Have you ever been in a bookstore, browsing through the fiction section, and come across a section titled "African American Fiction"? I see these sections every time I go to Books-A-Million, the local Goodwill Bookstore, and even the random independent bookstore. They're normally the size of an end-cap with anywhere between 50-200 books. That's compared to most bookstores who house anywhere from 3000-10,000 titles at any given time. I didn't really pay much attention to it until back in 2012, when I was in search of Toni Morrison's Sula, and couldn't find it anywhere. I went up to the manager and asked if he could help, and he said, "Oh, you'll find all the black authors over at the front edge of the store." I found the book and brought it home, but I couldn't stop thinking about this. It wasn't that these books were being highlighted as 'must reads' or anything. They were in the corner of the store, separated from the rest of the books. Why do these stores do that? I'm just confused about whether or not this is an issue, whether or not people find this helpful, and why black authors are the only minorities separated. I don't have any legitimate answers for these questions right now but here's what I can say; we're reading too many white authors.
Let me clarify; I'm not saying it's bad to read white writers. Lauren Groff, Michael Chabon, Karen Russell, Tom Perrotta...all favorite authors of mine. What I'm saying is, general readership has a habit of prioritizing white writers, a lot of times men, over minorities. When I was in high school, all of the classics they handed over were by old white men, and half the time they had racists leanings. It was actually frustrating to read this and realize these were considered the best books of all time. When I finally discovered authors like Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Louise Erdrich, I wondered why I'd never been given these books in school. I know a lot of teachers who push diverse reads, but even then, a lot of parents refuse to let their children read anything that doesn't follow a particular narrative.
It's important for us to read diversely. We don't always have the opportunity to ask people about their personal experiences, but books give us the chance to hear them. Books are also a little easier to handle than a conversation, because when we're ignorant of things we are afraid of saying the wrong thing, and the books teach us a little more before we speak. Reading diversely, reading about the struggles of lives people have lived that are so different from ours, it offers us perspective and understanding. I know this post mostly feels like I'm addressing a white audience, and in a certain way, I am. White people tend to be the biggest audience who leans towards reading white authors. It's who we readily identify with, and it's who we feel the most comfortable reading. There's a lot of issues with this, first being that we often think we can only identity with people who look like us, and second that reading is only about having fun and being comfortable. Reading isn't always about being comfortable; it's also about learning. I've compiled a list of books by nonwhite authors, and I hope you'll take a chance to read a few. Let's learn together, love together, and understand each other a little more.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This book is a masterpiece and should be required reading. There, I've said it. Adichie writes a beautiful love story in Ifemelu and Obinze. They're both from Nigeria, but Obinze goes to London and Ifemelu to America, each trying to find their own future. Ifemelu is the narrator and reflects on how different America is from Nigeria, in regards to race. There are so many moments in this book where you'll see yourself, no matter who you are, and you'll either laugh in agreement or feel embarrassed that you're 'that person'. If you're still confused about why we're talking about race in 2018, read this book. I'll share my favorite quote below:
“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.”
A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
This book deals with a lot of heavy topics in a very light way. It's beautifully written and engaging, and anyone who's ever dealt with school bullying or a dysfunctional family can relate. It's a split narrative between Nao, a 'time being' who wants to tell her grandmothers' story before she ends it all, and Ruth, a fictionalized version of the author who finds Nao's diary washed up on the shore. The book talks a lot about Japanese culture, Buddhism, how we view time, and life and death. When I was going through my list of books for this post, this was one of the first books I grabbed. What I realized after my stack was complete was how few books I had by Asian writers. I know there are a lot of Asian writers out there, but there's not a lot that we really talk about. It's 2018, and we're still casting Scarlett Johannson in the lead role in movies that were written and based in Asian culture. A Tale For The Time Being is lovely and deserves to be read. It's also important to realize this: the only way more stories like this will be told is if we prove that we're willing to give our time and money to them. So read this, but also read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and Waiting by Ha Jin. Read any books you can find and then find more.
“Information is a lot like water; it's hard to hold on to, and hard to keep from leaking away.”
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
Love Medicine follows the story of two families and their intertwining fates, told in many voices over the course of the book. It's lovely and refreshing. It's a book about Native American's and their culture. For a long time, I only knew of Native Americans from the Disney version of Pocahontas and a few old westerns. Throughout our nation's history, we've rarely shown Native American's in a positive light. They're always scalpers and savages...and we wonder why people get so mad at their representation in media. Louise Erdrich gives a powerful voice to a community that's still underrepresented. She's not the only one (just a personal favorite) but there still aren't many blockbuster successes within this part of the literary community. Almost everyone has read Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), but he's caught up in the #MeToo scandal. A lot of people have had a hard time letting go of a cherished author in an underrepresented community (we could also look at Junot Diaz) but there are many other authors who deserve our attention. So, use Louise Erdrich as your 'gateway drug', but then check out Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, Janet Campbell Hale, and Joy Harjo. Let's keep expanding on our ideas of who people are.
“Society is like this card game here, cousin. We got dealt our hand before we were even born, and as we grow we have to play as best as we can.”
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
This book is about a cult, and it's about a love story. That's all you need to know to go into it. I really enjoyed this book, and here's the reason I think more people need to read it. At sixteen, I was heavily involved in a Pentecostal youth group, and we'd run around praying for people and explaining to them why they were going to hell. Not everyone was as active as I was, but because I thought my homosexuality was taking me to hell, I was more zealous than the rest. Not all people of faith are like this, but for those who are or have been like this, this book explores the passion behind these kinds of people, like the person I used to be. It also shows us what it's like to have been that person and to see it all play out on the other side. It's not an easy read, but it's necessary.
"We raised linked hands, calling out in tongues. People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be a liberation, a flight from guilt, rules, but what I couldn't forget was the joy I'd known, loving Him. Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing--the old, lost hope revived. I was tantalized with what John Leal said was possible: I wished him to be right."
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
When I first read this book, I remember seeing a review that called it 'The Great Gay Novel'. I'm not sure if I'd agree with that entirely, but I will say that this book is the first book I ever read where I thought, 'someone gets me'. This book is about male friendship, following four men from their twenties until their mid-fifties, as they live the New York life and struggle to make their dreams come true. I know it sounds more like Everybody Rise, Devil Wears Prada, Sex and The City kind of stuff, but I think all New York novels tend to start out with characters going after a dream. (Disclaimer; I've never been to New York, so I have no idea what I'm actually talking about). What makes this book different is Jude. His life is full of (spoiler alert) suffering, and he has to overcome a lot. I don't even think I've cried over a book since this one if that tells you anything. It's beautiful and thoughtful, filled with diverse characters, and I think everyone should read this.
“None of them really wanted to listen to someone else’s story anyway; they only wanted to tell their own."
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
There's an interview with Poet/Memoirist Mary Karr, where she talks about the book she most identified with as a child. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, she said, and everyone thought that was so strange because she was white. I think sometimes we forget how universal our stories are. When I read Sing, Unburied, Sing, it was the first time I saw my life in its entirety. Jojo lives with his grandparents, his mother is an addict and his father is absent. The story is beautifully written, beautifully told; it deals with race, police brutality, ghosts, drug addiction, and many more complicated issues with grace. She never stumbles. While I felt like I was reading my own life story, there comes a point in which my white privilege gave me a detour Jojo doesn't have. As much as I identified with his story, there are just some things I never had to go through, because I'm white. We like to deny White Privilege, but it's there. The book isn't preachy, and I actually don't think it directly addresses white privilege. But I'm addressing it now because that's part of why I'm recommending this book. I might've gone through a hard life, but it doesn't mean I'm not privileged. Reading this book, especially if you've had hardships, is a good reminder that some people who live the same life as you can still have it worse just because of one aspect of their identity.
“Can't nothing bother me when I got my hands in the dirt, he said. Like I'm talking to God with my fingers.”
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
There's been a shift in how we view gender in our society. I'm still as confused as anybody, just because it's all so new and there's so much information out there. However, this book explores gender identity, spiritual identity, and personal identity in ways I've never seen. From what I understand, Akwaeke Emezi identifies as gender non-binary. However, their journey to feel whole in their body included surgery to remove their breasts and have a hysterectomy. I'm used to hearing most people say they identify as non-binary as a way to break the social constructs of gender. Yet, Akwaeke has a different story. They identify as transgender non-binary, which makes so much sense to me. You would be transitioning your gender, if you're going from identifying as male or female to gender non-binary. The exploration of their story is explored in Freshwater, which comes across as a novel/memoir hybrid. I still don't know enough to articulate what any of this means here. But I think this book is an important step in understanding the latest growth and evolution in our society. Emezi has a great essay at The Cut, about transitioning and gender identity, so you should check that out, as well. Like I said, I don't know or understand enough yet to really say too much, but that's one of the points of this post. To learn.
“I can see you change,” he told us, his eyes narrowed in interest. “Your body language. How you talk. Your eyes. You’re not always the same person, are you?”
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
People are more familiar with Lahiri's short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. While I enjoyed that collection, I chose The Lowlands because we're really able to explore the lives of these characters on a deeper level and get more of the history and culture. I love that. Also, Lahiri writes in very straightforward prose, so if you hate the flowery language of some literary fiction, her work is for you.
“Isolation offered its own form of companionship: the reliable silence of her rooms, the steadfast tranquility of the evenings. The promise that she would find things where she put them, that there would be no interruption, no surprise. It greeted her at the end of each day and lay still with her at night.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
I read this a few weeks before it came out, so I had no expectations. After reading the first hundred pages, I called my job and said I was too sick to come in to work. I finished the book in one sitting, and still think about this book often. Kamila Shamsie is a British Pakistani author, and I feel like her voice is one we don't hear from very often. Home Fire takes the Greek tragedy of Antigone as her framework, but this telling is so wholly original, it'll feel like you've never read anything like it. (Maybe that's high praise, but I really did love this book) I feel like telling you anything about this book will give something away, so I won't say anything in particular. But many characters in this book are Muslim, and I feel like we are still living in a time where people judge that, and the best thing to do when you don't understand something is to learn about it. This book is a good reminder to stop being ignorant and scared and start learning more.
“For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition”
New People by Danzy Senna
This book follows the 'perfect couple', Maria and Khalil, as they star in a documentary titled "New People". It's basically a documentary about people like them, people who are 'blurring the old boundaries', which I'm still a little confused on what that means. That's besides the point. This book is hilarious and thrilling, another book I finished in one sitting, and I would recommend it to anyone. It deals with race and class in a way that's really of-the-moment. I'm also telling you, by the time you reach the end, you'll have realized you've been holding your breath this entire time and that dizziness will stay with you for weeks.
“When there is a gap—between your face and your race, between the baby and the mother, between your body and yourself—you are expected, everywhere you go, to explain the gap.”
I loved all of these books. But they're not the only options.
Reading about other people and their experiences shouldn't be a chore. It's a gift. We're lucky that people share their experiences with us. We should take this gift and use it to the fullest advantage. I know it's strange to be so conscious of race, for those of us who haven't had to spend our whole lives thinking that way. To actively pursue reading writers who believe differently than you do, who are from other cultures, who aren't the same gender even. But if we don't actively learn about other people, we'll never see others as whole people; we will only see them as the 'other'. Reading diversely is the minimum. A bookstagrammer I follow, Coffeeandastory said, "we shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back for reading diversely'", and I think she's right. This is just a first step.
I'd also like to acknowledge that I barely know what I'm talking about, because I'm still learning, too. I grew up in South Georgia, and around here, a lot of people still discriminate and the views aren't always the most forward thinking. But I'm actively trying to learn because we don't have to be ignorant. We need to try to do better. So, hopefully, if you haven't tried to expand your reading yet, you could use this as a jumping off point. Then, you can find blogs by people who have more authority on these matters than I do. Thanks for reading!
P.S. If you felt that there was anything I left out or something I could improve on in this blog post, please contact me! I'm open to constructive criticism, and I'd love the feedback. Once again, thanks for reading, and hope you have a great day! :)