Diversify Your Shelves: Recommended Reading

Posted May 3, 2014 by LeahAdmin in Discussions, Literary Lists / 39 Comments

diverse books
If you’ve been paying attention to the bookternet recently, you’ve probably noticed a lot of discussion about the need for diversity in books. When the line-up for BookCon was announced a little over a week ago, there was a huge outcry about the lack of diversity in the authors and bookish celebrities appearing. Of the 37 BookCon guests, there is not a single person of color. (There is, however, a cat.)

I’m not going to write too much about this issue, since so many others have spoken more eloquently and knowledgeably on the subject. Book Riot has posted many articles about the controversy (see their post Diversity, Authenticity, and Literature or browse the site for ongoing commentary), and a three-pronged campaign called #WeNeedDiverseBooks has been launched. On May 1, people took to Tumblr, posting pictures of signs describing why diversity in books is important. On May 2, there was a Twitter conversation. Today, the organizers are launching the third part of the campaign, Diversify Your Shelves, calling for people to share their favorite diverse books. I’m here to do just that!

I believe it is important to read diversely, and one of my reading resolutions for this year is to consciously seek out more books by authors of color. Last year, only 10% of my reading was by authors who aren’t white, and so far this year I’ve bumped it up to 20%. I’m still not where I should be, but it’s an improvement, and I’m continually making an effort. I’d like to share my favorite diverse books, and I encourage you to buy and read them, voting with your dollars to let publishers know you want — and deserve — to read books that represent all people — not just white people.

10 Fantastic Books by Authors of Color

1. Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah. After years of scraping by in cities and refugee camps, the residents of Imperi are finally returning to their village after Sierra Leone’s civil war. Beah’s writing is stunning as he portrays life in Sierra Leone as heartbreaking and difficult but gleaming with human spirit and resilience.

2. Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole. Although he has made his home in America, a young man returns to Lagos, Nigeria, where he is at once an outsider and at home. As he wanders the city, he reflects on how things have changed and how they’ve stayed the same. Watch for my review later this week!

3. The Round House by Louise Erdrich. After his mother is brutally raped on their reservation, a thirteen-year-old boy sets out to discover the identity of her attacker and get revenge. This devastating novel is an indictment of the poor legal systems native tribes are forced to operate under and the story of a young man who must grow up too fast.

4. For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu. The only son among three sisters in a Chinese Canadian family, Peter Huang is under enormous pressure to live up to his father’s ideals of Western masculinity. However, Peter struggles with his father’s expectations, for he knows in his heart that he is really a girl.

5. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa LahiriThis collection of short stories portrays the tensions between Indian and American culture as characters re-visit the India of their childhood, struggle to understand American customs, and preserve their culture amid US urban and suburban settings.

6. Beloved by Toni Morrison. Written by Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison, this novel is about an escaped slave haunted by her baby that died before even being named. It’s so powerful that I could barely find the words to talk about it in my review.

7. The Returned by Jason Mott. An elderly couple are surprised when their son, who had drowned at age 8 more half a century earlier, turns up on their doorstep, looking exactly the way he had when he died. All over the world, people who had been mourned long ago return to life, forcing their loved ones to deal with complicated emotions.

8. Just about anything by Haruki Murakami. Norwegian Wood is a beautiful, sad coming of age story set in Tokyo, and Murakami’s surreal works The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore are also great reads.

9. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. A woman walking along the Canadian coast comes upon a plastic Hello Kitty lunchbox containing the diary of a young Japanese girl. As she reads the diary, we learn the story of the writer, Nao, a very bright but lonely teenager. This novel is absolutely brilliant, and my review will be up soon!

10. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. In the span of four years, Ward lost five young men she cared about. In this memoir, she tries to come to term with their deaths and explores the factors that link their untimely departures: namely, their being black, Southern, and male. Ward’s novel, Salvage the Bones is also a fantastic read.

I’d also recommend The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria NaylorThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila, and The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Richard Wright are also fantastic!

Let me know your favorite diverse books in the comments, and don’t forget to tweet about them with the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks!

  • That will certainly bring some colours on our shelves 🙂

  • Hi ! I think its a great effort you are taking. Since I am from India , I would recommend RK Narayan (assuming you haven’t read his books yet) . He is a legend here and his books are known more for their simplicity and the nostalgia they evoke than for literary flair.
    All the best for reaching your targets !

    • I haven’t read his books yet, but I’ll add him to my list!

  • Murakami, Ozeki and Lahiri are all favourites of mine! 🙂

    • They’re so great!

  • Isi

    I’ve read several novels by Murakami (in Spanish), and I liked them a lot. Sometimes I end up not knowing what happened in the story, but I got glued to it anyway!
    The returned: I didn’t like it 🙁
    Toni Morrison: I have to read anything by her.
    The rest: I didn’t know them, so thank God you are here to recommen them 😉

    • Murakami’s definitely strange like that!

  • I always forget how much I loved The Round House! Love your recommendations, we share some similar favorites, but this is always a reminder to me that this is the year I’m going to read Toni Morrison (I still can’t believe I haven’t).

    • Do it! I’m going to put the pressure on 😛

  • Fantastic list!

  • I LOVE seeing all the great recommendations that have been coming out of this campaign. I know there are so many underrepresented books and authors out there that deserve more attention. I have quite a lot of diverse books already on my shelves that I haven’t read yet (really must remedy that!), but I love the idea of branching out even more and discovering new topics & authors. Books are one of the best ways to explore the world, if you ask me 🙂

    • They’re absolutely a great way to explore the world!

  • You know what I’ve realized in all of this? I read very few, if any, South American writers. I love Asian and African writers and I will read almost anything written by someone from India. But for some reason South America alludes me. I’ve read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allenda, but didn’t really enjoy either one. Do you have any suggestions?

    • You know, I haven’t read many South American authors, either. Marquez is the only one I can think of. I guess that’s an area where we can both improve!

    • Check out Granta 113 it contains the best of Young Spanish Language Novelists, who they predict will still be around in 10 years time. She’s not South American (Spanish), but Carmen Laforet’s Nada is an excellent read.

      For recommendations of South american literature, check out this blog:

      Winstons Dad

      • Thanks so much for the info. Grants is always a trusted source.

      • Thanks for the recommendation! That sounds great. I just got a copy of the most recent Granta, which has a Japan theme, so I’m looking forward to reading some writing by Japanese authors!

  • Very cool! Maybe I’ll dig through my list and pick out my favorite books for diversity.

    • You should! I’d love to hear about your favorites.

  • Great list! Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is my favourite read for the year.

    • I think it’s going to be one of my favorites, too 🙂

  • Great list! I definitely need to read more diverse authors, and I second your recommendations of Murakami, Lahiri, Erdrich and Morrison. I’d also highly recommend Kindred by Octavia Butler.

    • I’ll keep Kindred in mind! Thanks 🙂

  • Great list Leah. And, an important topic.
    I would also recommend Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones — an amazing modern female black voice in America and the classic, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Published in 1952, Invisible Man is still a book I think every American should read.

    Thanks for doing this.

    • Thanks! Invisible Man is on my shelf, and I hope to read it soon 🙂

  • I also made the decision to diversify my reading going into 2014. I’ve really enjoyed reading more authors of color, and I’m finding that I often consider their books so satisfying that I’m really not as keen to read other things. Hello, Toni Morrison. 🙂

    • That’w awesome!

  • Great list and challenge, I can recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, any of her novels and Also Jackie Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road and Aminatta Forna’s work.

    I’ve been contemplating another one this week, #WomenInTranslation, last year I read books by authors from 22 countries, but realise that there are few women authors translated into English, so in August there is going to be a challenge using this hashtag #WITMonth on twitter. I just read a wonderful modern classic by the Spanish writer Carmen Laforet called Nada, written when she was only 23 years old which I recommend.

    So many great books! Enjoy your reading, I look forward to reading your reviews.

    • I have Americanah on my shelf, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll add Kay and Forna to my list!

      That’s really interesting! I’ve never thought about men vs women in translation. That sounds like a great challenge! I actually just read a great review of Nada, and I really want to read it!

  • Do you know, I have no real idea of the writers of color on my bookshelves. I never actually paid any attention before.

    • I didn’t pay much attention before the last year or so, but I think it’s important to read diversely and learn about life from different perspectives.

  • Thanks for sharing. I read over it, but I’m going to look into this more precisely when I have more time, because I really need to read more diverse books 😉

  • I had never thought about this….I mean I never thought of choosing a book according to the race/origin/ethnicity/skin color of the author. I don’t usually pay attention to that when I chose my books. Never thought that could make a difference. To me a writer/author is a writer/author it doesn’t matter his or her background.
    I’m curious about books 6,7, and 8…I’ll check them out, thanks for the recommendations! 🙂

    • I think most of us don’t pay much attention to race/ethnicity when choosing books. In a perfect world, where people of color are published/promoted equally to white authors, we wouldn’t have to. But in order to bring about equality in publishing, I think readers need to vote with their dollars to show publishers that we want books from authors of diverse backgrounds.

      • I wasn’t aware author’s didn’t get published equally. Thanks for your an eye-opening post.

  • I love this project (sorry to be late). I reviewed a book recently, “The World Waiting to be Made” writen by Simone Lazaroo, an Eurasian woman who moved to Australia when she was 3 and how her looks posted problems to her identity.

    Regarding diversity, I would also suggest more sexual diversity. Just recently I realized that either all characters in my books are heterosexual or I take them to be so. I read a lot of crime fiction, it should not be difficult to find a homosexual victim, right? But they barely are!

  • Yvonne Gillen Young

    Since my high school days (60s) I have read many books regarding diversity including “Black Like Me”, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”(anything by Maya Angelou), “Native Son”, “Roots”, “Exodus”, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, and so many others I’ve lost track. I grew up in southeast Kansas where everyone seemed to be of German Catholic or Scottish Protestant heritage, so I think I’ve always been interested in diversity of race, nationality, religion, and gender for as far back as I can remember.