I read a crap ton of books in 2019. Fifty-five to be exact. In my last book review post “5 Life-Changing Books Every Woman Should Read in 2019” I realized something eye-opening: My list of book recommendations did not include anyone of a marginalized demographic.
Well done, Clo Bare.
This is a problem for many reasons.
- By sharing a list of all white authors and claiming they are “must-reads,” I am perpetuating the erasure of marginalized communities.
- I am limiting my perspective (and recommending a limited perspective) to those who look like me.
- By not acknowledging the blatant fact that my post had zero people of color, I am part of the problem by contributing to an already racist system.
I fucked up. And I’m sorry for it.
It’s uncomfortable to admit the ways in which I am racist, but denying the problem exists in the first place is a much larger issue. If I don’t acknowledge that my “MUST READ” list for women was a tunnel vision of whiteness, then how can I decide to do better? How can I acknowledge the ways in which I am failing if I don’t first recognize the way I am adding to our racist society?
White women and men have to accept their own racism and begin to do the work to continuously uproot those racist behaviors and implicit biases.
As a white woman, it is abso-fucking-lutely my job to use my privilege to support women of color, and that includes the big things and the small things– like sharing a “must-read” list that encompasses more than just white authors.
I realized my fuck-up almost immediately upon publishing the post, and because of it, I decided to make a concerted effort to start at the very least reading more books by people of color.
And I did. Instead of just lackadaisically scrolling through Hoopla and library recommendations, I sought out books by people from different backgrounds and experiences than my own. Still didn’t nail it, but it is something I have made a conscious effort to continually work toward.
It’s not enough. But it’s a start. And this experience has made me realize the ways in which I need to recognize my implicitly biased tendencies. I will continue to acknowledge the mistakes I make and learn from each of them to make sure I do better next time.
In this post, I decided to make a conscious effort to include 6 books exclusively by people of color to make up for my mistake.
6 Perspective-Shifting Books Written by Women of Color
1. My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
This is one of the few fiction novels I read this year, and I LOVED this book. Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel is based in Lagos, Nigeria. It chronicles the experiences of two sisters: Ayoola, a beautiful charmer who has a tendency to murder her boyfriends (in acts of self-defense?), and Korede, an antisocial nurse who always ends up cleaning up her sister’s messes.
“What led me to confide in a body that still had breath left in it?”Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer
I love this book for a few reasons.
First, Braithwaite’s writing is smooth and concise while also being poetic and lyrical, with the same kind of understated dark, satirical humor I love in the writings of Chuck Palahniuk. Dark humor can be hard to pull off, often going too far and taking a quick swing to absurdist or ridiculous, but Oyinkan nails it with morbidly funny prose and page-turning suspense. It’s smart, subtle, and her experience as a poet is apparent in her minimalist but stunning prose.
“Is there anything more beautiful than a man with a voice like an ocean?”Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer
I also love this book because even though it’s funny in a morbid and sardonic way, it also plays with the complicated relationship between sisters. The book is narrated by Korede, who is clearly jealous of her beautiful sister, but has an unbreakable love for Ayoola, even when she starts to date the doctor who Korede is in love with.
The character development in this book is artful in the way we only see the story from Korede. We feel what she feels, and while reading I had a growing sense of confusion on my feelings toward her sister. Was it empathy? Fear? Frustration? Braithwaite took me along for the ride as Korede tried to navigate her complex feelings towards Ayoola.
“I dare you to find a flaw in her beauty; or to bring forth a woman who can stand beside her without wilting.”Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer
There are some serious themes (besides, you know, seducing and murdering men because they view beautiful women as humanless sex objects) I relate to.
Things like never feeling like you can be or become your true self because you’re constantly trying to be who your family needs or wants you to be.
The expectation for women to be, act, feel a certain way in order to be marriage material, no matter the cost.
The beauty bias that allows beautiful people to get away with… well, murder in this case.
“The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.”Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer
It’s a quick read with incredible character development. I highly recommend it to my fans of dark satires with incredible characters.
“That’s how it has always been. Ayoola would break a glass, and I would receive the blame for giving her the drink. Ayoola would fail a class, and I would be blamed for not coaching her. Ayoola would take an apple and leave the store without paying for it, and I would be blamed for letting her get hungry.”Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer
2. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is another Nigerian author whose writing reads like poetry. She’s won literary awards for each one of her books, and while I read some of her work in college, I haven’t read much since. While at the library in December, I ran across her book based off her 2013 TEDx Talk “We Should All be Feminists” and decided to pick it up because I’ve been meaning to read more of her work.
And I was not disappointed.
This famous talk is one that I could read daily. And I’m not alone in that sentiment.
“Some people ask: ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be … a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
Her inspiring words have been featured in countless forms of art, including many you’ve probably heard of like “Flawless” by Beyonce: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise, you will threaten the man.”
It’s incredibly inspiring in a want to fist bump every woman you encounter and invite her to take on the world with you. I could read it every morning to get fired up for the day, life, conquering the world and taking down the patriarchy. You know. Usual stuff. It’s a little 60-page book that addresses the misconceptions about what being a feminist means, and how the expectations we put on both genders is contributing to gender inequality. In a way, it serves as a concise and conversational FAQ on all things feminism.
“We teach girls shame. ‘Close your legs. Cover yourself.’ We make them feel as though being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. And they grow up — and this is the worst thing we do to girls — they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
I think this book would benefit the world if it were required reading because the way she talks about feminism makes it hard to become defensive about it– which is something I think our society runs into often.
But Ngozi Adichie delivers an intro to feminism through storytelling that sparks empathy and understanding.
Her book is the perfect answer to “Why are there still feminists?” or “Why do we call it feminism and not humanism or egalitarianism?” or “Haven’t we gained equality by now? Gender INEQUALITY doesn’t exist anymore, right?”
“My own definition is a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
Whoever says that to you, gift them with this book or send them a link to the speech. I’m glad I picked it up because now I will be reading all things Ngozi Adichie.
3. We are Never Meeting in Real Life– Samantha Irby
I frackin’ love Samantha Irby. I saw her life without ever knowing who she was when I went to see Abbi Jacobson present her book during the Chicago Humanities Fest last year. Samantha Irby interviewed Abbi Jacobson, and before heading out to see the talk, I decided to do a little search on her, which is when I found her blog “Bitches Gotta Eat.”. From then on, I was hooked on the self-deprecating humor of the blogger, comedian, and writer.
“But I’m going to need you to love me on the bus, dude. And first thing in the morning. Also, when I’m drunk and refuse to shut up about getting McNuggets from the drive-thru. When I fall asleep in the middle of that movie you paid extra to see in IMAX. When I wear the flowered robe I got at Walmart and the sweatpants I made into sweatshorts to bed. When I am blasting “More and More” by Blood Sweat & Tears at seven on a Sunday morning while cleaning the kitchen and fucking up your mom’s frittata recipe.”Samantha Irby, We are Never Meeting in Real Life.
“We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” is the first Samantha Irby book I read, immediately followed by her book “Meaty.” In “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” Irby starts off with an essay written as an application to be on the bachelor.
“Age: 35ish (but I could pass for forty-seven to fifty-two easily; sixty something if I stay up all night).”Samantha Irby, We are Never Meeting in Real Life.
And the hilarity continues through every single page.
This collection of overshares and emotional truths stitch together pieces of her life as she navigates her way through the dating pool, chronicling a string of unsuccessful relationships while also unwinding the traumas of her childhood. She’s unapologetically human and with every laugh she gives, she then stops your breath with arresting moments of vulnerability, self-awareness, and pain.
Her writing digs into the deepest parts of what it is to be human, and what it is to be a bisexual, disabled, poor, woman of color and size, dealing with mental illness.
“But I was 22 when I started this job, and you know what? Sometimes it really is okay to just have a fucking job. Not a passion, not a career, but a steadfast source of bi-weekly income deposited directly into a checking account from which food, and medicine, and apps one totally forgot about having downloaded will be paid for.”Samantha Irby, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life
Samantha Irby is raw and completely hilarious in the most endearing self-effacing way imaginable. Reading her books is like getting wine drunk with your best friend who always knows how to make you feel better by one-upping you with a more hilarious story, often filled with embarrassing woes, while simultaneously making you lizard-brain-level furious at the injustices of the world and the experiences of those in marginalized communities.
She says the things that everyone is wondering but no one will say, and that’s exactly the type of writing that makes me feel less alone.
Highly recommend and am anxiously awaiting her next books.
4. Convenience Store Woman–Sayaka Murata
This was one of the quirkiest little books I’ve ever read and it was absolutely delightful.
In “Convenience Store Woman”, Sayaka Murata tells the story of Keiko a woman who starts working in a convenience store at the age of 18. The book starts when she’s 36… and still working at the convenience store. Keiko originally started working at the store to get her family off her back about being more “normal.”
But eventually, as the clock ticks on, it becomes less normal for her to be working at the shop and more abnormal that she’s a 36-year-old virgin who’s perfectly content working at a convenience store.
“This society hasn’t changed one bit. People who don’t fit into the village are expelled: men who don’t hunt, women who don’t give birth to children. For all we talk about modern society and individualism, anyone who doesn’t try to fit in can expect to be meddled with, coerced, and ultimately banished from the village.”Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman
Keiko loves working at the store because it has a manual– she knows exactly what to do during every minute of the day. She finds peace in the store– it’s a place where people don’t ask her about her romantic life and appreciate her skills in so expertly managing the store but beyond those doors? Keiko finds it increasingly harder to fit in in a world where everyone wants her to live a mundane and unhappy normal life by marrying anyone who will have her, rather than continue living her atypical but very content life in the convenience store.
I loved this book for a few reasons.
“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of. So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.”Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman
First, the character development of Keiko is EXCEPTIONAL. I loved her almost immediately in all her odd, quirkiness. Secondly, this book so beautifully exhibits the odd societal standard we all seem to accept that it’s better to live a life that fits within the realm of normalcy even if you’re unhappy, rather than live happily outside the norms. Keiko TRIES to fit in, over and over again, wondering if perhaps just taking on the characteristics of her co-workers will help her to be “normal,” but nothing seems to be working.
Not when she pretends a strange man is her boyfriend. Not when she lets him live with her, not when she works at the convenience store and not when she doesn’t work at the convenience store.
“When something was strange, everyone thought they had the right to come stomping in all over your life to figure out why.”Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman
Despite not having a “manual” for life in the same way the convenience store does, we all seem to abide by the same “manual” regardless– go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, repeat. And Keiko just can’t.
It’s so fucking lovely, and a quick read. On the surface it’s light and cheery– but I like how there’s a heft to it with undeniable dark humor in the way Keiko tries (unsuccessfully) to understand and become more like the humans she surrounds herself. Definitely relatable in her fruitless quest to become successful or even just normal, as deemed by society’s ever-changing standards.
5. Heads of the Colored People– Nafissa Thompson-Spires
“Heads of the Colored People” by Nafissa Thompson-Spires is a collection of stories that deal with black US citizenship and the black middle class, while also exploring the future of black America under the current sociopolitical climate.
Like several of these other books, there’s a vein of dark humor that courses throughout a story focusing on a narcissistic woman’s live social media updates of her planned suicide; passive-aggressive emails between mothers of the two only black girls in their upper-middle-class primary school; the only black professor who polices himself while trying to perform an anti-stereotype and his colleague who passive-aggressively fucks with his office.
“One rainy day in mid-October, Isabela sighed, a bit dramatically, Randolph thought. She must have had an altercation with a student, but when he asked, she said, “Randy, it is very dark in here today. May I turn on the lights?”
Randolph considered how to answer. He didn’t want this to become a pattern. “Oh,” he said. “Well, remember, I keep them off because I can’t deal with the fluorescent bulbs. I get migraines.” He pointed to his chestnut-colored forehead and frowned.
She nodded. “Yes, but it is very dark.”
“It’s fine today, I guess. I’m leaving soon, but in general, I prefer not to have them on.” Randolph fiddled with his necktie.”Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People
Over and over again the stories highlight the experiences of what it is to be the only black person in the room, and how the characters handle the pressures of the role as representative of what people see as black in a world of white.
There is SO much going on in this book. As Roxane Gay, one of my favorite essayists, writers, and reviewers stated:
“Each story examines the black middle-class experience. Many of the works border on satire but not because sometimes the absurdity of being black in this world feels unreal even though it is painfully real. Lots of interesting commentary on navigating the digital age and being a person. This book is imaginative, intelligent, witty, and run through with pain. Well worth reading.”
“As a funeral singer, she had more gigs than she wanted and paid for the fertility treatments on her own with the profits, though it seemed wrong to call them that.”Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People
As white people, it’s incredible the ways in which we do not realize the complexities of what it means to be black in middle-class America. The examples in this book of all the microaggressions and aggressions people of color face– they are astounding to those of us who aren’t forced to deal with it every day.
And yet it’s only a smidgen of what people face every single day, even in a world where people claim to accept them.
Like when their white friends say “they don’t see color,” completely denying the experience of a person of color and closing the door to any conversation on how they may do better in addressing their prejudices and changing them.
“But I couldn’t draw the bodies while the heads talked over me, and the mosaic formed in blood, and what is a sketch but a chalk outline done in pencil or words? And what is a black network narrative but the story of one degree of separation, of sketching the same pain over and over, wading through so much flesh trying to draw new conclusions, knowing that wishing would not make them so?”Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People
It was eye-opening, especially as someone who makes an effort to see the ways in which I am racist or prejudice, but it was also a beautiful piece of literary fiction that was entertaining and uncomfortable. I loved the internal worlds of the characters Thompson-Spires built, and I liked that the discomfort I felt at times was an indicator to look deeper into my own actions and self.
6. The Body is Not an Apology–Sonya Renee Taylor
I want to read this book four more times. I want to study it and do some serious self-reflection and write and respond. But unfortunately, I checked out this book from the library and had to give it back because there was a very long waitlist of people looking forward to reading it.
Despite reading “The Body is Not An Apology”, this is a surface-level review because I feel like I need to dive so much deeper into Sonya’s book. Every sentence felt like something I needed to dissect because her words and ideas resonated so fucking deeply with me that I felt like a high person rediscovering the meaning of life with every paragraph I read.
But less about me and more about Sonya and the book.
“Saying I’m fat is (and should be) the same as saying my shoes are black, the clouds are fluffy, and Bob Saget is tall. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is. The only negativity that this word carries is that which has been socially constructed around it … We don’t need to stop using the word fat, we need to stop the hatred that our world connects with the word fat.”Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love
Sonya Renee Taylor is a poet, activist, and founder of the Body is Not an Apology (https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/) movement and wrote a book with the same title. She brilliantly reveals how a radical self-love is a political act, and in a way, the book is not only about the importance of self-love as a way to HEAL THE ENTIRE WORLD (not joking and totally agree), but also how to start finally fucking achieving that shit.
I really really loved several things about this book.
“There is no standard of health that is achievable for all bodies. Our belief that there should be anchors the systemic oppression of ableism and reinforces the notion that people with illnesses and disabilities have defective bodies rather than different bodies.”Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love
First, there’s a point where she talks about how we’ve been bred to believe in this one normal/standard body we’re supposed to live in– thin white cisgender. That’s it. We leave no room for anything outside the “norm” even though wanting to change how we look or our bodies is not something we’re born with. As babies, we are born with a total fascination of our bodies and all the incredible things we can do– but life (*cough* commercialism and the patriarchy *cough*) BEATS that shit out of us. So we straighten our hair. We go on diets. We try to cover up imperfections, ie whatever is not WHITE AND THIN, in a desperate attempt to reach the golden egg of normal, accepted or even beautiful. It’s a fucked system that makes us hate ourselves and anything that is considered “different”.
As I mentioned in my review of “Heads of the Colored People”, she talks a lot about the ridiculous cop-out of when white people say “I don’t see color”. Here she explains WHY that is so problematic:
“When we say we don’t see color, what we are truly saying is, “I don’t want to see the things about you that are different because society has told me they are dangerous or undesirable.” Ignoring difference does not change society; nor does it change the experiences non-normative bodies must navigate to survive. Rendering difference invisible validates the notion that there are parts of us that should be ignored, hidden, or minimized, leaving in place the unspoken idea that difference is the problem and not our approach to dealing with difference.”Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love
As humans, we suck at dealing with difference, so much so, that we’d rather say it doesn’t exist rather than acknowledging the different experiences of all humans as individuals. We ALL fucking struggle with this, and it’s okay because it’s not something we put into our brains ourselves. We can let go of the guilt we feel that we DO see color and we DO see difference. Instead of feeling guilty about it and trying to pretend it doesn’t exist, how bout we work on accepting our aversion to difference so we can START DOING BETTER? Sonya’s book is a very gentle, friendly and accessible guide for how to do better.
I liked one reviewer’s comment on Sonya’s passages about erasure so I’m going to share:
“She also talks about erasure — a concept that isn’t easily understood by the white majority who insist they are “color blind” and don’t judge people based on skin color. Racism is institutional — while you as an individual may not be prejudiced, people of color still experience disadvantage and poor treatment. By denying that race/skin color matters — you’re erasing the actual, current experiences of others instead of offering to be an ally and working to collaborate on effective solutions by opening people’s hearts. Starting with, of course, radical self-love!”–Jenn “JR”, Good Reads Reviewer
If you have a body, you should read it. And I need to read it again.
I’m glad I had a come to Jesus moment because, for one, I read several great books because of it. And for two– it helped me realize the ways in which I still have more work to do.
Have you ever had a similar experience? Share your favorite books by people of color in the comments below.