10 Essential Reads by Women of Color

From autobiographies to poetry, you can usually catch me with my nose in a book. I live for the written word, for stories that captivate me, move me, take me somewhere. But like most brown bookworms, at times I feel unrepresented and even alienated by the narratives I come across. Lately, I started asking myself, “Where are the stories of girls and women who look like me?” ,“Why are only books written by white men assigned in my lit classes?", and “Why aren’t the voices of women of color reflecting on cultural experiences through writing praised as thought-provoking while books about melancholy middle aged men smoking cigarettes in Brooklyn are masterpieces by default?”

So I challenged myself to seek out and read more books not only written by women of color, but books that also featured women of color as protagonists. Along the way, I discovered these ten extraordinary reads, which are as intersectional as they are artistically significant. From telling the stories of the marginalized and underrepresented, examining culture, pushing boundaries, and popping off, each one holds a critical place in not only the brown girl’s literary canon, but in the canon of American lit as a whole.

  1. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

This New York Times bestselling novel tells the story of Esperanza, a young Mexican-American girl growing up in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood. Crossing the lines between poetry, autobiography, and fiction, The House on Mango Street explores themes such as the quest for a better life, culture, family, community, misogyny, and sexuality with a voice that is as relevant and accessible as ever.

2. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club centers around four Chinese-American women, and their immigrant mothers. Structured like a game of mahjong. The four parts are divided into four sections to create sixteen chapters, detailing the lives of these women, intimate and complex while exploring the themes of family dynamics, tradition, womanhood, loss, and identity.

3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (and its later film and musical adaptation) tells the story of a woman’s journey to liberation, empowerment, and self-discovery. A contemporary epic, we are introduced to the protagonist, Celie, as a 14-year-old girl living in the American south in the early 1900s. She is subjected to abuse at the hands of her stepfather, and later, her husband, and separated from her family. Through the decades, Celie grows and encounters people and situations which change her life for the better, as she begins to cultivate an inner sense of self-worth and courage to reclaim her life.

4. Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks

Published in 1949, this collection of poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black American to win the Pulitzer prize. Divided into three parts, “Notes from the Childhood and Girlhood”, “The Anniad”, and “The Womanhood”, Annie Allen is the story of a young black girl reflecting on themes of racism, politics, family, and womanhood, while shaping and defining her own world view.

5. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

Dealing with themes of displacement, cultural tension, and assimilation, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is a collection of short stories chronicling the lives of the Garcias, an immigrant family from the Dominican Republic. Spanning decades, this narrative follows the Garcia girls on their quest for a clarification of identity as they search for balance between old ways and new.

6. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

A collection of speeches and essays by poet Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider is considered one of the most influential books on contemporary feminist theory. Drawing on Lorde’s own experiences with oppression, this book explores themes of sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, and classism with a voice that expresses both frustration over marginalization and an unapologetic reclamation of identity.

7. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Told in nine short stories, Interpreter of Maladies centers around the lives of Indians and Indian Americans struggling with the concepts of tradition and culture and the ways of the “New World”. It also examines interpersonal relationships, community, and female diaspora. The collection won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000.

8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

This autobiography details the early life of Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Johnson. A coming of age narrative like no other, we watch Angelou overcome trauma and racism, develop a life-long love of literature as refuge, and begin her quest for independence and self-actualization.

9. Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi

Detailing three summers of an unnamed Egyptian girl, this novel explores the complex themes of culture, isolation, war, family, and personal and political coming of age. Set against the backdrop of 1980’s Cairo, Chronicle of a Last Summer gives a voice to a generation “cheated out of life.”

10. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The best known work of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Janie Crawford’s transition from a “vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny”. Taking place in Central Florida during the early 20th century, the novel navigates the concepts of gender roles, race, female liberation, language, and relationships.

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