Since 2015, I’ve been challenging myself to read 50 books by women of color every year.
Last year, I started sharing some of the books that have brought me needed joy as I’ve continued reporting on what’s happening in the nation’s jails and prisons. I hope my suggestions bring a respite from real-life horrors as well as diversity to your reading list.
I’ve read 29 books by women of color and two books by a nonbinary author of color so far this year. You can find this year’s first and second round-ups here. Below are some of the titles that have carried me through sweltering summer days, torrential thunderstorms, and a news cycle full of outrage and injustice.
Elizabeth Acevedo, With the Fire on High
It’s Emoni Santiago’s last year of high school. She has a flair for cooking and dreams of working in a kitchen after graduating. She also has a toddler, so every decision she makes revolves around what’s best for her Babygirl and her abuela. When her high school offers a culinary arts class, which includes a one-week trip to Sevilla, it’s a dream chance for Emoni. But with all of her responsibilities already, she isn’t sure she can balance the additional responsibility or expense. “I want to go so bad,” Acevedo writes, “but I grab that hope between my fingers and crush it like the strands of saffron, praying it doesn’t leave a smudge.”
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Like her debut novel The Poet X, With the Fire on High feels like inhabiting a spoken word poem. And though Babygirl infuses Emoni’s every decision, Acevedo doesn’t make teen motherhood the focal point of the story—which I especially appreciated. I can’t think of many other books with teen mom protagonists that expand the story past the immediate challenges of being a teen parent, let alone center on the teen mother’s (non-parenting) aspirations.
Sujata Massey, The Satapur Moonstone
Readers may remember that I greatly enjoyed Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill, a novel set in 1920s India with a (fictional) female barrister. I was thrilled to find that Perveen Mistry is back—and ready to solve a new mystery.
In 1920s India, Mistry’s gender prohibits her from taking the bar exam or arguing in court. It does, however, allow her access to widows in purdah: a permanent state of strict seclusion from the outside world, including all unrelated men. The maharaja of the Indian state of Satapur is dead, leaving the British to rule as regent until his 8-year-old son comes of age. The rajmata, or grandmother to the crown prince, wishes him to remain at the palace, where his 80-year-old tutor allows the boy and his sister to freely ignore their lessons. The maharaja’s widow, meanwhile, wants to send him to England to be educated—and away from the possibility of murder. Both live in purdah.
Their dispute requires the advice of a lawyer and, given their seclusion from men, that’s where Mistry comes in. It should be a straightforward visit and interview. But when Mistry arrives, she finds herself in the midst of palace intrigue, including two suspicious royal deaths and the possibility of a third.
Like Widows, Massey describes the sights, sounds, and politics of 1920s India. This time, her details focus on Satapur, a region so remote that Mistry (and others) can only travel via palanquin, or a litter carried on the shoulders of four men, but she still brings in the details that make you feel the bumps, the heat, and the isolation. The remoteness is emphasized in the palace, where the rajmata clashes regularly with her more modern-minded daughter-in-law, and even Mistry needs to worry about a poisoned breakfast. Each of Mistry’s encounters builds the suspense while weaving a more complicated narrative arc than a traditional whodunit.
Anissa Gray, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls
Given that I report on real-life women’s criminalization and incarceration, it might seem odd that one of my recent favorite books revolves around the arrest and incarceration of a fictional woman and the fallout on her family. But once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.
Althea and her husband have been convicted of swindling their community, a small Black town that has fallen on hard times, through their fake charity benefits. With their arrest, they go from one of the town’s most respected couples to the most reviled, with dozens of neighbors realizing that their hard-earned contributions went to pay the couple’s bills, not help with hurricane relief.
The term “collateral damage” is increasingly used in discussions and writings about mass incarceration to describe the damage wrought upon family members and communities by the criminal justice system. And that’s what Gray’s novel focuses on: the couple’s two daughters, who are mercilessly bullied at school after their conviction, and Althea’s two sisters. Her youngest sister Lillian, who now lives in their father’s home, has taken custody of her nieces while Viola, the middle sister, is hitting rock bottom in her own life. While Althea’s daughters try to make sense of the impending years of separation from their parents, the three adult sisters do their best to navigate the new reality while coming to terms with the violence in their own childhoods. (Warning: There are hints of childhood abuse scattered throughout the book.)
Gray’s novel is beautifully and compellingly written. Every scene acknowledges the gritty reality of how incarceration affects a person’s loved ones, and of the complicated emotions accompanying such a devastating separation.
Ling Ma, Severance
It may be the end of the world as Shen Fever turns people into mindless drones who repeat the same routines and actions until their body parts fall off and they die. But for Candace Chen, life in New York City is already a meaningless routine of getting up, commuting to and from work, and then spending nights watching movies in her boyfriend’s Greenpoint basement.
As her co-workers, neighbors, and the rest of the city either flee or fall to the fever, Candace remains. Both of her parents are dead, Candace has had no contact with their extended family in Fuzhou, and her boyfriend has driven off. As the world succumbs to Shen Fever and work dries up, she wanders and photographs the increasingly desolate city, sharing her photos through her blog NY Ghost.
Candace eventually joins a small band of survivors led by Bob, a power-hungry former IT guy who leads them in prayers before they go on “stalks,” or scavenging trips through houses. If the occupants are still alive but fevered, they are rounded up and herded into a room while the survivors look for supplies. At the end of the stalk, Bob shoots them in the head, an act he calls a “release” rather than death.
The novel alternates between this post-apocalyptic present and extended flashbacks of Candace’s past. Ma’s descriptions are haunting as she depicts how immigration, homesickness, family ties (or ruptured ones), and capitalist work cultures collide.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gods of Jade and Shadow
It’s 1927, but in Uukumil, a southern Mexican town where Casiopea Tun spends her days waiting on her grandfather and other wealthy relatives, it may as well be 1807. Casiopea dreams of escaping: of seeing the world, dancing, and learning to drive an automobile. One afternoon, she pries open a wooden chest in her grandfather’s room, accidentally releasing Hun-Kame, the Mayan god of death, and binding her fate to his. Betrayed, killed, and trapped by his twin brother Vucub-Kame, Hun-Kame must find his missing body parts. He and Casiopea embark upon a quest that takes them across Mexico, into the United States, and even into Xibalba (the underworld).
Moreno-Garcia has said her book was inspired by the Popul Vuh, the ancient Mayan text about the creation of the world. But you don’t need to have read the Popul Vuh to enjoy the vivid sights and sounds of both 1920s Mexico and Xibalba, or Moreno-Garcia’s equally enthralling descriptions of the feelings that slowly grow between the long-dormant god and Casiopea.
Yangsze Choo, The Night Tiger
Ten-year-old Ren has made a promise: He will reunite his dying master with the finger that was amputated years earlier. Ren must do so within 49 days, or else his master will be doomed to wander as a hungry ghost forever.
Ji Lin has always dreamed of being a doctor. Instead, she apprentices as a dressmaker and, by night, works as a dancehall girl to help pay off her mother’s mah-jongg debts. One afternoon, a grabby customer leaves her with a gruesome talisman: a severed finger preserved in salt. The next day, the salesman falls into a ditch and dies. Believing the finger to be bad luck, Ji Lin embarks on a quest to return it. But doing so isn’t easy, plunging her into a world of intrigue and murder.
Throughout the novel, Choo weaves beautiful descriptions of 1931 Malaya (the historic name for what would become present-day Malaysia), from the colonial plantations to the dance halls to dreamscapes populated by ghosts unwilling to leave their past lives behind.
JY Yang, The Descent of Monsters
JY Yang is a queer, nonbinary author from Singapore. I’m including them here because I’ve enjoyed their Tensorate series and want others to know about these books as well.
In Ea, a fictional world where science and magic combine to form slackcraft, people choose their genders in their teenage years. Ea is dominated by the Protector, Lady Sanao Hekate, whose political machinations and highly trained Tensors have allowed her to keep an iron grip on her empire. At the start of the series, the Protector has given birth to twins, Mokoya and Akeha, both of whom she gives to the Grand Monastery, the nation’s most powerful religious order, in exchange for helping her quell a rebellion. As the twins grow, Mokoya develops a gift for prophecy; meanwhile, Akeha joins the Machinists, a rebel movement opposing his mother’s rule.
All of this takes place in Yang’s first book, The Black Tides of Heaven. One should read Black Tides to appreciate the tensions in The Descent of Monsters (the third in the series), a mystery told through letters, diary entries, and interrogation transcripts. Within a hidden research facility, one of the experimental hybrid animals gets loose and slaughters every person. Junior Investigator Chuwan is assigned to investigate what happened, but her superiors seem more interested in stymying her investigation and placing the blame on the Machinists. Realizing something more is at play, Chuwan digs deeper and, as she gets closer to the grisly truth that the government wants to keep concealed, she flees her job and joins forces with the Machinists. While the main characters in Descent are new, the documents refer to characters in Black Tides—who play a substantial, though largely unseen, role in the events that unfold.
I haven’t set a goal of reading a certain number of books by nonbinary authors of color (at least not this year), but I do want to know about other nonbinary authors of color that I should definitely check out. What books by women and non-binary authors of color would you recommend that I read to round out this year’s reading list?