In 2014, I read an interview with science fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson, who pointed out how easy it is to overlook books by authors of color and, looking over my reading lists, I realized how right she was. The following year, I challenged myself to read 50 books specifically by women of color, a challenge that I met and now set every year.
This year, inspired in large part by Rewire podcast “What Else Happened?” and its question of what brings joy, I’ve decided to share the books that have brought me joy as I continue to report on stories of the trauma, violence, resilience, and resistance inherent in the nation’s jail and prison system. Every few months, I’ll be writing about some of my favorites for Rewire readers, both to share the books that brought me joy and to encourage folks to pick up these books and show publishers that people want to read books by women of color.
I’ve already reviewed Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ gorgeous, evocative, and thought-provoking When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, which I think everyone should read. Here are some others I’ve finished so far, for your to-read list.
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Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill
I came across Sujata Massey through her Rei Shimura mysteries. Massey, whose parents are from India and Germany, wrote a series of mysteries in which Rei Shimura, a biracial Japanese-American antiques dealer, lands herself in the thick of murder after murder. What was refreshing about these mysteries is that the protagonist isn’t a police officer, detective, or some other arm of the state, but an everyday person just trying to scrape together enough money to pay the bills and live life. The first four books take place in contemporary Japan and, through Rei’s daily life, introduce readers to some aspect of Japanese life and culture. For instance, the intricacies of ikebana, or flower arranging, are a crucial element to the second mystery.
While the Shimura mysteries are fun, The Widows of Malabar Hill is an exquisite tapestry weaving together mystery with a crash course in colonial India, its customs, and the expectations of women in the 1920s. At the heart of the novel is Perveen Mistry, India’s first female solicitor, inspired by the real-life Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to study law in Oxford. However, until 1924, India did not allow women to take the bar exam or become actual attorneys and so, upon her return to India, she was unable to practice law but was given special permission to enter pleas on behalf of purdahnashins, or women prohibited from communicating with men. Despite her inability to appear in court, she was nevertheless able to help over 600 women and orphans. Even after the legal profession opened for women, decades of male bias refused to allow Sorabji to appear in court.
Meanwhile, the fictional Mistry spends her days reviewing inheritances and legal documents. She notices something strange in the will of a recently deceased mill owner with three wives. The widows live in full purdah, or strict seclusion, in which they never leave the house or speak directly with any man. Alarmed that their seclusion might lead to them being taken advantage of, Mistry visits them—and stumbles upon a murder.
But this isn’t just a mystery. Widows plunges readers into everyday life and frustrations facing women in 1920s India—including Mistry’s thwarted attempts to attend law school and navigating societal expectations that women limit themselves to being wives who unquestioningly obey their husbands and in-laws. It also brings you the sights, smells, and tastes of 1920s India (which may make you crave coconut rice at 2 a.m.)—and could inspire you to read Sorabji’s books about her own life and observations. I’m adding those to my reading list as well.
Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory
It may seem more than a little odd that I would spend my days researching, interviewing, and writing about women’s prisons in the United States and then, for leisure reading, choose a novel set in a Zimbabwean prison. But I love being able to not only immerse myself (and sometimes escape from real-life horrors) in a good book, but also learn about a time and place that I might not otherwise know anything about.
That was the case with my familiarity—or lack thereof—with Zimbabwe and its women’s prison. I was entranced by Gappah’s descriptions. She alternates between the township where Memory, an albino woman, grew up with her family, the suburbs where she moved with the white man who bought her, and the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare after she is convicted of his murder.
Some of Gappah’s descriptions about the prison—and the people within it—seemed like what I might hear from a woman imprisoned in the United States. For instance, when asked by a Goodwill volunteer who comes to the prison, “Are you coping with prison conditions now? Are you missing anything, anything at all?” Gappah’s protagonist Memory thinks, “Am I missing anything, anything at all? I mean, really. Not anything at all. Just everything. Books, books, books, books. Soap. A warm bed with clean sheets that smell of fabric softener. A hot shower. Sunscreen. The plopping sound produced by a Chablis straight from the fridge. Mosquito spray. The smell of old archives. The curling loops on old manuscripts. The cream-and-green ordinariness of my Tilley hat. Toothpaste. A comb. A comb with all its teeth attached. The Internet.”
I actually sent this exchange to a woman currently incarcerated in the United States. This (real-life) woman wrote back, “I cried as I read them for they are all too familiar! It’s the small things, the things the rest of the world take for granted that are missed the most.”
Pearl Cleage, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs
Pearl Cleage is an African-American and novelist, whose books What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day and the sequel, I Wish I Had a Red Dress, I devoured last year. (If you haven’t read them, go read them.)
I’m always interested in the behind-the-scenes musings of other women writers, particularly women of color. But this is an unannotated collection of journal entries, not a memoir, and I wish that there had been explanatory text for readers unfamiliar with her life. For instance, Cleage mentions her background in the civil rights struggle and being a “movement baby,” but it wasn’t until I read Jeanne Theoharis’s A More Beautiful and Terrible History that I realized that her father was Albert Cleage, a Detroit organizer and civil rights leader. I also hadn’t known that Cleage’s uncle ran for prosecutor after the Wayne County, Michigan, prosecutor declined to press charges against police for fatally shooting in 1963 Cynthia Scott, a young Black woman and sex worker, after she told them that they didn’t have grounds to arrest her and walked away. This is what she means by growing up in a movement family. It’s a rich history that I wish had been elaborated and reflected upon more.
Deborah Jiang-Stein, Prison Baby: A Memoir
While rifling through her parents’ drawers, 12-year-old Deborah Stein found a letter from her birth mother. From the letter, she learned that she was born and spent her first year at the federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia, with her incarcerated mother. Despite the title, the prison itself doesn’t actually appear until halfway through the memoir when Stein obtains permission to visit the prison. (“This paint,” says the officer showing her around, “it’s the same since your birth here, never painted, same since the prison first opened.” That detail stuck with me as something that a tour guide in many prisons today could very well say.)
Unfortunately, the vivid details that Stein paints throughout the first half of the memoir disappear after that visit. Stein begins giving uplifting talks at women’s prisons and eventually founds the UnPrison Project to build literacy and life skills for incarcerated women and girls. I was disappointed that she didn’t go into more detail about what drove her to start speaking in women’s prisons, what steps she had to take to secure permission from prison administrators, or how she overcame bureaucratic obstacles (of which prisons have many). We rarely hear directly from the children left behind by mass incarceration, which makes Stein’s memoir all the more compelling.
Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about race like this before: one that not only explains the many forms that racism takes, but also offers concrete practices to fight racism for both white people and people of color.
Oluo starts each chapter recounting an experience that clearly (and infuriatingly) illustrates one of the many forms of racism. These aren’t encounters filled with violence and obvious hate, but rather the everyday racist jokes, remarks, and oppressions that people of color face on a daily basis. Then she clearly explains the concept (including microaggressions, privilege, the school-to-prison pipeline, why you shouldn’t go around touching Black people’s hair) and offers ways to identify and address these issues and practices.
Isabel Allende, Of Love and Shadows
For those who don’t know, Isabel Allende is the niece of former Chilean president Salvador Allende, who was overthrown (and assassinated) in a military coup in 1973. As with many of her previous novels, Isabel Allende brings the post-coup terror and violence into Of Love and Shadows as a reporter and photographer’s routine assignment begins to unravel an ongoing atrocity perpetrated by the military regime.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: The Night Masquerade
Okorafor’s Binti trilogy (of which this is the finale) demonstrates (once again) that you can have aliens, space travel, and interplanetary warfare that center people of different skin colors, cultures, and genders, and still write a science fiction novel. (Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany already proved this decades ago, by the way.) I’m not sure how to review The Night Masquerade without giving away any of the plot elements of Binti or Home, so start with Binti and work your way through the trilogy.
I’ve read 14 books by women of color so far. What would you recommend that I add to my reading list in the coming months?