This article first appeared in Wear Your Voice Magazine, July 2016.
As an avid consumer of books and especially fiction, over the years I’ve developed a special shelf of particularly beautiful and inspiring works by women of color that help me not only walk around in another woman’s experiences, but also situate my own culturally and ethnically fluid self within a canon of women writers. Being a half American and half Sri Lankan Third Culture Kid — and a woman of color author myself — who has lived in 13 countries and 18 cities around the world in her 30-something years, I’m drawn to stories that negotiate race and culture in distinct and sensitive ways, and each of these books brings something unique to the cultural table.
The Last Report on the Miracles At Little No Horse, Louise Erdrich
While Erdrich’s entire canon develops stories from imaginary Anishinabe (Ojibwe) reservations in North Dakota, The Last Report is unique in that it follows the life trajectory of one single character from start to finish: a woman who escaped a terrible life and disguises herself as the reservation’s priest, Father Damien. The majority of Erdrich’s other novels will focus on the stories of a handful of Little No Horse residents, virtually every character makes an appearance in The Last Report, which has made it one of my most-read of Erdrich’s books. Plus, a woman in priest drag is just too delicious a story to pass up.
Saving Fish From Drowning, Amy Tan
Anyone who has ever had a trip go as wrong as it could go will appreciate Tan’s wit and wonder as she spins the tale of an American tour group on a journey from China to occupied Myanmar, where they get kidnapped by an indigenous group convinced one of the tour members is the prophet they have been seeking. Like American Beauty, the novel is narrated by an already-dead character who watches from the beyond, and her reflections on life now that hers are over are equal parts poignant and comical. As many of the characters are Asian-American, Tan perfectly describes the ethnic and cultural tension that can occur when Asian-Americans visit the places of their origins, and the sometimes charming and sometimes sinister ways in which they are met and perceived by locals.
The Temple of My Familiar, Alice Walker
Part novel, part feminist manifesto, The Temple of My Familiar is one of these books that grabbed me from the first time I read it at 16 and continues to do so over multiple readings these 20-some years since. Described by Walker herself as a “romance of the last 500,000” years, she intimately walks us through a history of black people, from Africa and outwards, as well as the mestizaje that began when African slaves were dispersed around the world. There is a fantastic and provocative imaginary account of the first white person in history: an albino who was shunned by his community, denied property and a wife due to his otherness, leading to the first rape in human history and subsequently the birth of whiteness. Fascinating storytelling on so many levels.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston, working with esteemed forward-thinking anthropologist and ethnologist Franz Boas, broke the mold with this novel that was technically
Waterlily, Ella Cara Deloria
Deloria was one of Zora Neale Hurston’s contemporaries as well as classmate under Franz Boas, and Deloria also used fiction and Dakota folk storytelling to paint a stunning portrait of life in the Dakota Nation before the white settlement of the plains in the mid-19th century. One of the most stunning moments in the book details a pregnant Waterlily as she goes into labor during her camp’s journey to a new site. She doesn’t say anything to anyone, just goes into the woods on her own, gives painful birth, and then walks back with baby in hand, eventually catching up with the tail end of the caravan. So powerful, so feminist.
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel is a poignant, if often heartrending, story about identity and the socio-cultural politics of one of society’s most fundamental markers: the name by which we are called. Through a series of mix-ups, Indian-American Nikhil accidentally gets his nickname Gogol — after the Russian writer with whom Nikhil’s father was obsessed — on his birth certificate. Thus begins years of struggle with his family as he tries to get them to accept he has eventually chosen the name Gogol for himself, whether they like it or agree or not. As someone with identity issues surrounding her name as well (my parents decided to call me by my third name growing up and at 18 I decided to start going by my actual first name), there was so much of Gogol’s frustration mirrored in my own life as I tried to get people to respect my own decision to be called my a name I preferred and suited me better. The takeaway: Call someone what they want to be called. Enough said.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera
As a half Sri Lankan and half American, I have spent (and will continue to spend) my entire life culturally negotiating between these two halves, made more complicated by the fact that in the meantime I’ve lived in 13 countries around the world since I was born. These were the days before there was any awareness or recognition of Third Culture Kids, or nurturing bi-racial and transcultural identities, so what I heard growing up was that I would never really be Sri Lankan or American, just some kind of non-entity on the fringes. Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors was the first novel I’d ever read by a Sri Lankan-American, and it was a revelation to me. Not only is the novel beautifully written and one of the most compassionate accounts of a civil war I’ve ever read (it’s up there with Charles Frasier’s Cold Mountain), but it showed me how much I do indeed have in common with my Sri Lankan-American sisters and I do indeed have a right to tell these stories as much as anyone else. I was so inspired, in fact, that among a plethora of social, cultural, even biological hybrids, my third novel finally its very own Sri Lankan-American superheroine. Munaweera’s sophomore novel What Lies Between Us is also a remarkable tale I highly recommend as well.
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
From 1992-1997 I lived in New Delhi, India, and it was one of the major formative experiences of my life. I first read The God of Small Things my freshman year of university in 1997, having traveled across the planet from New Delhi to pursue a career as an actress in Los Angeles. I had never in my life been so homesick for a place turning these pages about India while in LA. Something of my heart never left India at all, and I cried and cried reading this book the first time. Over the years since I have tried on multiple occasions to re-read this novel, and the experience is so overwhelming with my own memories I’ve never been able to finish it a second time. One day, when I’m ready, I know it’ll happen, and the book will take on an entirely new meaning than what it is now: a physical reminder of my transition from life with my family in Asia to life on my own in the US.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
I love it when a book that is considered literature and is actually a horror story in disguise, which is the case of Morrison’s Beloved. The ghost story aspect is carefully revealed, and in many ways feels inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s work. Also, the situation that created the ghost is one of the most horrifying things you’ll ever read. The book is about a haunting, and the reader will too be haunted by Morrison’s powerful prose. One of my other favorite parts in this novel is when Sethe and company get all gussied up for the travelling carnival and freakshow that allows African-Americans entrance only on one day. The meeting of carnival and black cultures — outsiders facing other outsiders in a tenuous kind of truce for the course of a day — is so fraught with social, political, and cultural subtext, I find myself reading that chapter again and again to soak it all in.
The Grass Dancer, Susan Power
Power’s The Grass Dancer is a painfully beautiful account of, among many other things, the particularly insidious ways that alcohol affects a Lakota community and the ripples outward it sends negatively affecting sometimes even generations to come.
This book will make you feel as if your heart is being ripped out from your chest as the travails of being Indian in an America that has all but turned its back on an entire people are meticulously exposed one by one. How do you even begin to survive when the history books have told the world you no longer exist? Carefully. And intentionally.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
A powerful memoir of the transition between liberal Iranian society and the post-Islamic revolution years, in which Satrapi was a young woman attempting to negotiate the hugely misogynistic changes that came with the coup. I have never in my life wished I could draw as much as I did while reading this book and its sequel: what a perfect way to literally illustrate these huge social and political changes, as well as how people lived before and after. The chapters in which Satrapi goes abroad and all the difficulties she had finding her own social place also deeply resonated with this biracial Third Culture Kid over here. I had just moved back to the US after 10 years in Europe when I read this in 2011 and Satrapi was the only person who understood what I was going through. Absolutely brilliant book, and so is its sequel.
The Diary of Frida Kahlo, Frida Kahlo
Even though this isn’t a novel, in many ways it reads like one
What are your favorite novels by women of color? Let us know in the comments below.