Reading has always been my respite from the turbulence (and sometimes terror) of the news cycle. In 2015, I challenged myself to read 50 books by women of color—a challenge that I’m pleased to say that I’ve successfully met each year.
Last year, I decided to share some of the books that have brought me needed joy as I’ve reported on stories of violence, resilience, and resistance in the nation’s jails and prisons. I’m doing so again this year and hope that some of my suggestions bring joy (and diversity) to your reading list as well.
I’ve read 19 books by women of color so far. You can find my first round-up here. These are some of the titles that have carried me through spring days, both sunny and soggy.
Zen Cho, The True Queen
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As I mentioned in my last round-up, I’ve been eagerly awaiting The True Queen ever since I finished Cho’s debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown, a mix of fantasy, sorcery, race (and racism), and imperialism set in regency England. I tore through the 384-page book in one day and my only complaint is that I wish it were longer.
The True Queen begins in Janda Baik, a small village in what is now Malaysia. But, as Cho reminded me a few years ago, Malaysia did not exist as a country until 1963. The novel’s Janda Baik (not to be confused with the actual Janda Baik, which is 30 kilometers from the capitol) is a rural area under the protection of the Mak Genggang, considered the region’s foremost witch. Included in Mak Genggang’s ever-shifting household of other witches, apprentices, servants, poor people, and lamiae (women who become mythical beasts that eat children) are Muna and Sakti, sisters who had washed up on a nearby shore years earlier with no memories. Sakti, with her magical abilities, becomes an apprentice; Muna, who has none, works in the kitchen.
When Sakti starts to fade away, the sisters assume that she has been cursed. They break into the library of the English raja of Malacca, a nearby city under British rule, searching among his books for a cure. When they are caught, the raja demands that the witch hand them over for punishment or face an invasion.
Instead, Mak Genggang sends the sisters to London to enlist the help of the country’s head sorcerer, the Sorceress Royale. The sisters take a shortcut through Fairyland, where Sakti disappears. Muna arrives in London, where she must pretend to have magic, enlist the Sorceress Royale’s help in finding her sister, and navigate the intrigues of both London high society—which frowns upon women practicing magic—and Fairyland.
What I loved about Sorcerer to the Crown is how deftly Cho blended the drawing room politics of a Jane Austen novel with not only sorcery, but also race, colonialism, and imperialism.
Hanna Alkaf, The Weight of Our Sky
Alkaf’s debut novel is set in Malaysia, six years after it became its own nation. On May 13, 1969, days after a contentious election, tensions between the country’s Malays and Chinese have come to a boiling point. Melati and her best friend Saf are at the movies when rioting breaks out, a national emergency is declared, and armed rioters separate the two girls. Melati must find her way home—and to her mother—amidst the bloody battles raging through the streets of Kuala Lumpur. But that’s not all she must contend with.
Since her father’s death the previous year, Melati has been plagued by gruesome visions of her mother dying, visions that she believes are caused by a djinn. The only way to keep the djinn’s visions from consuming and paralyzing her is through an intricate system of tapping, pacing, and counting. As she moves through the streets encountering dead bodies, desperate citizens seeking help, and threats of violence, the djinn’s voice and visions grow stronger and stronger.
The Weight of Our Sky is based on a very real, and bloody, chapter of Malaysian history. It may seem like a heavy topic, especially for a young adult novel, but, in her author’s note, Alkaf writes, “Without your eyes, your attention, your willingness to listen, as the memories and voices of those who lived through it begin to fade, this seminal point in our past becomes nothing more than a couple of paragraphs in our textbooks, lines stripped of meaning, made to regurgitate in exams and not stick in your throat and pierce your heart with the intensity of its horror.”
Though her book is fiction, Alkaf does just that—she makes the fear, violence, and death (both real and imagined) as palpable and heart-piercing for the reader as it is for Melati.
Angie Thomas, On the Come Up
Thomas’s new novel also takes place in Garden Heights, the low-income Black neighborhood of The Hate U Give. The neighborhood remains ravaged by the riots that took place at the end of The Hate U Give, with storefronts boarded up, the persistent threat of gang violence, and now increased policing.
Sixteen-year-old Bri tries to focus on her dreams of being a rapper. Her father was a Garden Heights hip-hop legend, about to hit it big when he was gunned down in the streets. But it’s not easy. Her mother struggles to keep a roof over their heads, and Bri is assaulted by the security guards at her suburban white school who target her and the other Black students. Pouring her frustrations over these injustices into her first recorded song, Bri is unprepared for it to go viral or for listeners to misread her as a violent thug.
Thomas’ books give us a teenage protagonist who is multidimensional. In addition to rap, Bri’s interests include Star Wars and Harry Potter. She hates the gang culture surrounding her neighborhood, but dearly loves her gang member aunt.
I originally tried to listen to On the Come Up in its audio form. If you can stay still long enough for an audiobook (which I cannot), give it a listen. Thomas’s lyrical and evocative prose is even more stunning when you hear it read aloud.
Devi S. Laskar, The Atlas of Reds and Blues
The novel opens with Mother, the daughter of Bengali immigrants, lying in a pool of her own blood in the driveway of her suburban Georgia home. Through a series of short vignettes, Laskar goes back and forth in time: from the present, when the police storm into Mother’s house, assault her, and shoot her for no apparent reason, to Mother’s childhood memories of being the perpetual (and perpetually bullied) Other in a white North Carolina neighborhood. We see the bullying of Mother’s three daughters by their schoolmates to the bullying by her (adult) neighbors in the white suburb that her (white and always absent) husband insisted they move to. Occasionally, Laskar intersperses these infuriating scenes with facts about Barbie: “Barbie was originally conceived as a working girl, career-minded, trailblazing. For example, Miss Astronaut Barbie came alive in 1965, and Doctor Barbie was born in 1987, and NASCAR Barbie drove onto the scene eleven years later. Not that [Mother] got to play with any of those dolls. But still.”
Nearly every (non-Barbie) vignette is laced with racism. Though I know that these are fictional, they made my blood boil. As a woman of color (who reports on the criminalization and incarceration of many other women of color), it was hard for me to read this onslaught of micro-aggressions. At the same time, Laskar’s narrative prose made it hard for me to simply toss aside her book—I finished it in two nights.
If you’re looking for a novel that allows you to escape the reality of ever-present racism, this is not it. But if you’re not looking for an escape, The Atlas of Reds and Blues artfully, engagingly and infuriatingly weaves a tapestry of life as a woman of color navigating the everyday micro-aggressions that many of us know all too well.
Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women
Young-Sook and Mi-ha have been best friends since childhood on South Korea’s southernmost island of Jeju. Jeju is famous for its haenyeo—female divers who, armed with only a sharp knife and a wetsuit, dive as far as 200 feet into the sea for delicacies like sea cucumber, abalone, and octopus.
In the 1930s, Young-Sook’s mother was the chief of the village’s diving collective. Mi-ha was an orphan tainted by her father’s collaboration with the Japanese forces that have occupied the island since 1910. Despite her family shame, both she and Young-Sook followed the expectations of women on this matriarchal island and trained to become haenyeo.
The novel begins decades later in 2008. Their friendship has long been shattered and, when approached by Mi-ha’s granddaughter, Young-Sook pretends not to know her. The reasons why emerge through memories and flashbacks, which illustrate the island’s history and how it’s shaped the women’s lives. This includes the Japanese occupation, the war, the brutality of the ensuing U.S. occupation, and the movement for Korean liberation. The reader gets not only a history lesson, but also a narrative window into the island’s matriarchal culture, as Young-Sook recounts her childhood, early marriage, and later adult years as the island—and the country—passes from occupier to occupier.
The real-life women of Jeju call themselves jamsu, jamnyeo, or jomnyeo. Haenyeo is a Japanese word, which is how the sea women are known internationally and how See refers to them throughout her novel, so that’s the term I use here.
See doesn’t include this recent piece of news, but it’s what originally drew me to her novel: In 2007, 87 of the 1,900 residents in the southern village of Gangjeong voted to allow a new naval base in Gangjeong. The decision enraged and polarized the haneyeo community. Opponents, including many of Jeju’s remaining 5,000 haenyeo, protested—filing lawsuits, laying in front of bulldozers, staging hunger strikes, and going to jail. Despite their efforts, the base opened in 2016.
Cherrie Moraga, Native Country of the Heart
“Few bemoan the memory loss of the unlettered,” begins Cherrie Moraga’s book about her mother Elvira. “But when our storytellers go, taking their unrecorded memory with them, we their descendants go too, I fear.”
Moraga (best known as the co-editor of This Bridge Called My Back) traces Elvira’s life starting from a childhood pulled from school, where she never stayed long enough to learn to read and write, to work first in California’s cotton-picking fields and, at age 14, as a cigarette girl in Tijuana casinos. She goes through her mother’s marriage and motherhood to her dementia-induced decline and death. At the same time, Moraga recounts her own life, coming of age as both Chicana and lesbian at a time before intersectionality had entered activist consciousness.
She recalls going to a therapist in college, shortly after realizing that she likes women. The year is 1971 and, every time she feels like her life and body are slipping out of her control, her therapist encourages her to name the objects around her.
“‘Every time you start to go,’ she’d say, ‘just stop. Come back by naming the things around you.’”
Nearly 50 years later, Moraga writes that those eight weeks of therapy saved her life and that her therapist never asked her about thoughts of suicide or if she wanted medications—“standard questions directed at queer youth today.”
As a mother, I picked up the book curious to know more about how Moraga’s relationship with her mother shaped her own identity. Perhaps because I haven’t watched a parent die, I wasn’t expecting to feel waves of sadness while reading the last section chronicling Elvira’s last years locked away in the memory ward of an assisted living facility, sometimes unable to recognize her husband of 50 years or their two daughters. Meanwhile, Moraga describes trying to come to terms with her mother’s impending death. Sometimes her memories are political musings: “There were times in which I did not know whether my mother was truly demented or just Mexican in a white world.” Other times, you can feel her grief and pain: “there is nothing to support the limb of promised death. We learn to walk, at times crippled by its truth, as our own faces grow aged from the worry over who, when, how, how much longer…?”
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I’ve got a few dozen more books to read before I hit 50. What other books by women of color do you recommend that I put on this year’s To-Read list?