In 2014, I challenged myself to read 50 books by writers of color.
After reading an interview with science fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson, in which she pointed out how easy it is to overlook books by authors of color, I reviewed my reading lists and realized she was right. The following year, I challenged myself to read 50 books by women of color. It’s a challenge that I set (and have met) every new year.
Reading has always been a welcome break from the turbulent and often-terrible news cycle. It has become even more so since the 2016 election and the political turmoil that has since ensued. Last year, I decided to share some of the books that have brought me joy as I report on stories of the violence facing people in the nation’s jails and prisons as well as their resilience and resistance. This year, I’m doing so again—and I hope some of these titles bring you joy as well.
Shamim Sarif, The World Unseen
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Set in 1950s South Africa, The World Unseen centers some of the people often left out of histories of the country: Indians, particularly Indian women. Given that I have (Chinese) family in South Africa, and having found that population similarly overlooked in such discussions, I was intrigued.
Marim is a housewife and mother whose husband recently moved the family from the city of Pretoria to the rural Delhof. There, isolated from any Indian community, she helps him run a general store while raising their two children. By contrast, Amina is an unmarried Indian woman who co-owns a café with Jacob, a Black man. But under apartheid, co-owning a business with a person of another race is a crime. As if that’s not scandal enough for the small Indian community, it’s an open secret that Amina is a lesbian. When she meets Marim, both of their worlds upend: Marim realizes that she yearns for more than being an isolated (and unappreciated) housewife, and Amina realizes that she longs to help Marim break free from that situation.
One subplot that caught my attention was that of Marim’s sister-in-law, who marries a white man. This violates the country’s Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, passed in 1949, and so the newlyweds must flee the country and live in exile. This resonated with me given the story of my aunt’s Chinese sister-in-law, who was one of the first Chinese women to attend medical school in South Africa. There, she caught the eye of a white student who, according to family lore, told his mother, “I saw an angel today.” The two had to marry overseas and, because of the Mixed Marriages Act, could not return home.
In The World Unseen, Marim’s sister-in-law and husband return for a clandestine visit. The police catch word and terrorize the family and Indian community searching for the couple. While it wasn’t the main thrust of the novel, Sharif’s descriptions made me understand the risks that my aunt’s sister-in-law and husband took—and the consequences that my family might have faced had the couple returned.
Nella Larsen, Passing
In her 1929 classic, Larsen, the child of a Danish mother and a father from the Danish West Indies, traces the reunion of teenage friends Clare Kendry and Irene Redmond, both light-skinned Black women who can easily pass as white. Clare has done so, reinventing herself after high school as a white woman and marrying a wealthy white man who hates Black people. Irene, on the other hand, stays within the African-American community in Harlem, though she occasionally passes as white to enter establishments that would otherwise have been denied to her. The two meet in one such establishment in 1927, 12 years after Clare’s disappearance following high school. On a visit to Chicago, Irene allows the maître-d and staff of a rooftop hotel restaurant to assume that she is white, letting her escape the summertime swelter. Clare has done the same. Up there, she recognizes her old friend. That chance reunion leads Clare to yearn for the life and community she has left behind.
Larsen’s novel is not a political polemic passing as prose. Instead, Larsen paints the women’s relationship as it unfolds—and quickly tangles into a romantic (yet unstated) attraction toward each other. Even as Irene is repelled by her friend’s choice to pass as white, she is drawn to her beauty and liveliness, noting at times her “tempting mouth” and “arresting eyes” and at others bursting with comment on her friend’s attractiveness. Clare too is fascinated not only by her childhood friend, but also by Irene’s life, family, and place in the community that Clare abandoned and now longs to rejoin.
Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer
Korede’s sister Ayoola can charm any man she wants. She also has the unfortunate habit of stabbing them to death (though she always claims self-defense). Fortunately, no-nonsense Korede is a nurse and knows the best ways to get blood stains out and bundle up a body for disposal, thus avoiding inquiries by the Lagos police or judicial system. But then Ayoola visits Korede at the hospital and catches the eye of the doctor with whom Korede has long (secretly) been in love. Flowers begin arriving at the house, the doctor comes calling, and Korede—still smitten herself—tries to stop the lovesick doctor from becoming her sister’s next victim.
Braithwaite writes the sisters’ unfolding story as a series of vignettes. They’re entertaining and kept me turning the page. (I finished the book in one day.) Most are set in present day, where Korede wrestles between her desire to protect the doctor and loyalty to her sister. But some vignettes recall the girls’ childhood with a physically and emotionally abusive father. These are flashbacks that make the reader think more about the lingering effects of childhood violence.
Thea Lim, An Ocean of Minutes
In 1981, the United States is gripped by a deadly flu epidemic. At the same time, corporations have figured out the logistics of time travel. When Polly’s fiancé Frank is struck with the illness, she agrees to travel forward in time to 1993 as an indentured servant; in exchange, the company will pay the exorbitant cost of Frank’s treatment. Polly’s special skill is an upholsterer and, in the post-pandemic future, that skill is rare and sought-after. The couple make plans to reunite: Frank, who will age his way into 1993, will wait for Polly every Saturday at a hotel in Houston.
But Polly is sent instead to 1998, to a Houston—and a continent—much different than the one she left. During the years she has been gone, the United States has broken in two, with northern states setting up roadblocks and borders to quarantine the virus to their southern neighbors. “The border was supposed to be temporary, only for the worst spikes of the disease,” explains one of the men Polly meets in 1998, “but by the end of that year, the government dissolved, and people living in the North decided to keep defending their border.”
Lim deftly illustrates Polly’s confusion and increasing despair—and the indifference from everyone around her—as she tries to navigate this strange new future.
Chloe Aridjis, Sea Monsters
“However fantastical it now seemed, I was here with Tomas, a boy I hardly knew, in search of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarfs.”
This is not the opening line of Sea Monsters, but the one that sums up most succinctly the narrator and her predicament. After meeting Tomas, 17-year-old Luisa decides to travel with him from her home in Mexico City to the Oaxaca beach town of Zipolite to look for a troupe of Ukrainian dwarfs who recently ran away from the circus.
Aridjis’s bio on the book jacket notes that she has a PhD in both 19th-century French poetry and magic shows with no mention of a minor in marine biology or ancient shipwrecks. But interspersed throughout Luisa’s narrative of her chance sightings and meetings with Tomas in Mexico City are facts and descriptions of ancient shipwrecks like the Antikythera, which sank in 70 or 60 BC, and the Mediterranean sea creatures that have feasted for centuries on these sunken vessels. I marvel at how much research Aridjis must have done to come up with paragraph-long narratives of each. About marine gribbles, for instance, she writes, “Though they roam freely, gribbles have hermitlike instincts, and are loath to leave once they’re ensconced in the burrows they’ve created: why move home when you have a roof and an endless supply of wood, peace, and quiet?”
Through Luisa, the reader is brought into aspects of the Mexican goth subculture of 1980s Mexico City with “piles of books rising from the floor to the height of children,” to darkened clubs blasting Siouxsie and the Banshees, to homes covered in hundreds of drawings where partygoers inhale a never-ending spiral of cocaine beneath the watchful eyes of three iguanas. Aridjis makes even the most prosaic aspects of daily life in Mexico City seem lyrical. Remembering the never-changing evening cry of the tamalero (tamale vendor), Luisa recalls, “The man’s voice had apparently been recorded at his uncle’s house when he was a teenager and had, like most city features, proliferated over time, eventually spreading to every corner, becoming the soundtrack to many people’s evenings, not only mine. Tamales oaxaquenos belonged to no one, a mantra released at dusk like an orphaned balloon.”
At Zipolite, the Ukrainian dwarfs are nowhere to be found. The glamour that drew Luisa to Tomas rapidly falls away. She later muses, “There are two kinds of romantics … the kind who is constantly falling in love and simply needs a person into whom they can pour every thought, dream, and project, and the kind of romantic who remains alone, waiting and waiting for the right person to arrive, a person who may not even exist.” She never resolves which type she is, but the reader can guess as her days in Zipolite languidly unfold—as she becomes disillusioned with Tomas, she meets a man at one of the beachside bars. Though she tells him her story, he never speaks and, alone in her hammock, she weaves fantasies about him and his silence.
Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive
Last year, I read Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, a haunting meditation on the author’s time as an interpreter for unaccompanied immigrant children seeking asylum. I immediately put Lost Children Archive on this year’s to-read list.
While collecting the sounds of New York City, a man and a woman fall in love and get married, each bringing with them a child from a past relationship. Four years later, the project ends—and with it, so does the couple’s raison d’etre. “We could finally move on—to whatever came next,” reflects the wife. “And that was exactly what happened: We started to move on. We were moving forward, but not quite together.”
The husband announces his plan to move across the country to study Apache history. It does not matter that his wife has just begun producing a sound documentary about children in New York’s immigration courts or that their children, ages 5 and 10, have grown closer. The family takes one last trip together, driving from New York City to the Southwest. During that time, they see the graves of Geronimo and immigrant children being boarded onto planes to be returned to their home countries.
Lost Children Archive is a novel, but details from Tell Me How It Ends are woven throughout the book. There are the two girls whose grandmother, unable to teach them their mother’s phone number, sews it into the collar of their dresses and instructs them never, ever to take those dresses off. There are the imagined scenes as the migrant children wait for a train to slow and then run for the ladders, as they ride the tops or insides of the train, as they scramble to cross the desert. Luiselli combines these with the everyday details of their last road trip—the silences between the unnamed husband and wife in the front seat while the stepsiblings, unaware of their impending separation, alternately squabble, listen to audiobooks, and reenact David Bowie’s Space Oddity in the backseat.
I’m eagerly awaiting Zen Cho’s The True Queen, a fantasy involving magic, intrigue, and politics set in regency England, which came out on Tuesday. I’m also looking forward to On the Come Up by Angie Thomas (author of The Hate U Give). What other books penned by women of color should I put on my 2019 reading list?