One thing I actively try to do is read more books by women of color. First of all, reading a book by someone with a different background to you widen your frame of reference (I think about With The Fire on High here a lot). I’ve always considered myself to be pretty sensitive and thoughtful but frankly, until reading more books by women of color, I didn’t realize the extent of the obstacles facing black women (and I’ve really just scratched the surface with the books I’m featuring below).
The second reason is that women, particularly women of color are generally underrepresented across the board. Think about all of the media you consume across the board (TV, art, film, books, etc.) The gender balance is real and it’s particularly worse for women of color (and gay women too; I’d like to read more books by queer women bas well but one thing at a time). It’s important to me as both a consumer and a “person of influence” in this space to highlight an inclusive range of authors here. As it is, I almost exclusively read books written by women.
I started making an effort to read more books by women of color (in making this reading list I realized how few books I’ve read by Asian and Indian authors – I will do better!). Last year, An American Marriage was one of the best books I’ve read all year. And The Hate U Give stuck with me months after reading it. This year, I feel that way about American Spy. Here are some of my favs. This list is (like my taste in books) a little all over the board. It’s a mix of smart + light, with some YA (but meaningful YA!) mixed in.
Note that this is titled “ten OF,” not “THE ten…” I’d really love your recommendations!
Four more books that I want to read this year are When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrice Kahn Cullors, This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins, Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, and Patsy by Nicole Dennis Benn. I’m the first to admit: I read a lot of trash (I love my thrillers and my rom coms!) But I’m trying to be better about featuring a diverse range of authors AND reading at least one or two more smart and meaningful books every month.
Ten of the Best Books by Women of Color!
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This book. Oh wow. I read it back in 2017 and it was really, really hard to read. I cried reading it. And now it’s a movie. not going to make you feel comfortable or happy and it may make you ugly cry, but it was probably the most important book I’ve read that year. Starr Carter is a black teen straddling two worlds: the poor neighborhood she grew up in, and the fancy (mostly white) prep school she attends. When her best friend is shot and killed by a white police officer, her entire world explodes.
The story chronicles the thirteen weeks that follow his death – from all sides… how her friends react, the black lives matter movement, how she has to hide the fact that she was the witness, to the grand jury’s decision. It’s technically a YA novel, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a fresh, beautifully written, and a very real look at both racism and police violence in the United States.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
This book was one of those books that I read ages ago, see on my shelf, and still think about because it was so powerful! It was recommended to me by two of the people I respect most when it comes to taste in books. My mom (who saw it on my counter when she visited and immediately remarked how sad she was that she was done reading it), and Victoria. It’s one of those books that just gives you chills.
It follows the story of Li-yan, a young girl living in the remote Chinese mountains. Her family is is tea farmers and we watch her grow up (enduring some of the most incredible difficulties but ultimately persevering – leaving her village to seek an education). Anything I write honestly isn’t going to do it justice (and that description actually sounds kind of boring?), so I will just say that what I loved most about it is how much I learned (about Chinese culture and tea farming) but also the way that everything works out in the end.
Hunger by Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist is Next)
I will start with a confession: I have not read this book in full. This is first because I am terrible with non-fiction. I regular start memoirs and pick them up for something juicier and more fun and forget all about them. In the case of Hunger it’s also because frankly, it’s incredibly upsetting to read. The sexual violence (and aftermath that follows) is really intense. That being said, I am going to pick it back up this month and make myself read it in full. (I’m about 60% through.) It was a National Book Award finalist and Roxane Gay is one of the most talented writers I’ve encountered. I want to read all of her books (Bad Feminist, a collection of essays is in my TBR pile and next up but need to get through this one first)!
Everything Jasmine Guillory (start w/The Wedding Date!)
I am such a massive, massive Jasmine Guillory fan. I have read everything she’s written and whenever a new book she writes comes out, I put down whatever else I may be reading and start her book. Right now there are three (after The Wedding Date comes The Proposal and The Wedding Party. One of the things I really love about all of her books is that they are connected (characters overlap) but they aren’t sequels, so they all stand alone perfectly well on their own. Her books always involve a meet-cute, sometimes the characters don’t get along, but they are always sexy, steamy, feminist, and fun. I love that the women in all of her books are always strong women!
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
This was one of the best books I have read all year. We ended up choosing it as our book club pick for the podcast AND we were lucky enough to have Lauren join us to talk about the book! Becca and I both gravitated toward this one because it looked like a fun spy thriller. There’s nothing wrong with that BUT this book is so much more than that.
First of all, most spy thrillers are about a white, male, James Bond. We loved that the main character was a black woman (a strong, stubborn one at that). It chronicles FBI agent Marie Mitchell in the 80s during the Cold War pursuing Thomas Sankara (a real person; often referred to as Africa’s Che Guevara). Things get complicated. First her mission is to sleep with him. Then it gets even more dramatic. And somewhere in there they fall in love. But I don’t want to give any more spoilers – go read it!!!
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Did you see that this book is going to be a Hulu TV series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington!? So excited about that. Celeste Ng is an Asian American author and one of my favorites – I love everything she writes. This the story of the Richardson family – a well to do family in Shaker Heights (a quaint little town outside of Cleveland), living in their perfectly planned out bubble. One day, bohemian, artist. single mother Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl show up and everything changes. There’s so much in here. Family dynamics, coming of age stories, a custody battle, secrets… so much. Celeste Ng is a master story teller. I love how fluidly she alternates between the perspectives of the different characters… and how relatable and likable she manages to make each character – despite their flaws. I couldn’t put it down and you won’t be able to either!
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
As I mentioned above, this was one of the absolute BEST books I read last year. It was so powerful and moving and a real look at both race and marriage. Like many books on this list, after finishing it, I thought about it for weeks. It gutted me. I’m going to try to do my best to describe it (and the emotions it brings out) without giving away too much. Celestial and Roy are a year and a half into their new marriage when Roy is wrongfully convicted of a terrible crime. Roy is sentenced to twelve years in prison, but gets out after five.
A lot happens while he’s gone. And when he gets out early, what is Celestial to do? Let go, or rebuild her marriage? The characters were all so raw and real, each struggling with their own family problems + heartaches. One of those situations where you don’t really know what to do, or who to root for. All is (sort of?) resolved in the end but man… this is an emotional rollercoaster (and, a beautifully written rollercoaster at that). WOW.
With The Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Elizabeth Acevedo is such a gifted writer. (Her other book, The Poet X is a National Book Award winner – still need to read that!) I couldn’t put this book down. When I realized it was YA I was a little bit dismissive but quickly changed my tune, raving about it to anyone who would listen! Eboni is a young black woman growing up in Philadelphia. She’s raised by her grandmother (her mother died and her father abandoned them) AND a single mom.
Cooking has always been something that comes easily to her and when a cooking class comes up at her school, she jumps at the chance to enroll. The only downside? The course includes a trip to Spain; something she’d never be able to afford. The book is her story of perseverance and strength, and the greater realization that she can do something meaningful with her life while raising a child.
The Idea of You by Robinne Lee
I’m sorry to put this book on every list but OH WELL I love it so there! I have talked about it 1,001 times and it’s my favorite light read from this past year. If you haven’t read it yet, please drop whatever you’re doing and read it!!! Solene is a 39 year old (chic as hell) French divorcee who through a series of events meets Hayes (aka Harry Styles). They embark on what starts as a torrid love affair and turns into so much more! Like I said, it’s a lighter read and you’ll read it in a day or two but oh it’s just so much fun. (I also included this in my list of the best beach reads!) We actually have two episodes of the podcast dedicated to this book. First, our standard book club about the book and second, an interview with Robinne herself!
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
This is YA fantasy (and very popular – it was the #1 New York Times bestseller last March!) and such a fun one to read. (There’s a sequel coming out soon too, which I can’t wait to read!) It’s set in a fantasy version of Africa (Orisha) where magic exists. Or existed, but was stamped out by the king. The main character Zélie comes from a magical family with a tragic history (her mother was killed and the king has taken everything they have). Then, an artifact (that could bring magic back to Orisha) is discovered and it changes everything. Zélie suddenly has the chance to restore magic to the community and strike back against the king, and she takes the chance (with the help of a rogue princess – the king’s daughter!) This was also a podcast book club pick – read it and then listen to our discussion!
photography by Carter Fish.
It is really important to me to read minority voices too, especially women. I strongly recommend Valeria Luiselli (Lost Children Archive), Laila Lalami (the Moor’s Account), Esi Edugyan (Washington Black), Min Jin Lee (Pachinko). I could go on – but these are my favorites that I’ve read in 2019. Also Lisa See’s new novel is better than the Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, I think!
Thank you so much for the suggestions! (I’ve been hearing great things about the new Lisa See!)
Oh my god YES, The Island of Sea Women (her new book) is even better!
PACHINKO IS SO AMAZING – caps intentional!
I SECOND THIS! One of the best books I’ve ever read!
Thank you so much for sharing!
Thank you for these reviews, Grace! Definitely getting my hands on these. Your recommendations are always spot on. ❤️
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You should read Pachinko. It’s an epic read, you will learn so much about the struggle of poor Koreans living in Japan over four generations. It’s just brilliant. Also Americanah was another genius book by a woman of color about two Nigerians who come to the US and the UK and their experiences. One last amazing suggestion is Behold the Dreamers. It blew me away.
I second Leslie Pachinko is amazing!
Thank you! That one has been on my list for a long time!!!
This is a great list and has given me a some new titles to check out! Like you, I tore through An American Marriage and Little Fires Everywhere. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi was another book I couldn’t stop thinking about long after the last page.
Have you read any of Lisa See’s other books? Shanghai Girls and its sequel, Dreams of Joy, were incredible. I haven’t read the Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane yet – I’ve wondered about it, but your review just convinced me! I really see a blind spot in my own reading when it comes to Asian female writers, I’m embarrassed to say. Last year I read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (it is going to be a TV series by Apple too!) and it reminded me of East of Eden – just beautiful, sprawling and epic. It also made me realize I need to read more diverse voices, because there are just so many experiences out there I don’t know, and reading is such an incredible way to explore and be introduced to lives beyond my own.
I haven’t, and I want to! She is an incredible writer. Pachinko is also very high on my list!
Another helpful lens to keep in mind when choosing books is the #ownvoices lens, which you might see floating around on education or literary circles on Twitter. It is a push to be mindful of who the author is and what characters and perspectives they create and emphasize. Is it a white male author who is writing from a female woman of color’s perspective or is it a match between author and character(s)? It’s a question I like to ask myself before I check out at the bookstore.
Thank you! Will have to look into that!!!
Grace! This is such an amazing list! Your book reccs are one of my favorite parts of this blog and seeing you cover this severely underrepresented category makes me so happy. I’ve read a few of these so I’m even happier that you like these as well. I’m a woman of color and in many instances this category of literature is neglected.
If you want to try other Asian writers I suggest Jhumpa Lahiri – she’s one of my favorites and “Sister of my heart” by Chitra Divakaruni.
Thank you so much Malaika!!
These are great! Adding some of my favorites here:
– Stacey Abrams/Selena Montgomery. I love that the would be governor of Georgia penned romantic suspense novels while at Yale Law School and they’re excellent. She’s an incredible writer.
– Jhumpa Lahiri. Her books made me feel seen as a high school, for the first time. I find it wild that she also learned Italian just to write a book in the language.
– A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. This book destroyed me in the best way, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever read.
– Pachinko. Just a gorgeous, gorgeous book.
– Alexa Martin’s books are great if you love Jasmine Guillory. So are Helen Hoang’s.
I love how different each of Karin Tanabe’s books are – my favorite is the Gilded Years, followed by The Diplomat’s Daughter
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows was a DELIGHT. I need to pick up the author’s new book.
I adored Unmarriagable and The Wedding Clock – it’s refreshing to read South Asian Muslim stories.
Gabrielle Union’s memoir was EXCELLENT.
Melissa de la Cruz wrote the Blue Bloods (Gossip Girl meets vampires) and Witches Of East End, and I couldn’t put those series down.
I need more Latinx authors in my TBR list
Thank you so much! This is a great list, I really appreciate all the recs!
So many good recs! I’m going to use this page next time I go to the library! My recommendation is In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner. It’s about the Khmer Rouge regime and the genocide of the Cambodian people. It’s a hauntingly gorgeous book.
I can thoroughly recommend books written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie if you haven’t come across her already. None of them are new but I only discovered them last year and loved them.
I’ve read the following books and enjoyed each of them for different reason:
Half of a Yellow Sun
Thank you so much for the rec!!
Americanah is one of my all time favorite books!
Also Amy Tan’s books are always classic.
Unmarriageble by Soniah Kamal
and Sonali Dev’s books.
I’d recommend The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby, The Sun and Her Flowers and Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur (poetry but it’s beautiful).
Thank you so much for the suggestions!!!
Thanks for sharing! I read a few of these. 🙂
Love this, and all of the inspiration that you give for reading. I agree with the other comments on Pachinko. I’d also recommend Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which was a live show recommendation. I recently finished it and learned so much from a different perspective.
Thank you so much for the suggestions!!!
Hi Grace, not sure if you have read it or know about it but Roxane Gay also has a fiction book, An Untamed State, it is AMAZING, highlight recommend!
Ooh thank you for the rec!
I second this! It was the first time I’ve ever cried in a book when the character isn’t crying.
Love this post Grace! I added a few new ones to my list and can’t wait to read them!
I just read a book by a transwoman for my book club that is YA and a great read called If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, totally recommend reading! Such a different perspective. Thanks for sharing – adding a bunch of these to my TBR pile! 🙂
AH that sounds like an incredible book! Thank you!!
I have to echo everyone who mentioned Pachinko (so so good!), but if you want something shorter, Before We Visit the Goddess (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni) is the story of three generations of mothers and daughters and covers their emigration from India to the US. It’s fairly short but extremely well-written and draws you in quickly.
Thank you so much for the suggestions!!!
Love this post! I love everything by Jhumpa Lahiri! The Interpreter of Maladies is my favorite (it’s a book of short stories that just HIT you), and The Namesake, her novel, is another book that just sits with you for a long time. Plus, she is from Boston, and you will never read a more beautiful description of driving down Mass Ave along the river than you will in her books.
Thank you for the recommendations!!!!
I really need to get better at picking authors, when I buy books I don’t even pay attentiom to who the author is, I just read the little description of it and see if I’ll like it or not but supporting authors that are women and especially women of colour is something I should definitely pay more attentiom to. Thanks for sharing!
I know, I am guilty of the same (especially bc you know how much I love my trashy thrillers!)
Love all these books especially With Fire on High! It was definitely one of my favorite books I read this year. I also loved Children of Blood and Bone. The sequel is not out yet though…it comes out in December. And I can’t wait for it!
One of mine too!!! And thank you! I need to preorder!
A few recommendations for you
~ A Woman is No Man – Etaf Rum – about Palestinian immigrants and arranged marriages/their community.
~ Undaunted – Zoya Phan – memoir of a Burmese refugee
~ The Mothers – Brit Bennett – one of the best books I read in 2018
~ The Leavers – Lisa Ko – about an immigrant mother who has to leave her son
~ Anything by Jesmyn Ward – Sing, Unburied Sing and Salvage the Bones – she’s a gorgeous writer
Thank you for the recommendations!
I know it’s not fiction, but I’d like to add Becoming by Michelle Obama (which I read because of your rave review). I loved learning about her childhood and seeing how different yet similar our upbringing was. Can’t wait to read the rest of these. Great list!
YES I loved that one so so much!
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi was one of the best books that I read last year and it’s probably in my top 10 all time favorite books. I’m adding The Wedding Date and a few others to my TBR!
Though I enjoyed it, I didn’t LOVE American Spy like everyone else did. The spoiler about Marie being ordered to kill Thomas is a big one (to me at least) and I would have been disappointed to have read that had I not read the book. Perhaps it wasn’t a big revelation for you and I know it’s hard to make books sound interesting without giving away main plot points but now I’m hesitant to read your descriptions going forward. With that said, this was a great list and I love how you encourage your readers to read books written by women of color.
Ahhh thank you for reminding me about Homegoing, I LOVED that book. Love books with intertwining timelines and the way it was told was so interesting to me!
Thanks for that feedback Helen; I adjusted the description. No need to be hesitant; but do as you wish!
I got 85% though American Spy and put it down. The parts set in New York in the past and in the “present” in Martinique were much more interesting to me, and I was excited for big things when the action moved to Africa. But the setting and characterizations began to fall flat, and I couldn’t keep track of all of the acronyms. It was a basic double cross plot but told with no excitement. I also didn’t love the structure of writing to her boys. I’ll skim to the end I guess.
Finished The Wedding Date in 24 hours this weekend at your recommendation (& already on to The Proposal)!
With her recent passing, I also pulled out a couple Toni Morrison books that I read in high school and want to re-read as an adult.
YAY – they’re so good.
My mom and I were just talking about Toni Morrison. I should do the same.
Some of these are already on my list and looks like some new that I need to add. I just finished American Spy. I thought it was very intriguing, but I wanted to know more. What happened to her in the end? Hopefully she’s writing a sequel, because I felt like it ended too soon.
I know!!! We had Lauren on the podcast and I asked her that exact same question. I want more!
Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of short stories by Carmen Maria Machado (a queer, Latinx author), haunts me still. The New York Times book review read: “It’s a wild thing, this book, covered in sequins and scales, blazing with the influence of fabulists from Angela Carter to Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi, and borrowing from science fiction, queer theory and horror.” They are modern fairy tales about feminism and self-identity, set on the edge of reality. It is one of a few books that I pick up to re-read, but what I would give to be experiencing it again for the first time!
Thank you so much for these suggestions. Much appreciated!
Highly recommend Americanah!
What a great list! I had a similar, self-imposed challenge a few years back when I realized I was reading mostly books by men. Here’s a few more recs, because why not 🙂
– Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie
– The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, Anissa Gray
– Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
– Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue
– The Wangs vs. the World, Jade Chang
– The Turner House, Angela Flournoy
– The Mothers, Brit Bennett
Thank you so so much for all these suggestions!
I also second Americanah! I still think about it all of the time.
This is such a great list! To add, I love all of Lisa See’s books. I saw her speak in person and when she talked about the amount of research she puts into each book it made me appreciate them all so much more. She actually went to the tea farms in China for Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane research!
ah that is amazing. I’d love to see her speak someday!
100% echo all the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recs —> you can’t go wrong, but her “We Should All Be Feminists” essay is amazing.
And Jesmyn Ward is an incredible writer, I love everything she’s written. “Salvage the Bones” and “The Men We Reaped” are perfect.
“The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros is a modern classic.
And finally, check out “My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite. It’s not as heavy as it seems like it’s going to be.
thank you so much for the suggestions!!!
Americanah and Homegoing. Two more amazing books to add to this list!
thank you for the recs!!!!
Another great book by a woman of color is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Love all of these, Grace! I second the recs for Pachinko and Lisa See’s Sea Girls. I’d also add The Underground Railroad and Sing, Unburied, Sing to your list if you haven’t come across those already 🙂
THANK YOU for the recs!!!
I read the Underground Railroad and second this – a great book
I SECOND THIS! One of the best books I’ve ever read!
Thank you for letting me know!!!
For sci fi fans, check out NK (Nora) Jemison. How could you not love a book called “How Long ’til Black Future Month?”
Thank you for this list of great woman of color.
I just finished Well-Read Black Girl by Glory Edim this week and there’s a wealth of suggestions in the book as well as her blog on works by women of color. My 2020 goal is to read only books by women by color. Current re-reading the House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Severance by Ling Ma is up next in my to read queue.
I love that goal, and thank you for the recs! XOXO
I echo the recommendations of Homegoing! I also would recommend The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto (upsetting but short and some parts really stuck with me). And I have Her Body and Other Parties out from the library and need to read it!
They’re male authors and nonfiction, but books that I would highly recommend and have learned a lot from over the past few years (plus I think are engaging and well written) are Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (which I think is being made into a movie, so you may want to read the book first), and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (a mixture of funny and moving).
Thanks so much for the suggestions!!!
black woman here! i recommend you check out authors Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche, Zadie Smith, and (male) Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Thank you for the list because some are new to me. I will be adding “With the fire on high” on my next reading list.
THANK you for doing this. Love that you’re using your platform to make space for WOC.
Thank you!!!! Of course!!!