Every year, I challenge myself to read at least 50 books by women of color. My goal was inspired by science fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson, who noted that books by people of color are often given less attention by publishers, publicists, bookstores, and reviewers. The lack of attention, predictably, translates to fewer sales—and those fewer sales often translate to the (erroneous) conclusion that readers aren’t interested in writers of color.
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. It’s a welcome break from reporting on stories of the trauma, violence, resilience, and resistance inherent in the nation’s jail and prison system.
I’m thrilled to say that I’ve exceeded my challenge with 57 books by women of color! You can find reviews of some of the earlier books I’ve read here, here and here. I hope this inspires you to pick up some of these books to while away the dark winter nights and to pick some up as gifts for the readers in your life.
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Kali Nicole Gross, Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex and Violence in America
In 1887, a farmer in rural Pennsylvania came across a trunk in a field. Inside the trunk was a disembodied torso. The investigation quickly honed in on Hannah Mary Tabbs, a married Black woman who was also the dead man’s lover. With the help of George Wilson, a biracial 18-year-old, Tabbs killed her lover, dismembered him, then carried his torso from Philadelphia into rural Pennsylvania by train to dump it in a field. (Wilson dumped the limbs in the river.) After being picked up, detained, and possibly brutalized by the police, Tabbs admitted to the killing. She and Wilson were both tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison.
I don’t usually read true crime, so I’m unsure if the genre typically includes the racial, social, and political landscapes of the time. Gross certainly weaves these into her narrative. For instance, she notes that Philadelphia police emphasized surveillance of certain (racial) groups, which were eventually codified into the patrolmen’s manual. When recounting the trial of Tabbs and Wilson, Gross notes the odds against Tabbs: “Black women especially had difficulty convincing whites of their innocence. Philadelphia juries had a long history of finding them guilty, as 72 percent of black women tried were found guilty and juries dismissed fewer of their cases—more so than any other group in the city.” Forty percent of the women incarcerated at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary at the time were Black, twice the percentage of their male counterparts among the incarcerated men. They also served longer sentences than their white women counterparts for comparable convictions.
At trial, however, Tabbs did something that few Black women were able to do—she painted her complicity in such a grisly death as the misguided actions of a fallen woman who had been led astray, garnering her a shorter sentence than she might otherwise have received. It’s an archetype that, both then and now, can work for white women, but rarely does for Black women.
Diane Fujino, Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama
Yuri Kochiyama is perhaps best known for her ties with Malcolm X after his break with the Nation of Islam—and as the first person to reach the stage after he was fatally shot at the Audubon Ballroom in 1965. Kochiyama was involved in Black liberation struggles (often as the only Asian person in the room, let alone the organization) and the fight for political prisoners until her death at age 93.
As a young woman, Kochiyama and her family were placed in a Japanese internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (Her father was arrested by the FBI and denied medical care while in custody. Shortly after his release, he died.) But while these events shaped her life—and introduced her to the man who would become her husband—they did not politicize her. Instead, Kochiyama did not come to organizing until she reached her mid-40s. Then she became a whirlwind of political activity, both organizing and doing the support work (like opening her home to activists who were visiting or even in between homes) that’s so crucial to movement-building.
As a reporter and author, I always like the sneak peek into another historian or biographer’s process. I was glad that Fujino described her process, including 34 hours of in-person interviews with Kochiyama as well as countless hours following her to movement events, and another 65–plus hours of interviews with other people to chronicle Kochiyama’s life and political development.
Emily X.R. Pan, The Astonishing Color of After
On the afternoon that Leigh Chen Sanders kisses her best friend, her mother dies by suicide. She leaves an incomplete note, a short collection of sentence beginnings that are crossed out. The last line, also crossed out, simply says, “I want you to remember.” The night before the funeral, Leigh is visited by a crimson bird with her mother’s voice. When it visits again, it leaves a box of her mother’s belongings, setting Leigh off on a journey to Taiwan to meet her mother’s grandparents, find the bird, and learn what her mother wants her to remember.
Leigh, an artist who draws in charcoal, describes the colors that emanate from people as their emotions shift: “Once upon a time we were the standard colors of a rainbow, cheery and certain of ourselves. At some point, we all began to stumble into the in-betweens, the murky colors made dark and complicated by resentment and quiet anger. At some point, my mother slid so off track she sank into hues of gray, a world drawn only in shadows.”
That same evocative prose permeates Leigh’s descriptions of Taiwan as she navigates the country—and her family’s past—to unravel her mother’s last message. It’s a beautiful, haunting fictional narrative that alternates between reality and magic, present and past, Taiwan and Leigh’s unnamed U.S. hometown.
Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone
In the kingdom of Orisha, the king has ruthlessly eliminated all magic and killed all of the people who can wield it, known as maji. Years later, Zélie Adebola is still haunted by her mother’s murder. Zélie is a diviner—a person whose magic might have awakened when they came of age. But since the mass murder of the maji, being a diviner brings only discrimination, abuse, and increasing taxes.
When Zélie and her brother travel to Lagos, the kingdom’s capital, to sell a rare fish, she collides with Amari, an escaping princess bearing a scroll that awakens diviners’ magic. The three teenagers, pursued by the crown prince and his troops, embark upon a quest to restore magic to Orisha.
Children of Blood and Bone demonstrates (once again) that not all fantasy worlds must be rooted in Europe. Adeyemi draws on Nigerian culture for Orisha’s everyday sights, sounds, smells and foods.
Like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Adeyemi’s book was partially inspired by the numerous police killings of unarmed Black people. In her author’s note, she explains that she wrote the book “during a time where I kept turning on the news and seeing stories of unarmed black men, women, and children being shot by the police.” She goes on to name some of the children whose lives were cut short by police murders—and their surviving family members whose lives will be forever altered. (To say more might give away some of the plot.) The story that unfolds within her 525-page epic is not at all didactic, but her note ends with an exhortation to action:
“And just like Zélie and Amari, we have the power to change the world.
We’ve been knocked down for far too long.
Now let’s rise.”
N.K. Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?
I’m not usually a fan of short story collections, particularly science fiction and fantasy short stories. Often, I find that by the time the author has built the world, the story is nearly over. Or else I don’t have time to immerse myself in the world before the story ends.
This was not the case with Jemisin’s collection. While some did require me to reread them to fully absorb the world and the plot’s twists, none left me wondering, “Is that all there is?”
Some of her stories are very firmly set in New York City. In “The City Born Great,” a queer homeless kid battles an ancient monstrous evil in the same epic vein as Beowulf battled Grendel. (My favorite line in the whole collection is from that story: “I salt these wounds with the memory of a bus ride to LaGuardia and back.”)
Others are set in faraway planets and galaxies colonized after Earth’s climate has collapsed. Still others weave fantasy worlds that have nothing to do with our current-day reality. My favorite story, “The Effluent Engine,” is set in a steampunk New Orleans in which the battle for Haiti was won using airships—and Haitians seek to keep their freedom by transforming the foul effluence discarded from rum production into fuel to power their airships. (To say more would be to spoil the story. Just read it.)
Whether the world is utterly fantastic or based off the world we have now, Jemisin always injects issues of race, class, and gender into the story without making them seem didactic or even forced.
Anna-Marie McLemore, When the Moon Was Ours
McLemore reminds readers that a plot with Mexican and Pakistani protagonists doesn’t have to revolve around racism. When the Moon Was Ours revolves around a budding romance threatened by magical roses that spring from a girl’s wrists and the most popular girls’ ruthless efforts to steal them.
The plot in a (very small and scant) nutshell: When she was 5, Miel fell out of a collapsing water tower. No one knew who she was or where she was from. Roses bloom from her wrist. Only five-year-old Sam dares approach her. Years later, the two are teenagers—perhaps the only brown teenagers in a town that is otherwise lily-white and suspicious of the both of them—and in love. My summary is a pale reflection of the world and characters that McLemore creates, but to try to explain more might give away too much.
What I will say is this: When the Moon Was Ours doesn’t revolve around social issues, but that doesn’t mean that McLemore doesn’t recognize these realities. Remembering his childhood, Samir, whose family fled Pakistan for first Afghanistan and then this unnamed town, recalls that some of his blond classmates, with “skin so pink their necks looked red even in winter, told him to go back home, and it had taken him a week of first grade to realize they didn’t mean the bright-tiled house where he lived with his mother.”
In McLemore’s hands, descriptions of even prosaic acts and objects are gorgeous. “The lies in the Bonner girls’ hands were a thousand pair of scissors, brash and tarnished”; “Her voice was afternoon gathered in the folds of sheer curtains. It was her white hand on patterned wallpaper. It was a lit match produced from her palm like a magic trick, and the whole room going up like kindling.”
McLemore also introduces readers to the term bacha posh, referring to daughters raised to be sons throughout childhood. But, McLemore explains, the change isn’t forever—in adulthood, the children are expected to become wives and mothers. “And maybe their lives as wives and mothers at first felt cramped, narrow after the wide, cleared roads of being boys,” McLemore muses. “But whatever freedom they missed was not because they wanted to be boys again. It was because they wanted to be both women and unhindered.”
I hope you curl up with some books penned by women of color as the year comes to a close. What books do you recommend I put on my reading list for 2019?