Recently the #publishingpaidme hashtag highlighted on Twitter just how absurd the discrepancies between advances for Black authors and non-Black authors are in publishing. For example, NK Jemisin’s famous Broken Earth Trilogy? She got $25K advance for each book. Jesmyn Ward had to fight to get a six-figure advance (a number frequently bestowed upon White debut authors with no track record) after winning the National Book Award.
If you’re White (or non-Black) and you’re anything like us, this hashtag (and the recent uprising against police brutality and racism in general) may have made you redouble your commitment to reading works by Black voices. Anyway, here are some of our favorites, old and new. Some of them we’ve written about before, some we somehow haven’t mentioned yet. Check it out, and follow the links to purchase from Bookshop, which supports independent bookstores with each purchase!*
*We’re not grown-up bloggers, so we don’t get any money ourselves… we just want to stick it to Jeff Bezos.
I don’t get to say “I wrote in…” because I actually haven’t finished the last book, The Stone Sky, and so I haven’t written yet! A sneak preview of that eventual post though: There isn’t any praise I can supply to usefully complement three Hugos and three Nebulas, in consecutive years, but wow were they richly deserved. In reading these I’ve been struck both by the incredible emotional depth of the series, both thematic and character-driven, as well as the remarkable way the series takes on themes and ideas that are current in other sci-fi of the moment, but makes of them something that feels infinitely richer and more real.
I wrote in 2018: A striking debut novel, which unravels the far-reaching consequences of a teenage girl’s abortion within an insular black community. Bennett alternates clear, matter-of-fact prose with more lyrical sections that are collectively narrated by the community’s busybody church mothers, evoking a proud and painful legacy of Black womanhood on every page.
Beloved is one of my favorite novels, and of course you should read it (and everything else Toni Morrison wrote), but I want to highlight her debut novel, which critiques race, gender, and societal beauty standards through the perspective of a young Black girl who longs to have blue eyes. Like all of Morrison’s novels, it’s essentially perfect.
Biting and hilarious, this modern noir follows a practical young Nigerian woman whose sister has a nasty habit of killing her boyfriends. It’s structured like a thriller, but subverts thriller tropes at every turn, with delightful results.
Adichie’s slim manifesto, which was adapted from her viral Ted talk, should be handed to every person at some point in their lives. (I think both Nerdy Spice and I each have multiple copies from our wonderful, radical mother.) Adichie explains why feminism isn’t a dirty word in stark, language, rousing enough to radicalize a new generation.
I wrote in 2019: The most fiercely original novel I’ve read in a long time. It is, on its face, about a young woman named Ada who is possessed by ogbanje spirits, but that summary doesn’t do justice to the strange, beautiful narration, a first-person plural from the perspective of the spirits, who have personalities and desires of their own, and illustrate that people/women literally contain multitudes.”
In this book of essays, framed as letters from a Black father to his Black son, intimately portrays the small-scale hopes and fears of parenthood against the backdrop of a racist society that dehumanizes and kills Black people. Coates takes full advantage of his quiet radicalism to push the reader away from an academic understanding of race and towards a bodily experience of race, away from the false promise of “hope” and toward the necessity for actual change.
I wrote in 2018: Parker’s poems and her narrators subvert expectations and defy categorization at every turn. As you might have guessed from the title, pop culture plays a large role in the collection, but Parker is not “just” a millennial poet, any more than Beyonce is “just” Beyonce. She uses pop culture, politics, her own deeply personal anxieties, and a deep well of literary and musical references to paint a full and complex portrait of Black womanhood in this particular time and place.
I wrote in 2017: An unsettling, uncanny, and strangely sensual science fiction allegory about slavery and colonialism, Spencer’s novels are remarkable not only for their allegorical potency, but also their moral ambiguity. A fascinating and profoundly uncomfortable read, one that challenges the very notion of consent in a colonialist society and renders the reader complicit in that particular type of atrocity committed for a people’s “own good.”
Urgent, visceral, and most of all powerful, Gay’s “memoir of [her] body” intimately depicts the experience of living in a body that has been visited by trauma and marginalized by society. A difficult and emotional read, and yet I read it in one sitting.
I wrote in 2018: The main characters are drawn so carefully and precisely that they live and breathe, the writing is achingly beautiful, and the story hurts your heart. I also felt like it was a portrait of the power and beauty of Black love and Black culture–the title is so perfect, because the book seems to me to be both about the universal experience of marriage and how complicated and difficult it is, and very specifically about the Black experience.
This novel of two young Nigerians in long-distance love, one of whom moves to America and starts a blog about race, was pretty much a classic, and for good reason. It’s funny, ridiculously smart and well-written, and sharply observant. I also recently read Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which is set in Nigeria and Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War. It’s not as well-known as Americanah but also excellent, and hits hard with its portrayal of the violence of the civil war.
Does this need an introduction? Like its author, it’s ridiculously wise, funny, and lovable. I laughed, gasped, and reacted constantly while reading it, whether I was in public or not.
One of the most beautifully written novels I’ve read in the last ten years or so, this is a family epic set in Kenya in the 1950s and 1960s. She also wrote an excellent novel more recently called The Dragonfly Sea, an epic following a woman named Ayaana as she comes of age and travels the world, and I wish both had received more attention!
I read this with a book club and we were surprised, because you could easily miss that the author of this novel of mid-century Parisian homosexuality was Black. But it’s beautifully written and romantic; I really recommend it!
I wrote in 2017: Starr makes for a vibrant and lovable narrator; she is a compelling mix of bravery and diffidence, love and anger, hope and heartbreak, and she’s terrifically funny and observant… Experiencing the world through her sharp and sensitive perspective is a pleasure even while it makes you cry.
I enjoyed this novel because it features someone who’s kind of an antihero — a Zimbabwean woman who is turned bitter by her struggles. It’s funny if sometimes rather pungent, and while it is a sequel you don’t need to have read the first book to enjoy it.
You’ve probably read Their Eyes Were Watching God, but did you know that Zora Neale Hurston also wrote a compendium of Black American folklore? It’s really cool.
I wrote in 2016: I read it with my heart clenched painfully, sometimes having to put it down because it was too damn sad.
This is a ridiculously sad novel about two teenagers who are sent to a horrifying reform school. It’s brutal, and unforgettable. I also highly recommend his Underground Railroad, a kind of magical realist reimagining of the history of the underground railroad (also very brutal) and, his lesser known work, Zone One — a full-on, highly literary, zombie novel that is just a great ride.
A lovely, poetic short novel about a man who has escaped into the forest. It was translated from the French, and its author has won the Prix Goncourt for an earlier novel. Very beautiful.
I wrote in 2019: I thought Ann Petry’s portrayal of her main character–talented and beautiful and loving, full of dreams of a better life, wanting nothing more than to escape the dinginess and moral degradation (and villainous men) around her–was captivating and complicated.
This novel follows a young boy who is a field slave and is recruited to help with scientific research by the brother of the cruel man who owns his plantation. The book combines a really fascinating scientific adventure with a portrayal of a young Black man coming into his own–and realizing the inherent limitations of his White mentor’s friendship.