By Marilyn Dell Brady
For the past three years, I have been reading globally and diversely, reading books written by people of color. The result has been exciting. By definition, people of color come directly or indirectly from cultures that have borne the brunt of colonization. As rulers, Europeans and Americans once claimed the right to pronounce their ways of thinking and acting as superior to all others and to define those who are not white-skinned as inferior. Many of us challenge that viewpoint, but moving beyond it can be difficult. If we are to succeed, we need to understand emotionally as well as intellectually what it means to have belonged to a colonized nation or a subordinate group within a nation, such as African Americans or Australian Aboriginals. Readers who are themselves of color need books that address their own situations. Those of us who are white need to move outside our cocoons. Books can provide us both a means for that to happen.
Subtly or openly, people of color are finding their own voices to challenge those who have defined them. They are claiming the right to speak their own thoughts and feelings and to tell stories from within their own communities. They complicate what we think we know with the sheer variety of their experiences and viewpoints, but recognizing that complexity is the only way for us to move beyond divisions of “us” and “them.” Although dealing honestly with tragedy, like the American blues tradition, their stories often transcend suffering with the resilience of their characters and the sheer beauty of their words.
Deliberately reading books by diverse authors is to challenge the traditional claim that anyone can write equally well about anything. While some sensitive writers can meet that high standard and write as outsiders, most of us are more limited. We are all shaped by our culture’s definition of gender, race, nationality and other factors, and prone to slip into stereotypes when depicting those we perceive as “others”. The view from outside experts can be valuable, but it needs to be balanced by the views of those who know cultures from the inside. Reading diversity lets us see how people describe themselves and those around them.
Reading novels by people of color allows me to learn more than the details of different cultures. Such books create opportunities for emotional connections and glimpses of new perspectives. These novelists generally reject polarizing attacks on former colonizers, preferring to ignore or marginalize them rather than expressing anger. Often they choose to address the inherent ambiguities and complexities of life, situations that readers know from their own experiences. At their best, authors of color create characters whose humanity connects with readers at the same time the particular circumstances of their lives set them apart from us. We can “pivot” into the lives of others, coming to empathize with them while not permanently giving up our own commitments to different values.
WHERE TO START:
Many books by people of color are very well written, with styles that differ widely, from sophisticated literary prose to the recreation of traditional rhythms. I can only suggest a few authors that have become my favorites. Links refer you to my reviews.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born and raised in Nigeria and has lived in the United States. Her masterful Half a Yellow Sun is set during the war for Biafra‘s Independence. A powerful book, it showed me just how I, and the authors I had previously read, have been protected from the realities of war invading our lives. Last year she published Americanah, a novel about the United States as seen by a Nigerian. Adiche is committed to feminism and to the need for more varied stories. See her video, The Danger of a Single Story.
Thrity Umrigar is from India. Her forte is depicting how people feel and act when experiencing cultural and social difference. In her aptly-named The Space between Us, Umrigar writes movingly about the bonds and conflicts between a middle-class woman in Mumbai and her long-time domestic servant. This type of relationship exists all over the globe, and Umrigar describes its fundamental contradictions better than anyone I know. Her latest book is The Story Hour , a tale full of betrayals and forgiveness.
Alexis Wright is an Indigenous Australian writer who writes big, swirling, speculative books out of her people’s experiences. The Swan Book focuses on an orphan girl, ignored and abused, and then pulled into the spotlight by marriage to a man seeking to profit from his Indigenous connections. The story is rich with Australian images but also with the ways in which we are all refugees at the mercy of a changing climate.
Kim Scott is an Australian man, of both European and Indigenous Australian descent. In his writing he often explores his conflicted heritage. That Deadman Dance is a novel about the interaction of Indigenous people and English colonists on the southwestern coast of Australia. In it, he suggests that brutality and conquest were not inevitable. Scott also explores cultural differences in how we understand our pasts in Kayang and Me, which he co-authored with an Indigenous woman elder– differences that anyone thinking seriously about diversity should consider.
Leila Aboulela is a Muslim woman from Sudan who has written several novels centering on the complex and varied relationship of women and Islam. Her view of her religion is largely positive, although she recognizes the problems it presents for women. Lyrics Alley is about the conflicts between two wives of the same man, one who lives in a modern style and the other who is fiercely traditional. Minaret is about a young Sudanese woman alone in London who finds solace in Islam. Her writing is not as consistently strong as some, but her subject important.
These are only a sample of books by people of color that I could recommend. I have left out those by authors from the United States only because I was getting overwhelmed. If you are interested in more choices, see Global Women of Color, which includes recommended reading lists and reviews. Although I am no longer updating that site, I continue to read and review many books by people of color at Me, You, and Books.
Marilyn Dell Brady is a retired professor of US women’s history and currently blogs at Me, You, and Books.