When I was growing up, one of the things that I struggled with the most was finding media that represented me. Of course back then it wasn’t as nuanced as how the issue is now — it was more of a ‘no-one looks like me on TV and in magazines, does that mean I can’t be like them?’. This had and has far-reaching consequences, and it’s only in recent years that I’ve come to terms with a lot of the exclusion I’ve experienced all my life. In fact, an easy way for me to share how underrepresented Chinese people were in British media throughout the ‘90s and beyond is that reading Harry Potter is the first time that I genuinely thought, ‘yes! That’s how I feel!’. I truly related more to a fictional boy wizard in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone than anywhere else. (And then, aged eight, I was thrilled when Cho Chang was introduced, and Rowling described her name, which was the same as my Mum’s!)
What I mean to say is I’ve learned over my adult years just how important it is to read voraciously across genres, across authors and across themes. Over the last four or five years, I’ve made a conscious decision to read more books by women of colour. Much to my grievance, I hadn’t even noticed how my own reading journey had been domineered by a) male authors, and b) white authors. I also want to reaffirm here that I have no issues with reading books by almost anyone; I just feel it’s important to read books by all voices, to gain a more worldly perspective.
Without further ado, here are some books by women of colour to get you started…
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
I first read Girl in Translation years and years ago. I’m, of course, drawn to stories that include a link to Hong Kong because it’s such a big part of my own story, and this one does so in a way that positions immigration and cultural identity as part of a narrative, not the central plot. Kimberly Chang and her mother are moving from the neon lights of Hong Kong to those of New York. All they can afford is a little space in Brooklyn, where they keep warm by opening the oven door. The novel details the Chang’s hardships from migrating to the States, chronicling Kimberly’s struggles as she begins school not knowing a word of English, and documenting the minutiae of their lives as Kim progresses through school, stepping into her new life.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
I must have spoken about this book about a million times on my blog, but it’s worth saying again: Homegoing is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Characters are given chapters that chronicle their precious moments in an overarching 300-year timeline of two women in Ghana and their descendants. Shamefully, I hadn’t read any historical fiction set in Africa, and this novel is the one that changed that all for me. Gyasi writes with such a quietly powerful voice that it’s impossible not to feel gut-wrenching sorrow, loss, heartache and beyond along with the characters. And when you reach the end? It’s blissful to note how the story is beautifully told in its twisting, turning, yarn-y way.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Recently adapted into a Hulu TV series (that I’m yet to watch), Little Fires Everywhere is a great example of a stunning story told by a women of colour that doesn’t centralise race as its key feature. Of course it must and does play into plot lines at some point, and in Little Fires Everywhere, it does so by introducing a little Chinese girl and a custody battle at the heart of the story. In the suburb of Shaker Heights, every small detail is planned out to perfection, and Elena Richardson is the perfect embodiment of that. When Elena’s family friends try to adopt a Chinese-American baby, the town is divided. This is a slow-paced book full of vivacious characters, each excellently written and purposefully so. Ng tackles family dynamics, societal expectations and teenage life so beautifully in this novel; I only wish I could’ve read this years ago when I was young, miserable and impressionable.
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
Long-term blog readers and bloggers might remember the wonderful Natasha Ngan from her popular fashion and lifestyle blog, Girl in the Lens. We have such fond memories together from several old-school blog events, and I remember instantly bonding with Natasha as we were both of British-Chinese heritage, with a parent from Malaysia. Well, Natasha is now a fully fledged, New York Times’ bestselling author! And Girls of Paper and Fire might be one of my favourite novels ever. Lei is chosen to become a Paper Girl, a concubine, to the Demon King. Girls is a gleaming tale of many yarns, intricate in detail, and so magically told that I felt fully immersed in Lei’s world every time I opened up the pages. Natasha deftly weaves in elements of Chinese-Malaysian heritage, family obligations, love, belonging and self-discovery. I cannot wait to read the next novel in the series.
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
Although I’ve only just started reading this one, I’d recommend Invisible Women to anyone who enjoys reading Daisybutter. Much like the title suggests, it’s a non-fiction book that does a (really really deep) deep-dive into how data bias has led to a world that systematically ignores around half of the population — women. It goes further than the gender pay gap, and reveals a gender data gap, that touches almost every aspect of women’s lives. Put simply, the world is built for and by men. It’s a big read and I’m only managing a few pages every few days, but the research that Perez has poured into this book is nothing short of astounding.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Finally, another book that I’ve written about several times: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. This powerful novel chronicles the lives of a young, recently married black couple in America. Wrongly incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, Roy writes letters to the love of his life, whilst she, Celestial, navigates life outside, alone. This beautiful love story is told slowly, masterfully, and looks intimately at the relationships tainted by wrongful incarceration, and confronts sharp truths that accompany them.
Girls Burn Brighter by Shobna Rao
Looking back at my book notes, I only awarded three stars to Girls Burn Brighter by Shobna Rao. I remember deeply enjoying this novel, but the language felt a little taut and missing a few curlicues here and there. Nevertheless, what Rao has created here is a magical, electrifying story of two girls, driven apart, but bound by their fearless friendship. It’s set in India, always a fascinating backdrop for me, and touches on the many issues that women, no, girls, face in the country. At its heart is an epic story of female friendship, interwoven with sub-plots touched by domestic abuse, immigration, trafficking and an introspective cultural exploration. It’s definitely tricky and tough to read in parts, but one that many will enjoy.
Which are your favourite books by women of colour?