castes. She became a dacoit (or bandit), and became known not only for redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor, but also for (physically and brutally) avenging girls and women who had been raped or abused. After 13 years in prison, she became a member of parliament. She was gunned down in 2001. But despite her legacy, her name remains unknown to many.
In addition to its recounting of her harrowing and inspiring life, what’s remarkable about this nearly 500-page autobiography is how it was written. Phoolan Devi never learned to read or write, and so two writers helped get her story onto paper while also making sure that she had control over what was ultimately published. As Paul Rambali writes in the introduction, “For days and nights, Phoolan related her extraordinary life via an interpreter. Recorded and transcribed, the typescript ran to 2000 pages. Writer Marie-Therese Cuny and I shaped this into a first draft.”
“Then over several weeks in 1995, and with the aid of translator and journalist Vijay Kranti, Susanna and I read it back to Phoolan page by page,” Rambali continues. “She would interrupt to correct errors, clear confusing contradictions, and add more recollections as they came to her. Phoolan signed her name at the bottom of each page, the only word she knew how to write.”
Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
Normally, I’m puzzled and disappointed when writers of color choose to center their books around white protagonists. But Ng’s choice of a nearly all-white cast of characters really works for the plotline she’s constructed.
The orderly community of Shaker Heights, a planned suburb outside Cleveland with myriad rules and regulations, is upended when a Chinese waitress named Bebe Chow challenges her baby’s affluent white foster parents for custody. Long before Chow is even mentioned on the pages, however, Ng has woven the tapestry of life in Shaker Heights and made readers really care about (and sometimes loathe) every person in the two families who end up on opposing sides in the fight over not only custody, but also culture, heritage, and family.
I read these back to back, in part because after reading Song of a Captive Bird, Darznik’s fictionalized biography of Iranian poet and filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad, I wanted more of her lush and evocative prose.
In her author’s note for Song of a Captive Bird, Darznik quotes E.L. Doctorow as saying, “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” This is certainly true of her novel, which is captivating: It makes me feel the sun in Tehran and the dust of Amiriyeh’s marketplace, and crave the rice that Farrokhzad spends hours learning to cook (but never to her mother-in-law’s satisfaction).
The Good Daughter is Darznik’s retelling of her mother’s life in Iran—a life, complete with a first marriage, that she never shared with her U.S.-born daughter until after the death of her second husband. As in Song of a Captive Bird, Darznik’s descriptions are gorgeous—and heartbreaking—as she recounts the many closed doors, casual violence, and victim blaming inflicted upon the women in her family and country.
Dunya Mikhail, The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq
This book contains harrowing story after harrowing story of women who have been kidnapped, been repeatedly raped, and seen their husbands and family members executed by ISIS. But each story also has a beacon of hope in the form of Abdullah, a former beekeeper who has dedicated himself to rescuing women and helping them reunite with their families.
He does so while searching for his own missing family members—even after he finally learns their fate. As Mikhail writes, “At the edge of a mass grave, Abdullah stood there crying. He had finally found his brother … he was still staring at his brother’s corpse as he spoke to the latest captive who was trying to escape with her children. Later, Abdullah would leave his brother’s funeral to go and receive that family. ‘I must respond to his death by saving even more people from the hands of the killers,’ he said.”
Each chapter contains at least one interview with a woman who was kidnapped by ISIS—and how she connected with Abdullah and was rescued. Warning: If accounts of sexual violence trigger you, I’d strongly recommend not beginning with the first chapter. (You can always go back and read it later.) Subsequent chapters also mention repeated physical and sexual violence, but without the same level of intensity.
Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
I was inspired to pick up Hansberry’s classic play after watching a documentary about her on PBS. Partway through reading Act II, I wondered, How did this never make it onto any of the assigned reading lists in my junior high, high school, or college English classes?
Set in Chicago sometime between World War Two and 1959, A Raisin in the Sun examines the life of the Youngers, a Black family struggling to make it in a world hostile to them, their survival, and their very existence. Three generations of Youngers, headed by widow Lena Younger, live in a crummy apartment on the city’s South Side. Each act unfolds to show both the interior life of the family, and the racial, economic, and societal restrictions that continue to press them on all sides.
I’ve read 32 books by women of color this year. What else do you recommend I add to my list?