Nov 18, 2014

Non-Fiction November: Ten Books by Writers of Colour

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Non-Fiction November: Ten Books by Writers of Colour
As part of the third week of Non-Fiction November, our host Rebecca asks us to consider the following questions:
What does “diversity” in books mean to you? Does it refer to book’s location or subject matter? Or is it the author’s nationality or background? What countries/cultures do you tend to enjoy or read about most in your nonfiction? What countries/cultures would you like nonfiction recommendations for? What kind of books besides different countries/cultures do you think of as books of diversity?
As Rebecca says, there are several different ways to approach the topic of diversity in non-fiction. But because over the past few months I’ve been trying to focus on reading more books by authors of colour, that’s the angle I’m going with here. Inspired by Aarti’s excellent Diversiverse Genre Spotlight series, I thought I’d list ten non-fiction books by writers of colour I desperately want to read.

I know I’ve said this before, but I find lists useful for a few different reasons. First, because the world is not a level playing field, and therefore moving away from the default (which is currently books by white men) takes effort, watchfulness and deliberation. It’s very easy to stick to a white male literary diet if you’re not paying attention, simply because these are the books you see everywhere. This doesn’t happen because the best books will “naturally” rise to the top, but because the world is structured to privilege the voices of people we see as authoritative and to push everyone else to the margins. It doesn’t take malicious intent for this to happen; all it takes is distraction. Secondly, lists can be a reminder of just how much there is out there, on such a wide range of topics. As Aarti points out in her post, writers of colour write about far more than race. Obviously I’m interested in books about race; there are always several on my wishlist and some made it onto this list. But it’s important to remember that as pervasive as racial oppression is, it’s not the total sum of the experiences of people of colour or the only topic they write about.

Without further ado, here they are — ten exciting non-fiction books I really want to get my hands on.

  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


    I know this is only a short essay, but it’s Adichie! On feminism! I saw it in a bookshop recently and it took all my willpower to walk away without a copy (I had bought a lot of books that week). But it’s only a matter of time until I cave, especially with Jenny’s review adding to the temptation.

  • The Emperor of Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee


    Mukherjee’s “Biography of Cancer” sounds fascinating, if also like a difficult read. I keep eyeing it at the library (and have even borrowed it and returned it unread a couple of times), and one of these days I’ll have to make time for it. A fellow blogger is again to blame for this one — this time Meghan, who wrote a great review a few years back.

  • The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi


    I enjoyed Reading Lolita in Tehran and expect good things of Nafisi’s take on “why fiction is important in a democratic society”.

  • A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs


    The blurb tells us that “this revelatory history of passing explores the possibilities and challenges that racial indeterminacy presented to men and women living in a country obsessed with racial distinctions”.

  • The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story by Hanan Al-Shaykh


    Hanan Al-Shaykh writes about her mother, Kamila, who grew up in Lebanon in the 1940’s and 1950’s. What draws me to it the most is that it seems to be a compassionate, humane account of why Kamila had to leave her children behind to escape a life where she felt suffocated. After PS: Be Eleven, of course I crave more stories with this kind of understanding.

  • Being Mortal by Atul Gawande


    A book about “how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending”, and entirely Raych’s fault.

  • Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada by Lawrence Hill


    I recently finished Lawrence Hill’s Blood: A Biography of the Stuff of Life, which I really enjoyed and hope to review at some point. I especially liked the book’s exploration of racial identity and of the biological myths that still surround our understanding of race, so it only makes sense to go on to read the book Lawrence devoted entirely to the topic.

  • The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King


    Speaking of awesome Canadian writers of fiction and non-fiction, Thomas King is another person who writes brilliantly about negotiating identity. His The Truth About Stories was illuminating, and I expect the same of this.

  • One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina


    I think I first heard of this memoir via Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is friends with Wainaina and recommended it when I saw her speak. The book is about Wainaina’s experience of growing up in Kenya, and I’ve seen it praised repeatedly for the unique writing.

  • Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison


    Lastly, we have “a learned, stylish, and immensely persuasive work of literary criticism” where Morrison “shows how much the themes of freedom and individualism, manhood and innocence, depended on the existence of a black population that was manifestly unfree—and that came to serve white authors as embodiments of their own fears and desires”.
  • 13 comments:

    1. I too have started the Mukherjee book a couple of times and not finished. And not because it is boring; rather, I think it takes a lot more concentration than I have to give at the moment.

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    2. So, I'm pretty sure half of my books for next week's TBR topic will come from this list - thank you!!

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    3. I've read the first two. I got We Should All Be Feminists on kindle for 99 cents so how I could I pass it up. Emperor of All Maladies is one of my favorites!

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    4. Fantastic post, all the ones I've not read have been added to my wishlist.

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    5. You've just made me add a bunch of books to my TBR list! Thanks. I think. :)

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    6. Excellent list. I hope you get to read The Inconvenient Indian soon -- it manages to be funny and wry while also being incandescent with rage, which is quite a trick to pull off. I still haven't been able to read The Truth about Stories (grrrrr) but am hugely looking forward to it.

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    7. Wonderful list, Ana! I have had Siddharth Mukherjee's book on my shelf for years - I am proud to say that I got it ('discovered' it myself, I have to say) even before it won the Pulitzer prize (which rarely happens because I am typically the last guy to discover a book). I read the first chapter then and it touched me deeply (especially when one of the people mentioned says that it is the new normal), but for some reason I didn't continue reading it. Should get back to it one of these days. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie looks so beautiful in that book cover. I also love the cover of Lawrence Hill's book 'Black Berry, Sweet Juice'. The title 'The Inconvenient Indian' made me smile :) That is a book I would love to read. That blurb from the Morrison book - "where Morrison “shows how much the themes of freedom and individualism, manhood and innocence, depended on the existence of a black population that was manifestly unfree—and that came to serve white authors as embodiments of their own fears and desires”." - it gave me goosebumps. Dame Morrison is hardhitting as always.

      I loved this part of your post - "It’s very easy to stick to a white male literary diet if you’re not paying attention, simply because these are the books you see everywhere. This doesn’t happen because the best books will “naturally” rise to the top, but because the world is structured to privilege the voices of people we see as authoritative and to push everyone else to the margins. It doesn’t take malicious intent for this to happen; all it takes is distraction." So beautifully put and so thought provoking.

      I also liked what you said about how writers of colour write about far more than race. Personally, I find that when a writer doesn't write for an international audience but writes for a domestic one, race plays only a small part in his / her work. I have found that mostly writers write about social themes, literary themes, politics and other stuff which are not related to race.

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    8. That first one - I'm sure it's great but you should absolutely not cave >.> No, you're acting shifty!

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    9. This is a great list as I have found lately that my diversity in books tends to be more about the story than the authors, which I prefer, but I would also prefer diverse stories by diverse authors. I want to seek more of these out. This list I have found some good places to venture to next!

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    10. HUGE virtual hug for this post. I love it so much.

      I would recommend The Emperor of All Maladies for our buddy read, but feel like we should try for SOMETHING a bit more upbeat...

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    11. These all sound so good! I'm excited about several of them (Atul Gawande, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) and hadn't heard of many others. This is a great resource.

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    12. A lot of books I've been wanting to read in this list, and a few more that I'm adding to my mental list! I still have Bad Feminist, unbought, on my office desk though... need to get on that soon. (I look forward to reading it, but not to the emptying of my pockets.)

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    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.