I started to become deliberate about diversifying my reading like this around the time women of color seemed to sweep the Hugo/Nebula Awards in 2016 and 2017. (In retrospect, it wasn’t a sweep as such, but it was unprecedented .) Fragile white men cried foul, Gamer-gate style, but I looked at the list of winners and recognized many of the names as some of the best writing I’d recently read in science fiction. This is hugely unusual; I never pay much attention to these awards, because I usually find the Hugo/Nebula winners to be tedious, overly technical and uninspiring. Suddenly, though, I was looking at lists of amazing women, including women of color, whose books had inspired, engrossed, delighted and entertained me.
It got me thinking about my reading habits. A couple of those authors had landed on my Kindle because of media attention to them as writers of color, but others I had picked up without any thought for who they were. As someone who cares about equity, should I have been paying more attention?
I also owe some thanks here to my Facebook and #bujo buddy Rebecca, who keeps an annual list of the (very prodigious) number of books she reads, and runs the stats for her online community at the end of the year of the demographic and genre breakdown of her reading. I started one such list in my first #bujo in 2017 and couldn’t stick to it, but her annual analysis reminds me to be more mindful of my own reading.
If you want to diversify your own list, here are some books by women of color that I’ve particularly enjoyed.
Award Winners of Color
Marjorie M. Liu and her Hunter Kiss series, beginning with The Iron Hunt, is one of the most lyrically complex novels I’ve ever read. Don’t let the woman in tight leather pants on the cover dissuade you as it nearly did me. An urban fantasy, this fever dream of a multidimensional fight for the future of Earth is written in a poetic style far outside my comfort zone, and yet I couldn’t put it down, or any of its three sequels.
Liu is also an award-winning graphic novel writer, winning two Hugos for her series Monstress. While I’m not a graphic novel fan, you’ll want to check her out if you are.
N.K. Jemisin‘s The Broken Earth trilogy, starting with The Fifth Season, takes on racism and climate change set on a geologically complex and unusual planet that is itself an inscrutable central character. Trigger warning: this story does employ child abuse, slavery and less than consensual sex and reproduction as prominent details of the systems of oppression at work in Jemisin’s world.
More Winners On My List
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor won Best Novella in the 2016 Hugo/Nebula Awards, as did it’s sequel in 2018, and are definitely in my To Be Read queue. I don’t know much of what to expect, but “coming-of-age by going abroad” stories are a no-brainer for me.
It also seems like a no-brainer for me to look into the work of Amal El Mohtar, who won the short story category in the 2017 Hugos. It’s been a long time since I swam in the sea of SF/F short stories (basically since the I stopped reading the Sword and Sorceress anthologies when Marion Zimmer Bradley died in 1999), but El Mohtar is known for Arab motifs in her work, which of course intrigues me!
Classics I Didn’t Know Were Classic
It’s a symptom of systems and cultures of white supremacy that we don’t even know what we’re missing and how the system keeps it from us.
Maybe you’ve seen this meme that seems to so perfectly describe the moment we’re in right now as a country and a culture? Did you immediately go and find the book and devour the trilogy as fast as your 9-5 allowed? No?
A year or two ago (or 10? It feels like forever!) when the Hulu adaptation of Handmaid’s Tale first aired and red cloaks began appearing in Statehouses and Congressional committee hearings, and everyone was talking about how the Handmaid was the perfect metaphor for our age … I saw a meme on Facebook to the effect that Margaret Atwood was all well and good for white women suddenly waking up to decades and centuries of reproductive abuse and control … but there was an equally brilliant Black woman who had even more perfectly captured the future we’re hurtling into, complete with racial dynamics, climate catastrophe and a populist President backed by the power of evangelical Christianity and the slogan “Make America Great Again.” So I found myself reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1), and it was everything I’d been promised and more! (Trigger warning: This one also features rape and child abuse as prominent plot points.)
The Earthseed sequels are equally compelling, and I was devastated to learn that she died before she could complete the series, but don’t let that deter you. I understand that her other work is equally excellent, award-winning even, though I haven’t taken them on myself yet.
I’m also adding Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed to my reading list, with rumors abounding about the television adaptation in development, tied to the names of brilliant Black women creatives like director Ava DuVernay, Oscar winner Viola Davis, “Rafiki” filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, and Binti author Nnedi Okorafor.
YA Is On the Scene
Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha #1) by Tomi Adeyemi kept popping up in my Newsfeed until I finally succumbed to Zuck’s algorithm and put down my dollars on this Young Adult gem. This book has taken some criticism for being too simple and unsophisticated, but I disagree; I got exactly what I was looking for in terms of story, and so much more!
For starters, I love the power of women and girls and mothers and mother figures and goddesses in this story. There are boys and men in key supporting roles here, but it’s with women that the real power and consequence lies, in both primary and secondary characters.
All of this is part of rich, original world building that held me rapt. Like many other fantasy worlds (Jacqueline Carey’s Terre d’Ange comes to mind), Adeyemi’s world is grounded in human history, a Nigerian-, Yoruban-inspired universe. Though my background in comparative religions is broader than most, I know very little about sub-Saharan mythologies, so for me this was wonderfully new territory. It connected to things I had seen in “Black Panther” (such as the Wakandan ancestral plane), making me want to go back to see it again, and even echoed “The Lion King” in moments, with the occasional Arabic loanword to feed my geeky linguist side. Though the novel had a few slow spots, I didn’t mind lingering in Adeyemi’s world. In fact, when it was over, I was distressed to find I’ll have to wait till June for the sequel, Children of Virtue and Vengeance!
Romance Counts, Too!
Widely considered (though not actually) a market by women and for women, this is actually a multi-billion dollar industry tackling a wide range of issues, and chief among these in the new century has been women’s empowerment, sexual, emotional and professional. As a prominent example, Rising Democratic star and should-be governor of Georgia, Stacey Abrams, is also the romance novelist Selena Montgomery:
In “Reckless,” a successful Atlanta lawyer becomes embroiled — professionally and romantically — with a handsome sheriff. “Secrets and Lies” pairs up sexy ethnobotanist Katelyn Lyda and Sebastian Caine, who may be a thief involved in the murder of Lyda’s uncle. “Hidden Sins” follows the exploits of Mara Reed and Dr. Ethan Stewart as they spar and spark, chasing down a buried treasure.
Nalini Singh is one of the most astute, creative, original paranormal romance writers I know, with a sharp mind for politics and intricate plotting without losing the reader in needlessly complicated intrigue. Like many in science fiction, her Psy -Changeling series approaches issues of power, racism and discrimination sideways, by reimagining human history divided into new races, removing some of the guilt and culpability that drives white and male and cis fragility. She also, without fanfare or self-aggrandizement, has quietly built an ethnically diverse, LGB- and disability-inclusive global cast of nuanced characters.
But her coup-de-grace for me is when, after a slow build in the C-story of at least half a dozen books, in #12 she takes an ice-cold supervillian, flays open the deepest secrets of his innermost heart, and reveals him as a stonecold alpha hero. For the full effect, start with Slave to Sensation (Psy-Changeling #1).
Voting With My Wallet
In my second year (and first full calendar/tax year) of nonconsensual self-employment, I grossed 20% less than in the year before, so I’ve had to be more conscientious about my spending. Nevertheless, over the last year, I have deliberately spent money on Black authors.
While usually I will grab a sample of a book for my Kindle before committing to the whole thing, when it has come to the writers of color, I buy the book up front. Given the wealth gap between white people like me and People of Color, and how much more difficult that makes it to pursue a highly competitive field like science fiction and fantasy publishing, it feels like the right thing to do.
Even when this led me to purchase James Marlon’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf (marketed as “a Black version of Game of Thrones”) even before it was published, a book I later decided was too violent for me to continue reading, I have no regrets about putting my money down towards his chance at commercial success.
So, I invite you to join me. Put your money down on writers of color, and then let me know who you’re reading. I’m always interested in adding to my list!