Publishing continues to be an overwhelmingly white industry, both in terms of the work that is published and the people making the decisions on what stories are told. It’s a business that is notoriously tough to work in if you’re not white and one whose impossible barriers to entry, tied heavily to their shockingly low pay rates that leave doors closed unless you’re independently wealthy, have exacerbated issues of inclusivity and white supremacy in more ways than one. The excuses are familiar: Oh, Black authors don’t sell; oh, their stories aren’t universal; oh, we don’t want to take a risk on unknown talent.
The racial disparities at the heart of the industry were forced into the spotlight when author LL McKinney started the hashtag #publishingpaidme to show just how differently Black authors are treated compared to their white counterparts. Some shocking revelations included the detail that Malorie Blackman, the UK’s former children’s laureate and author of several major best-sellers, admitted that she had ‘never in my life received anything like the sums being posted by some white authors.’
Partly in response, Twitter saw the rise of #BlackoutBestsellerList, a campaign encouraging readers to buy books by Black authors between June 13 to 20 as part of an effort to get them onto bestseller lists. Change doesn’t happen unless people put their money down and practice what they preach, especially in publishing, an industry notoriously allergic to change. As part of #BlackoutBestsellerList, I offer a few suggestions of books by Black writers that I’ve been enjoying lately or have stacked up on my increasingly large TBR pile. I hope that it inspires you to make a few purchases and consider long-term changes to the literature you consume. Make sure you leave your own recommendations in the comments!
Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall.
Mikki Kendall has long been one of the internet’s sharpest, most vibrant, and urgent voices in dissecting how mainstream commodified feminism has succeeded largely through appropriating, ignoring, and smearing the contributions and needs of Black women. Her collection of essays tackles this issue head-on and artfully dissects the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and privilege.
Reluctant Royals series by Alyssa Cole.
I will take any opportunity I have to recommend the romance novels of Alyssa Cole. Her work is fun, sexy, deftly characterized, and brings much-needed spins to oft-familiar tropes. Take, for instance, her Reluctant Royals series, which brings new life to the well-worn royal romance subgenre. Do you like your melodrama cloaked in a comforting layer of eroticism with a side of social savviness? This is the series for you.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.
During the #publishingpaidme conversations, Jesmyn Ward admitted that, despite her novel Salvage the Bones winning the National Book Award, one of the most prestigious titles in literature, her publisher didn’t want to give her $100k for her next novel. She and her agent had to fight for the number she deserved by going to another publisher. The result was Sing, Unburied, Sing, another top bestseller that landed her another National Book Award. Compared to the likes of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, Ward’s drama is languid, borderline-apocalyptic, and almost agonizingly sharp in its dissection of a Mississippi family falling apart in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
A Dead Djinn in Cairo // The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark.
I’ve recently discovered and fallen head over heels in love with the short fiction of Hugo nominee P. Djèlí Clark. His novellas are so confidently executed, jam-packed with ideas and lore, and even though each story is perfectly told in his brief form, I would happily make some major sacrifices to get some full-length novel version of these tales. A Dead Djinn in Cairo is a paranormal murder mystery set in an alternate Egypt where djinn, ghouls, and clockwork creatures who call themselves angels live alongside one another, while The Black God’s Drums combines African mythology with steampunk and old-school action-adventure pulp on the streets of a familiar but unique New Orleans. I’m dying to read his next novella, Ring Shout, which puts a spin on D.W. Griffith’s FFF propaganda The Birth of a Nation by imagining it as a literal spell by the Klan to unleash hell on Earth.
You Should See Me In a Crown by Leah Johnson.
One of the most hotly-hyped YA books of 2020 so far, Leah Johnson’s debut follows a young Black girl named Liz fighting to keep a hold on her dreams after her financial aid for college falls through. Desperate for funding to attend one of the most elite universities in the country, she decides to compete for her school’s prom king and queen scholarship. It’s a humiliating experience made somewhat easier by the presence of the new girl, Mack, who is also competing for the crown and who Liz falls for almost immediately!
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia.
Rick Riordan of Percy Jackson fame has put his publishing power to good use with his own Disney-Hyperion imprint. Celebrated authors like Rebecca Roanhorse and Yoon Ha Lee are given major platforms to tell stories of young people’s adventures with specific areas of cultural mythology and Riordan’s brand helps them to reach wider audiences. It’s a great use of his fan clout and a way nicer use of his time than being a ceaseless Twitter transphobe *coughJKRcough* Kwame Mbalia’s debut middle grade novel Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky — now THAT is a title — weaves in the story of Black American gods and African legends such as Anansi. I promise that you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy this. The sequel, Tristan Strong Destroys The World, will be released in October.
The Deep by Rivers Solomon, based on the story by Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes.
Daveed Diggs of Hamilton and Snowpiercer fame is also the the lead vocalist of the experimental rap group Clipping. They landed a Hugo Award nomination for their sci-fi concept album Splendor & Misery and another one for a single called ‘The Deep’, which told a rich and eerily tragic tale of the mermaid descendants of African slave women tossed overboard during their forced journey across the Atlantic. That story has been expanded into a novella courtesy of the wonderful Rivers Solomon, and they pack in a hell of a lot of thematic complexities into such a short read. The world-building alone is sublime and Solomon’s language is suitably lyrical given the novella’s musical origins. The Deep is in contention this year for yet another Hugo Award, this time in the novella category, where it faces tough competition from the likes of Seanan McGuire and P. Djèlí Clark.
The Binti Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor.
I could probably just recommend all of Nnedi Okorafor’s work here and be done with it (shout out to my personal favorite book of hers, Lagoon.) For now, let’s focus on her novella trilogy centered on the eponymous Binti, the first of her community to be offered a place at the galaxy’s finest university. Economically but beautifully written, thematically rich, wholly unique, and a hell of a fun read, it’s no wonder these novellas have snapped up practically every prize in SFF literature over the past few years. If you’re new to SFF or just want a snappy read, get yourself on the Binti bandwagon. Then go read Lagoon, which is one of my top SFF reads of the decade.
The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin.
N.K. Jemisin is arguably the current reigning queen of SFF. Name a publishing award in the genre and the chances are she’s won it. Her Broken Earth trilogy earned her the illustrious honor of three Hugo Awards for Best Novel in a row! This series takes place on a planet with a single massive continent that experiences a ‘fifth season’ of catastrophic climate change every few hundred years or so, and the society of castes, species, and ethnic groups who live there. Jemisin’s work is meaty, complex, and not really designed for the starter SFF reader, but it’s also immensely rewarding. The sheer richness of her world-building is worth the cost alone.
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