We could all stand to broaden our reading horizons; even self-described “avid readers” often peruse the same kinds of books over and over. And as we continue to read within our comfort zones, we have no idea what masterpieces elude us — especially from authors with backgrounds different from ours.
Reading books by authors of color is a great first step to expanding your literary repertoire and cultural awareness. That’s why we’ve put together this list of brand new works by authors of color — all released within the last year or so, all incredibly powerful pieces of literature. While there are countless other worthy titles out there, these five will get you off to an excellent start in diversifying your reading list.
Mirza’s stunning debut novel doesn’t just give you a quick glimpse into another world. Rather, it is a fully immersive experience: a portal into the lives of the Indian-American family it chronicles.
Like another famous family epic, this novel opens on a daughter’s wedding day. To her parents’ relief, 27-year-old Hadia is finally taking a husband — but on her own terms, meaning she’s forsaken an arranged marriage for a partner she truly loves. Hadia has also requested the presence of her younger brother, Amar, whose abandonment three years ago left a sizable, stinging hole in the family.
Amar agrees to attend the wedding but brings with him a great deal of tension — mostly stemming from his strained relationship with their father, Rafiq. So begins this nuanced, 400-page portrait of intergenerational conflict, religious issues, and cultural clashing and conformity, all wrapped up in the complexities of familial relations.
Mirza’s perfectly calibrated prose is countered by her unorthodox method of narrating events. She leaps years to the past and back again, often in the span of a single page — but her transitions are so smooth you hardly notice.
In effect, Mirza has achieved the ultimate stream-of-consciousness text. Everything she offers to the reader seems to have been drawn directly from the minds of her characters, who perceive and appraise their lives by relating the present to the past… just like the rest of us. Except in A Place for Us, their experiences are so vividly, vitally different from many of our own; that’s what makes the resonance of this novel such a triumph.
This literary debut from writer and artist Akwaeke Emezi is a chilling spiritual exploration, as well as a fascinating window into the author’s own life. Emezi was born in Nigeria and moved to the US to attend college, just like Freshwater’s protagonist Ada — and like Ada, Emezi has also struggled to overcome dysphoria and trauma, pouring that well of experience and emotion into this book.
In Freshwater, Ada’s complicated journey begins before she is even born. From the first page, the narrator (who uses the first-person plural pronoun “we”) describes knowing Ada as she grew inside her mother, before coming to inhabit her body. As readers, we understand that this narrative entity is separate from Ada, and yet physically they are inseparable. Ada is not exactly possessed, yet her consciousness is evidently split.
These violent spirits, collectively termed the ogbanje, cause Ada to become a troubled and tantrum-prone child. As she matures, her inclinations grow darker: the ogbanje urge her to cut herself, to starve herself, to do anything that will aid her self-destruction. When Ada is sexually assaulted by a college boyfriend, the ogbanje take over completely. They take on their own distinct selves within Ada — the strongest of which is called Asụghara — with terrifying results.
Freshwater is a brilliantly conceived, bitingly rendered treatise on mental illness in women of color, forcing the reader to re-examine their own preconceptions of both. And Emezi’s personal connection to the text doesn’t go unattested — no one else could write about these subjects, in this way, without having felt them down to the bone.
For all fans of Rupi Kaur who yearn for greater substance, or fans of Neruda who crave a female perspective: you’ll find your savior in Yesika Salgado. As the title (“heart” in Spanish) implies, Salgado’s Corazón is a love story, but told in a manner that’s anything but traditional.
The novel is comprised of a series of vibrant, all-too-brief anecdotes from Salgado’s life. Anecdotes from her love life, that is — familial and platonic love, yes, but romantic love is clearly what preoccupies and distresses her the most. One aching verse in Part I of Corazón reads:
I want love so bad / I chew on it in my sleep / brush it into my gums.
She ruminates on lovers past and present: first dates, blind dates, dates that went sour. Men with whom she spent only a night, men with whom she almost raised a child, a man she loved for years who betrayed her. Her narration is deeply personal, yet also fundamentally relatable — for haven’t we all lived such rich lives?
Salgado uses both English and Spanish to describe her experiences in an intensely evocative manner. Her writing is infused with her people’s history, her upbringing, and her identity as a Latina woman. Anyone who reads her work will recognize that there is little about her existence that does not touch her writing. And the beauty and raw edge with which she articulates herself makes that writing absolutely unforgettable.
Kandasamy was already a celebrated poet before she began to pen long-form fiction, and her second novel pays tribute to these origins. The poetic language, however, is the only pretty thing about this book: When I Hit You is a devastating account of the abuse suffered by a young Indian woman.
Our narrator has recently married and moved with her new husband to Mangalore, where he teaches at the university — and where she is bereft of friends, family, a job, and her mother tongue. Having isolated her physically, her husband begins to control her contact with the outside world. He confiscates her phone, her Facebook account, even her Internet cables.
Next comes the verbal abuse, infuriatingly demeaning. Then the shocking, almost unreadable physical abuse. Yet she remains hopeful throughout this torment, against all odds. But of course, that hope is a deadly double-edged sword: as long as she believes he might change, she’s unwilling to abandon the marriage.
“I sometimes wish,” Kandasamy writes mournfully, “[that hope] had abandoned me first, with no farewell note or goodbye hug, and forced me to act.”
Like Emezi’s Freshwater, this novel also draws on the author’s personal experience — knowledge that compels the reader to cringe even more every time the “fictional” husband raises a hand to our heroine. But the lesson that comes from Kandasamy’s brutally subjected, sharply narrated novel is not to shy away, but to listen closely. Whatever discomfort we feel as we read is part of the awareness we gain, of both abuse itself and the toxic cultures that can enable it.
Samuel Park’s The Caregiver is his fourth book, and also his last: Park passed away last year after a difficult battle with stomach cancer. Yet he managed to write almost the entirety of The Caregiver during that battle — and when it was published posthumously in April of this year, its lovely, illuminating prose did not disappoint.
The Caregiver follows Mara, a native of Brazil (Park’s own place of birth) and undocumented US immigrant who works as a caregiver. Her employer, Kathryn, suffers from stomach cancer — the very same affliction that killed Park. However, despite these surface connections, The Caregiver reaches far beyond its author’s own experience to take the shape of something creatively magnificent.
This book begins in the present but, like many of the books on this list, its events are rooted in the past. Mara’s intimate interactions with Kathryn frequently hark back to the relationship she had with her mother, Ana, in Brazil circa the 1980s.
When Mara was only eight, Ana became involved with a group of dangerous revolutionaries. As her responsibilities grew, she continuously insisted to Mara that family would always come first; after all, whatever payment or rewards she received would go toward both their welfare. But Mara’s present-day narration reveals that her mother’s sacrifice may ultimately have done more harm than good.
Expertly intertwined and incisively told, The Caregiver would be a worthy legacy for any author… but it’s especially so for Park, for whom it must have been a monumental effort to construct. Knowing his story whilst reading The Caregiver makes its every minor detail of illness and care all the more poignant — allowing Park’s words to linger with you whether you’ve ever cared for an ailing patient or not.