I had an English teacher who once told me that the best writers are Russians. However, over a thousand books later, I have to disagree, because I believe Women of Colour are the best writers. Their writing is full of love and feeling, much like their food; their books are meant to make you think, understand, and feel. The stories themselves are powerful, most of them told through a strong female voice. They talk about the importance of love, family and compassion. What sets apart Women of Colour as the exceptional writers they are is also, perhaps, the unabashed use of patois in their works, which go a long way in adding an element of realism. They teach you to be the best you can be, and on the occasion of International Women’s Day, it is but natural that we commemorate some of these wonderful women and their equally captivating books.
1. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou is a poet, singer, and one of the most prolific memoirists to have ever lived. Her collections of poems have achieved vast critical acclaim, though she is most known for her collection of seven autobiographical books, which begin with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Maya Angelou’s autobiographies became extraordinarily popular not just because of their content, which mostly deals with subjects like racism, rape, gender identity, family, dignity, and independence; but also because she tried to change the manner in which autobiographies were viewed and written. Angelou is one of the pioneers of the “autobiographical fiction” format, where she uses essential elements and techniques of fiction in a memoir. The characterisation, themes, and format closely resemble a work of fiction, rather than an autobiography. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is written like a collection of short stories, but contain the events that transpired in a chronological order. This book, set in rural Arkansas, recollects Angelou’s life from years 3-17, culminating in Angelou becoming a mother. The most moving, horrifying incident through the book is definitely when Angelou recounts her rape at the age of 8 by her mother’s boyfriend. Angelou aims to address issues like oppression, race, and division, while inspiring Blacks, especially Black women to oppose these offences, these evils. Over the years, …The Caged Bird Sings has become a classic, and remains one of the greatest pieces of autobiographical fiction ever written. Angelou became an inspiration for Black poets and litterateurs everywhere, and inspired Black feminist literature for years to come. Angelou is also known for her other autobiographical works, including A Song Flung Up to Heaven, as well as her collection of poetry, including I Shall Not be Moved, And Still I Rise, and Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing. Angelou’s poetry is not as acclaimed as her autobiographies, with most critics praising her spoken word recitation over the poems themselves, for her power and performance. For her contributions, the then President Barack Obama awarded Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. She has also won three Grammy Awards for Spoken Word Poetry in 1993, ’95, and 2002, for On the Pulse of Morning, Phenomenal Woman, and A Song Flung Up to Heaven. In 2000, she won the National Medal of Arts, and in 1997, the NAACP Image Award. In 1998, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
2. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000, for her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. However, it is her debut novel, The Namesake, that makes this list. Lahiri’s literary works prominently focus on the lives of Indians and Indian immigrants living in the USA, on their sensitivities and sensibilities. Lahiri is especially prolific in exploring the differences between Indian and American cultures, as is evident from her books. She expertly makes the reader empathise with the more traditional immigrants, who crave for a place to fit in, as well as their children, the second generation, who understand the “American culture” better than they ever will their own. The Namesake expands on a novella Lahiri wrote for The New Yorker, and tells the story of the Ganguli family over the span of over three decades. The titular namesake is Nikhil “Gogol” Ganguli, son of Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, who have immigrated to Massachusetts after marriage. The cultural shock experienced by the parents as they land in the US, as opposed to that experienced by the children when the come to India, is perhaps the story’s highlight. The story typically deals with themes like family, culture, and the struggles of immigrants to stay true to their roots; much like Lahiri’s other stories. The beauty of Lahiri’s writing lies in that it’s very simple and unembellished. The focus is solely on the story, which shines through. Lahiri is also known for her other novel The Lowland, as well as her other collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. Lahiri also regularly writes for The New Yorker. She has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2000) and the PEN/Hemingway Award (1999) for Interpreter of Maladies, the National Humanities Medal in 2014, and the PEN/Malamud Award in 2017. She served on The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities until her resignation in August 2017. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.
3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Award for Fiction in 1983, making Alice Walker the first Woman of Colour to win the award. The novel has garnered widespread critical acclaim, and has cemented its place in the world’s libraries as a classic. The Color Purple is not a happy book; it is depressing and emotionally draining. However, it is a book that needs to be read, a story that needs to be said. Its dark themes have led the book to be challenged and banned in many libraries. It deals with themes like slavery, oppression, racism, homosexuality, and violence against Black women in Southern USA, as well as female oppression and genital mutilation, which is common in African countries. The story spans over three decades, and is written in an epistolary format (in the form of letters and documents, rather than a more conventional division of chapters). At the centre of the novel is Celie, who is fourteen at its beginning. It is the story of her suffering, her life, her follies, and her victories. It also deals with the oppression suffered by her friends and family. Telling anything else about the novel would be giving too much away, because every line, every dialogue tells a story and teaches a lesson. Alice Walker herself is a paragon of activism and civil rights. She, along with her husband Melvyn Leventhal became Mississippi’s first legally married interracial couple. She is also bisexual, and was in a relationship with singer Tracy Chapman. She was a Civil Rights Movement activist, and has been in the news for her very vocal anti-War sentiments. Walker is also the author of novels The Third Life of Garage Copeland, and Meridian, as well poetry collections like Once, and Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning. Along with the Pulitzer, she also won The National Book Award for Fiction for The Color Purple.
4. Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie is one of the best contemporary writers I have ever read. Like the other writers in this list, her language is simple, but powerful. She focuses on themes of paramount importance not just to African-Americans, but has also played a significant role in bringing attention to the problems in Nigeria, where she is originally from. Half a Yellow Sun, which is Adichie’s second novel, is set during the Biafran War. The book deals with the events of the War and its effects, switching constantly between the time period before the war, and the period during. It looks at the impact of the War on a small group of people. The story is told in a third person narrative, but from three perspectives. At the centre of it a young boy, Ugwu, who has been forced to join the Biafran Army. There is the beautiful, intelligent Olanna, who teaches in the Nsukka University alongside her husband, Odeni. The third voice is given by the very English, very different Richard, who is in a relationship with Olanna’s twin sister Kaiene. Naturally, the most prominent theme of the book is war. The graphic and gruesome details of the war are enumerated, but there is a sensitivity to it. Like all of Adichie’s stories, the main characters of the book are passionate, very intelligent people with strong opinions. They discuss politics and society, and many have studied outside of Nigeria. There is, of course, a strong sense of family and belonging in the book. An interesting aspect that adds to its depth is the reaction of Richard, an outsider, to the War and the subsequent formation of Biafra. Adichie is one of the most critically and commercially acclaimed writers of our times, and her other works include the novels Purple Hibiscus, Americanah, and The Thing Around Your Neck. She is also famous for her TED Talk on feminism, and her essays We Should All Be Feminists and Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. Adichie’s work has also featured in singer Beyonce’s song Flawless. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2005, while Half A Yellow Sun won the PEN Beyond Margins Award in 2007. Adichie is a recipient of the McArthur Genius Grant, which she was awarded in 2008.
5. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God is Zora Neale Hurston’s magnum opus. Though it remains one of the primary works of African-American fiction today, the book was met with heavy criticism when it was published. An anthropologist as well as a writer, Hurston’s work represents the best of the Harlem Renaissance movement. Hurston also famously converted her literary works into theatrical performances. Hurston’s criticism stemmed from the rather anthropologic, folk-infused influences in her work. She liberally used patois, relying heavily on the African American dialect that was prominent in her days. Her critics had a problem with this format of writing the language was then synonymous with many of the racist works produced from the area, in that era. However, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a book that famously challenged traditional gender roles, while focussing on the idea of feminism and women’s liberation. Hurston’s portrayal of racism and racist issues was also vastly different from their contemporaries. Hurston’s depiction of racism was coupled with the already existing hierarchy within the Black community itself, highlighting the vicious cycle of oppression that most African-Americans were subjected to. The story is of Janie, a Black woman who dreams of love, and who wants more than she has at the moment. Janie’s story can be split into three chapters, each defined by her marriage to three different men. (Note: Janie herself was not defined by any of her marriages.) What sets Their Eyes Were Watching God is that Janie’s life seems more glamorous, and her choices, more reckless, more independent. Hurston also attempted to show racial harmony between what was then a highly racially charged region. Further, Janie’s idea of what feminism is, is sometimes very short-sighted, as can be explained by her relationship with her third husband, Tea-Cake. Hurston was a highly accomplished woman; in her time, she was the only Black student at the prestigious Barnard College of Columbia University. Hurston has also written an anthropological non-fiction book, Mules and Men, as well as an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, amongst various plays, fictional and non fictional works, and poetry. Her short stories were published in acclaimed publications like The New Negro. Eatonville in Florida, which was Hurston’s home for a long time, is now home to the Zora Festival.
6. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
To choose a book that represents Toni Morrison’s writing in this list is extremely difficult. She is truly one of the greats, and her books and accolades speak for themselves. I choose The Bluest Eye for this list because it is her first novel. The Bluest Eye is one of the most haunting, harrowing books ever written. It is a relatively small book, but the variety of themes and the depth of issues it covers are astounding. It is the story of young, Black Pecola Breedlove, who aspires for blue eyes, because in the predominantly White neighbourhood she grows up in, being White, being fair, having blonde hair and blue eyes, is considered “beauty”. The Bluest Eye has received criticism for some of its themes, and its simplistic style. This book, while dealing with themes like racism, religion, and women empowerment also deals with grittier, more complicated themes like incest, violence, child pregnancy, and the concept of “White Beauty”. The Bluest Eye is tragic in its story, but it is a must-read for everyone. Toni Morrison has also written other must-read novels like Beloved, Sula, and Song of Solomon, along with numerous works of non-fiction, plays, and children’s stories. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Beloved in 1988, and the National Book Critics Award in 1977 for Song of Solomon. In 1993, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and France’s prestigious Commander of Arts and Letters. She is a recipient of the National Humanities Medal (2000) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012). In 2010, she was awarded France’s highest order of merit, the National Order of the Legion of Honour. In 2016, she won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. Toni Morrison is a professor emeritus of literature at Princeton University.
7. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give is titled after rapper Tupac’s concept of THUG LIFE, which he has expanded to mean “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody”. THUG is Angie Thomas’s debut novel, and it deals with the unjustified shooting of a Black youth, and the impact that shooting has on those people close to him, as well as on the African-American community in the area. The novel is written from the perspective of Starr Carter, who witnesses the shooting of her friend Khalil. THUG deals with contemporary issues faced by coloured, especially Black people in the USA today, and received widespread critical and commercial acclaim. Starr, the protagonist of THUG has to oscillate between the close-knit Black community she lives in, and the fancy, mostly White prep-school she goes to. THUG deals with a more latent racism than books by Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison. It emphasises on the importance of family, and contrary to some reviews, it isn’t anti-police. It talks about the concept of poetic justice, and also, the lack of it for people who really need it. THUG debuted at number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and sold over 100,000 copies in its first month. Thomas holds the distinction of being the first Black student to graduate in creative writing from the predominantly White Belhaven University.
8. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The God of Small Things was Arundhati Roy’s singular book up until 2017, when she published The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It is the story of “Dizygotic” twins Rahel and Estha, and their family. Their strange, dysfunctional, rather hateful family. Rahel and Estha are born to a Kerala Syrian Christian mother Ammu and a man she meets in Calcutta after she runs away from home. Her own home, her family in Ayemenem in Kerala is too complicated, too bitter. She has her parents, Pappachi and Mammachi, and her father’s sister ‘Baby’ Kochamma. In the background are also her brother, Chacko, his ex-wife Margaret, and their daughter Sophie. The story is told in a non-linear narrative, shifting between various timelines, especially focussing on when the twins are seven, and when they turn 31. It is an unabashedly bold book that deals with sexuality and social issues with gusto. It deals with forbidden love, forbidden relationships, incest, communism, caste-bias, immorality…topics that to this day can be considered taboo. For The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy won the Man Booker Prize in 1997. Arundhati Roy is a prominent activist in India, albeit with highly controversial views. She published her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in 2017. In 1989, Roy won the National Film Award for Best Screenplay for In Which Gives It Those Ones. She is also a recipient of the Sydney Peace Prize (2004) for her advocacy on non-violence. She famously rejected the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2006, for her collection of essays, The Algebra of Infinite Justice in protest of certain government policies.
9. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing is Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, and could truly be touted the next “Great American Novel”; both for its themes and its exceptionally beautiful prose. It is a classic story, set in Southern United States, and it juxtaposes current issues related to racism with the issues of the Jim Crow and segregation era. It is told through three voices, and is the story of a dysfunctional family with a Black mother and White father. Jojo is the protagonist of the story; he lives with his younger sister and maternal grandparents, as his mother spends her days doing drugs, and his father, in prison for cooking them. The story talks about racism, family values, parenting, addiction, disease, and regret. Jesmyn Ward is an exceptional writer; her prose is on par with the greats, like Toni Morrison. Ward won her second National Book Award for Fiction for this book, having won her first in 2011, for her second novel, Salvage the Bones. This makes Ward the only woman to have won the award twice. Ward is the recipient of the Stegner Fellowship (2008-10), and secured the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2017. Ward is an associate professor of English at Tulane University. Her other works include an autobiography, Men We Reaped, along with two more novels.
10. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
Kindred is a science fiction novel about a woman, Dana, who time travels from 1976, back to an era and a region (1815, Maryland) where slavery was still the norm. The story keeps flitting between the past and (her) present, and in her past, Dana gets to “meet” her ancestors. She meets Rufus, a White slave owner and his mother, and also Alice, a “free woman”; both of whose child would become a direct ancestor to Dana. As with any time-travelling work of fiction, of course, she can’t disturb too much, lest she change too much in the future, in her future. Dana is married to Kevin, who is also writer like her. Kevin, however, is White. He accompanies her on one of the “travels”, only to be left behind, being unable to reach her in time. Kevin is more severely affected by the atrocities committed against slaves, being Caucasian himself. In the pre-Civil War era, by virtue of her skin colour, Dana is treated like a slave herself, often whipped and beaten, and discriminated against by Rufus, his mother, and the other Whites. Kindred, like Butler’s other’s novels is known for its realistic portrayal of slavery. The violence, the rape, the oppression, White hypocrisy, stages of resistance from the slaves, and the sweet taste of freedom; Butler’s writing of it all is highly emotional, but maintains a strong a connection to true accounts and experiences of slavery. Other themes that Butler explores include inter-racial relationships and their dynamics, feminism, and also humanism. Butler explores how slave owners weren’t evil because they were evil; they were so because they believed it was the norm as slave owners to mistreat people who had a darker skin colour. This provides a better, more well-rounded understanding of slavery and its implications. Octavia E. Butler was a science-fiction writer, and she is famous for her series such as Earthseed, and Patternist. Butler became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1995. She has won both the Hugo (Best Short Story for Speech Sounds in 1984 and best Novelette Bloodchild in’85) and the Nebula awards (Best Novelette for Bloodchild in 1984 and Best Novel for Parable of the Talents in ’99) twice. In 2010, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
11. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis is a little different from the other books on this list, because it is a graphic novel. Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel, and was originally published in French. It not only narrates Satrapi’s story from her childhood to adulthood, but also gives a clear depiction of Iran before and after the Islamic Revolution of ‘79. At the age of 10, the Islamic revolution causes a huge upheaval in Satrapi’s life, which till then had been very liberal. She talks about the problems the Revolution caused both in her life, and in society – from being forced to wear a hijab, to losing many friends and members of her family to the Revolution and its after-effects. Satrapi still grows up in a house where her parents are modern and progressive; her grandmother plays a significant role in her life and upbringing. Fearing for her life, Satrapi’s parents also send her to Europe to complete her education, but she experiences a severe cultural shock, which she later assimilates herself. The book covers her experiences in Iran, in Europe, and also the changes she sees in herself after her return from Europe. In many cases, Satrapi is not a very likeable person, but the novel does not sugar coat the negative. Satrapi covers issues like women’s empowerment, protests, cultural differences, and individuality. Persepolis also was met with some criticism for its blatant display of acts of sex and violence. Satrapi is also an acclaimed director, and with the release of the movie, Persepolis, became the first woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film in 2008. The film was one of the two winners of the Cannes Film Festival’s Jury Prize in 2007. At the prestigious Angouleme International Comics Festival, Satrapi has won the Prize for the First Comic for Persepolis in 2001, the Prize for Scenario for Persepolis:2 in 2002, and the Best Comic Award in 2005 for Chickens with Plums.
12. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is the story of four mothers and their four daughters; the mothers having immigrated to the USA from China for various reasons. The titular Joy Luck Club is merely a group of people meeting to play mah-jong. After immigrating to America, Suyuan Woo meets An-Mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying Ying St. Clair, with whom she forms the Joy Luck Club. These women have had terribly traumatic experiences which have forced them to immigrate, and while they retain a part of their Chinese identity, they have regrets about losing some of it as well. Their relationships with their children, especially the four respective daughters, June Woo, Rose Hsu Jordan, Waverly Jong, and Lena St. Clair, aren’t exactly stellar. The children resent their mothers for their more traditional, conservative school of thought. The mothers, on the other hand expect more from their children than they can give. Suyuan, for instance, expects her daughter to be accomplished, a prodigy, while June is as average as it gets. Waverly, on the other hand, who is a prodigy, gives up a successful run in chess because of her mother’s constant nagging and bragging. The story, however, ends one a more positive note, with June fulfilling some of her late mother’s wishes, and Ying Ying teaching Lena to stand up for herself. The Joy Luck Club is exceptionally deals with the generation gap, relationships, and feminism. Though criticised for being highly stereotypical, the book remains a critical and commercial success. Amy Tan is the successful writer of other novels like The Valley of Amazement and The Kitchen God’s Wife. In 1996, she won the Academy of Achievement’s Gold Plate Award.
13. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Yeong-hye is a very ordinary, average woman who decides to give up meat because she has very violent dreams. The story chronicles her gradual descent into madness, and how it affects the people around her. The story is sometimes funny, in a rather dry manner, but for the most part, it is strange and a little scary. Yeong-hye’s husband, Cheong is baffled by her sudden transformation, while her sister In-hye takes it within her stride to help her sister. In-hye’s husband is another strange character, who at some point becomes somewhat infatuated with Yeong-hye. The story is written in three parts, each told by a different person, from a different perspective, and dealing with a different aspect of the story. Han Kang won critical acclaim for The Vegetarian, winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Kang also won South Korea’s prestigious Yi Sang Literary Award in 2005 for The Mongolian Mark, which is the second part of The Vegetarian.
14. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
Love Medicine is told in a non-linear, non-chronological format, and tells the story of three generations of a family from the Ojibwa Tribe in North Dakota. The book is unique because of its narrative format, which makes it seem almost like the characters are narrating the story. It is the story of the Kashpaw-Morrissey family, and quite honestly, there isn’t much else I can say about it. Not because I’m scared of spoiling it, but mostly because the story is one that is truly difficult to surmise. The story strongly explores the traditional Native American ideal of family, and the ways in which their lives and loves are connected. The book also talks about Indian tribal hierarchy and the importance of preserving cultural identity. There is, again, a generation gap that is explored in this book; with the older generation focussing more on tradition and spirituality, while the younger generation is more detached from both. Louise Erdrich is definitely one of the greatest writers from the Native American Renaissance movement. She has written novels like The Round House, La Rose, and The Antelope Wife, as well as children’s stories like The Birchbark House. Erdrich has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction twice; in 1984 for Love Medicine, and in 2016, for LaRose. She has also won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2012 for The Round House, and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. In 1999, she won the World Fantasy Award for The Antelope Wife.
15. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Brown Girl Dreaming tells the story of the author in verse format. It talks about her birth in 1963, and her subsequent movement to a small, segregated region of South Carolina. Though she begins to love Greenville, where racism isn’t as rampant as it is elsewhere, Jackie moves back north, and makes a Mexican friend, Maria. The book deals with issues like family, divorce, women empowerment, friendship, and racism. Jacqueline Woodson has also written other books like Another Brooklyn and After Tupac and D Foster. For the year 2018-19, Woodson has been nominated by the Library of Congress as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. For Brown Girl Dreaming, in 2014, she won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Newberry Honor Book, and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Young Adult Fiction. In 2009, she also won the Newberry Award for After Tupac and D Foster.
There are plenty of other women writers of colour who have written books full of life, emotion, and meaning; like Jenny Kwok and Yaa Gayasi and Brit Bennett. There isn’t enough space for me to cover their works. There are others, like Zadie Smith, who are critically acclaimed, but whose books I am not find of. In the vast ocean of accomplished Women of Colour writers, this is just a drop.