By now you’ve heard pretty much everyone in the book and media industries commenting on the surge of consumer interest in books by Black authors on issues like antiracism and activism, and the subsequent difficulty in obtaining copies. While you should absolutely read essential nonfiction by Ibram X. Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, Gary Younge, and more this summer, consider branching out into fiction, poetry, and humor by Black authors while you wait, as these forms do a brilliant job of centering marginalized voices and illuminating the varied, complicated links between American history and the present day, all while educating and engaging the reader on an emotional level.
The following 10 books came out earlier this year and, for the most part, were eclipsed by the coronavirus. Now that our attention is back in the stacks, put one on your summer reading list. You won’t be disappointed.
N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became is texting a little heart emoji wrapped around an extended middle finger to H. P. Lovecraft’s iPhone in the afterlife. This ferocious fantasy novel about the birth of New York City makes wily use of Lovecraftian tropes, as well as Lovecraft’s well-known xenophobia and bigotry, to subvert the notion that New York is a white city, or that it can be saved by whiteness in any literal or metaphorical iteration. It’s a stunning coup that places The City We Became firmly in the urban fantasy and sci-fi canon while demonstrating the radical potential of the genre, in the hands of a brilliant writer like Jemisin, to expand the boundaries of old tropes and forms to make room for self-awareness, critique, and social justice.
Samantha Irby is the writer to reach for when you need a belly laugh, but don’t want to completely disengage with deeper issues that are troubling you, like mental illness, body anxiety, or the challenges of womanhood and middle age. With a great deal of profanity, but equal measures of insight and empathy, Irby shares her rocky road through marriage, parenting, writing professionally, and living in an imperfect body, inviting you to cringe, laugh, and accept your flaws alongside her.
Short story fans will find much to enjoy in Cross-Smith’s vivid new book about women in the throes of love and desire, and the fears and possibilities those emotions create. Cross-Smith’s prose is wonderfully descriptive and surprising, as are the deeply felt characters whose crushes, fantasies, and griefs fuel the imaginative stories in this lovely collection.
My coworker Aubrey raves about Deacon King Kong, “James McBride invites you into a story that has always existed — the carnival of the tragedy of life — then steps aside, acting as a guide to reveal axioms of wisdom within the frolic. It is an understatement to call this novel a nonpareil prize.” At heart, an interrogation of poverty and racial injustice that centers on a surprising act of violence, Deacon King Kong is alive with so much humor, curiosity, and insight that each character in the large city ensemble sparkles with energy and compassion. If you have time for one book on this list, McBride’s latest is a brilliantly fun and thoughtful place to start.
If you enjoy multigenerational historical fiction, read Afia Atakora’s immersive Conjure Women! Set in a rural Black community in the years immediately following the Civil War (with frequent flashbacks to prewar enslavement), Conjure Women tells the story of Rue, a healer and midwife who finds herself at odds with her community after a series of children fall ill and die despite Rue’s interventions. Inspired in part by ex-slave narratives compiled by the Works Progress Administration, Conjure Women is a fascinating imagined glimpse into a period of Black American history that is often overlooked in fiction, and a very satisfying story.
Some books you promote constantly because everyone would benefit from reading them (see here and here). Every collection Smith publishes is one of those books. Their new poetry collection is an elegy and ode to the life-sustaining intimacy and joys of friendship. As in Smith's earlier work, their ability to fuse colloquial speech with raw emotion and formal discipline is unparalleled; it is impossible not to be moved by the deep wells of celebration and loss that fill every space of Smith’s poems.
Another wonderful and ambitious historical novel, Book of the Little Axe moves from Trinidad to Bighorn, Montana, where the novel’s chief protagonist, Rosa Rendón, eventually settles and marries into the Crow Nation. Francis-Sharma centers the experiences of African and Indigenous peoples during the period of westward expansion, illustrating the links between colonialism and manifest destiny, and richly illuminating the unique environments of late 18th-century and early 19th-century Trinidad and Montana.
Streeter writes movingly about the process of losing her husband and adopting their foster child as a suddenly single mother. Funny, sweet, and candid, Black Widow freely acknowledges the stresses of grief and loneliness, as well as the sometimes absurd, always present aspects of negotiating an interracial, interreligious marriage. Despite its genesis in sadness, Black Widow is an optimistic book that will appeal to anyone navigating heartache and needing some warmhearted company.
White Blood, poet Kiki Petrosino’s latest book-length collection, marries the best of two worlds: thought-provoking, inventive form with accessible language and topical ideas that explore the themes of slavery and inheritance. In White Blood, Petrosino dives into her family tree, focusing on the Virginia branch, and meditates on how her history informs her present. These meditations root the poet’s customary playfulness (Fort Red Border) in a somber, riveting investigation of structural racism and self-doubt that teaches the reader as much about the legacy of slavery as any of the nonfiction titles selling out right now.
This new book is a bit of a cheat, because it’s in high demand right now and not always available; but there’s good reason for that. Brit Bennett, who’s been a writer to watch since The Mothers debuted, excels at intergenerational storytelling and articulating the forceful, conflicted emotions of characters dealing with the constraints of small-town life, racial identity, and the types of secrets that forever alter a life’s trajectory. In The Vanishing Half, which follows the adult lives of identical twins Desiree and Stella and their daughters, these concerns make for a deftly plotted, addictive book that raises vital questions about colorism, kinship, identity.
Don't want to wait for the book? Find the audio version on Libro.fm.
Read Jill’s 2016 interview with Brit Bennett here.