12 best books by women of colour
From electrifying debuts to the latest from some of the most established voices in contemporary literature, here is our pick of the new releases
We’re firm believers that your reading experience will only become richer as it becomes more diverse – bringing in voices from a variety of backgrounds, informed by different life experiences in different parts of the world.
This is our collection of books, all written by women of colour, which we believe will help to do exactly that. Each one has been newly published, re-issued or translated within the last year. It brings together some of the best known names in contemporary literature, as well as some of the most compelling new talent. Enjoy.
1. Swing Time by Zadie Smith: £18.99, Penguin
Zadie Smith’s bestselling first novel, White Teeth, thrust her into the literary spotlight in 2000. This, her fifth novel, Swing Time, explores race, class and the modern celeb-centric world. The young, dark-skinned narrator lives in 1980s London on a council estate with her parents, while her troubled best friend, Tracey, lives on the neighbouring one. The journey begins with their joint passion for dance – Tracey a natural dancer who goes on to star in the West End, while the unnamed narrator is a deep thinker who considers the meaning behind the movements. Charting the narrator growing up and apart from Tracey, the challenges she faces with her parents and her all-consuming job being a PA to global pop star, Aimee, the book subtly explores a variety of complex themes. It considers friendships and finding your identity but in a humorous and completely relatable way, making this another must-read from Smith’s collection.
2. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins: £12.99, Granta
It’s taken 29 years after Kathleen Collins’ death to publish this collection of short stories, but they’ve lost nothing of their power in the five decades since they were written. In fact, reading them in the post-Obama era plunges you straight into a time of freedom riders and bohemians, of hope and of defeat. Collins was just 46 when she died – her daughter discovered her papers 20 years later – but these stories mark her as having already mastered the genre. The prose is supple, the commentary – underscored by racial, gender and sexual politics – bracing, and her sharply-observed characters veer between monologues and addresses to the reader (only one story is written in the third person). There’s a cinematic form to the writing – unsurprisingly, since Collins was a film-maker. Let’s hope there’s enough for a second volume.
3. Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson: £12.99, Granta Books
In her fascinating memoir, the writer, critic and academic Margo Jefferson recounts her experiences growing up in 1950s Negroland – “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty”. This branch of the coloured elite was in Chicago, where her father was head of paediatrics at the oldest black hospital in America, Provident, and her mother a socialite. But this elite group were in a unique social position, having a certain level of wealth and social status but still battling racial prejudices, making life comfortable yet challenging. This is a rare insight, told with boldness, into a time where race, class and gender were being questioned by the civil rights movement and the rise of feminism. Jefferson doesn’t shy away from retelling difficult encounters and experiences, including her own personal battle with depression. It’s a thought-provoking read that offers a new angle on such a revolutionary period of modern history.
4. The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith: £14.99, Transworld
This is Mahsuda Snaith’s debut novel, set on a Leicester council estate. Ravine Roy is 18 years old and has been confined to her “lifebed” in her Amma’s (mother) flat for the past 11 years – ever since the day after her best friend Marianne disappeared and chronic pain set in. Like her protagonist, Snaith has Bangladeshi parents, and grew up in the East Midland city. The book, written in clear yet multi-layered prose is a vibrant portrayal of estate life in the late Nineties and an affecting story of friendship, dealing with pain, grief and coming-of-age in a single-parent family. While those big themes pervade, it’s the minutiae of life in Ravine’s and Amma’s flat that bring welcome humour, like her descriptions of Amma in her sari and white trainers, cleaned daily with vinegar and lemon: “Amma never believed in fashion sense, just common sense, though hers seemed common to no one but herself.” It’s an original, heartfelt read that will appeal as much to children of the Nineties and Noughties as it will readers of any age excited by a new British talent.
5. A Separation by Katie Kitamura: £12.99, Profile
In this short novel, Katie Kitamura – an American journalist, author and critic – elegantly dissects the nature of relationships and communication around a “whodunit” narrative. The story is told from the perspective of an internally anxious and opinionated, yet outwardly passive and awkward, woman. She heads to Greece in search of her estranged husband – who has travelled there without her – to demand they finally divorce. As she explores the hotel and the island where she is always a few steps behind him, she loosely pieces together his movements by striking up relationships with hotel staff and islanders. Kitamura explores how life and death thrusts us into uncomfortable connections, from spouse and parent to mistress and wife, and how fluid and breakable institutions like marriage are.
6. We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: £11.99, Algonquin Books
Published last year, this is another impressive debut novel, this time from US writer Kaitlyn Greenidge. Led by matriarch Laurel, the black Freeman family, all fluent in sign language, relocate from their predominantly black Massachusetts town in 1990 to an all-white area to take part in a life-changing science experiment at the Toynbee Institute for Ape Research. Charlotte, 14, and nine-year-old Callie are living, along with their beleaguered father, with a fifth family member: Charlie, a chimpanzee. The plan is for them to communicate with Charlie by signing. There’s a parallel story, set in the institute in 1929 when Nymphadora, a sheltered local women whose religion means she has lived an innocent life, agrees to let a local scientist do anatomical pictures of her. The exceptionally well-drawn characters guide the reader to question whether lessons have been learnt from history, and as the narrative moves forward, particularly Charlotte’s, themes of African-American identity and sexuality come to the fore.
7. The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam: £8.99, Canongate
Written by the multi-award winning author and columnist, Tahmima Anam, this novel is told predominantly from the eyes of a 25-year-old Bangladeshi woman. It’s a tale of conflicted love – the narrator, Zubaida, a paleontologist and Harvard graduate, is torn between two men. She meets Elijah, an American with whom she shares an instant connection. The pair fall in love but must call it friendship because of Zubaida’s boyfriend back home, Rashid, her childhood sweetheart. And thus Zubaida finds herself facing the dilemma of passion versus security, breaking the mould versus doing what is expected of her. And while struggling to make a decision, Zubaida – who is adopted – is also on a mission to trace her ancestry and find her roots. The novel is actually the third in a trilogy but you needn’t have read the first two books to enjoy The Bones of Grace. It’s a superbly written, deeply moving modern love story. It’s newly released in paperback for 2017.
8. Human Acts by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith): £8.99, Granta
This is the latest work from International Man Booker Prize-winning author, Han Kang. In it, she unblinkingly explores the aftermath of one of the darkest moments in South Korean history: the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, in which protestors were bludgeoned and shot by government troops, leaving hundreds (if not thousands – the figures are still disputed) dead. It deals with the broader societal impact of the atrocity, as well as the deep personal trauma it caused – one character is a student searching for his dead friend, while another is a soul pondering its own corpse. It’s written with a clear-eyed exactness that is at times horrifying. When we’re taken around a makeshift mortuary in a gymnasium, for example, you can almost smell the huddled, decomposing bodies. The slips in time and narrative, across different decades and often without warning, only add to the disquiet, although Han’s purpose is never muddied. Ultimately, this is a harrowing novel that deftly examines human cruelty.
9. What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah: £14.99, Headline
Lesley Nneka Arima won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa in 2015, and this is her debut collection in the genre. It focuses on the lives of Nigerian women across all ages and backgrounds, and their relationships both in the West African country and abroad. Each of the tales here are tightly, complexly woven – none more so than the heart-stopping opening story, which masterfully recounts how a chequered history of chance encounters, family strain, desperation and abuse leads to a tragic end. And although so many of the characters we meet are stricken by some sort of grief – from death, displacement, disillusionment – there’s no lack of emotional warmth, and even the occasional flash of dark humour. This is a collection which proves Arimah as a master storyteller.
10. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (translated by Ann Goldstein): £9.99, Bloomsbury
Love stories often form the best narratives and this memoir is no exception. But unlike traditional romances, this is a story about falling in love with a language. After moving to Italy with her family in 2012, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jhumpa Lahiri immersed herself in Italian, adopting it as her third language. With the help of imagery that is nothing short of poetical, here she explores the effect the language has on her – both psychological and linguistic – and her meticulous battles to become as fluent as an Italian. Visually the book harnesses the two languages with English on the right page and on the left, Italian. When reading, this only adds to the mystery as you try to decode and understand – a parallel to the author’s plight as she struggles through social interactions and grammatical quandaries. It’s hard not to commend Lahiri for eventually winning her struggle and being able to write about her journey in both languages equally.
11. What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: £7.99, Pan Macmillan
Anyone interested in reading this collection of short stories by the British writer Helen Oyeyemi should be open to not necessarily understanding or grasping the plot, as we’re deliberately pulled back and forth between settings, time periods, and transforming characters – we’re thrown into the metaphorical deep end. We’re taken to a school of puppets, a city without working clocks, a university library that’s turned into an ideological battleground, and beyond. The characters are diverse and often reappear, with each story giving us insightful reflections on religion, ethnicity, sexuality and more. It’s a delight trying to understand the links between the tales, and it all culminates in an ending that is entirely open to interpretation. This is magical realism at its finest.
12. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo: £14.99, Canongate Books
Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel is set in 1980s Nigeria in a time of political unrest. The protagonist is a woman called Yejide who is desperate to give her husband, Akin, a child. After months of trying, Akin is encouraged to take on a second wife by his mother who hopes this will solve the problem. But eventually Yejide does fall pregnant and after the joy of giving birth comes the heart-breaking discovery that her child suffers from sickle cell disease. The loss of one child to the illness is quickly followed by the loss of another and you feel Yejide’s devastation through Adebayo’s powerful narrative. The novel explores many different themes including Nigerian traditions and values, love, betrayal and loss, while there are plenty of twists and turns in the plot to keep you hooked until the last page.
The Verdict: Books by women of colour
We think this is an exciting list, with page-turners coming from both the established voices and the emerging talent. We loved the short story collection by Kathleen Collins – even if it has taken this long for her to be given her due recognition – as well as that from the hugely exciting Lesley Nneka Arimah. But our Best Buy goes to the ever-brilliant Zadie Smith for Swing Time.
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