In light of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and many other Black people in the world due to the racism that is so ingrained in society, both now and for generations, I decided that it was time to further educate myself. I looked at my bookshelves and realised that 98% of the works I owned were written by white writers. It was time for a change, and so I decided to dedicate September to reading novels by Black, female authors. I feel it is important to note before I begin writing that the experiences and sufferings of Black people should not be white-centric: white liberals should not be painted as heroes for their allyship with the Black Lives Matter Movement. That is no way my intention for this blog post. But, I think it is important for myself and for white people and Non-Black people to read, listen, watch, learn and educate themselves. As an avid reader, I decided that my bookshelves were a great place to start. I decided to read a mixture of books, and it is important to note that Black writing is not a monolith. The authors I chose to read this month come from many different places, they write in different styles that fit in with their genres and they deal with issues of race in many different ways. This diversity expanded my knowledge and as Black authors’ lived experiences inform their writing in different ways, the novels I chose took me to new places and gave me new insights which I heavily value. Whilst I discovered new authors and even added a couple of new books to my ‘favourites’ shelf on GoodReads, I also explored an old favourite of mine, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and was extremely happy to revisit her writing. With all of this said, I believe it is important to recognise that my reading material in the past has not been diverse enough, if at all, and moving forward I aim to make a conscious effort to read more Black writing. Reading Black writing and blogging about it, posting on social media about the Black Lives Matter movement and similar should not, in any way, be performative. This support and proactiveness of white and Non-Black people should continue even after the media reports are silent. I am keen to continue my education, and the diversification of my reading. If anyone has any recommendations, I’d really appreciate you leaving them in the comments.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Reading time: just less than 1 day
GoodReads rating: 5 out of 5 stars
After reading ‘Queenie,’ I am absolutely not surprised that it is a Sunday Times Bestseller and has been longlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction. I absolutely loved this book – it made me laugh, cringe and cry. It is quite rare for me to find books that make me physically laugh out loud but I found Carty-Williams’ character of Queenie to be absolutely hilarious. I was particularly fond of Queenie’s friendship with Kyazike, which was both endearing and amusing. Carty-Williams’ depiction of racial micro aggressions in friendships, relationships and the workplace was particularly eye opening and shed light on the challenges faced by Black women every single day. Through Queenie’s everyday life and the culmination of many challenging events that ultimately impact on her mental health, Carty-Williams demonstrates both the conscious and unconscious racial bias ingrained into our society, from within the medical services to Queenie’s place of work.
A quote I found particularly interesting was ‘I wished that well-meaning white liberals would think before they said things that they thought were perfectly innocent.’ Whilst we all must keep fighting the fight and speaking out on the Black Lives Matters movement, this particular part of the book reminded me that we should keep educating ourselves – there is always a lot more to learn, especially for non-Black people, and we need to continue to read, listen and understand the correct ways to speak on the matter.
I have spent many years writing about the problems faced by women in society, in the economy and in a political climate, amongst many other circumstances, and it’s extremely important to recognise that it is impossible to be a feminist unless you are an intersectional feminist. Carty-Williams’ harrowing writing relating to Queenie’s sexual relationships and in a broader sense, Black women’s experiences with men, broke my heart and educated me on the importance of recognising not just female struggles, but Black female struggles.
Arguably, my favourite part of the book was Queenie’s relationship with her grandparents, particularly her grandmother. The balance between matriarchal affection and tough love made an endearing read and as someone who is extremely close to my own grandmother, it resonated with me a lot. I absolutely adored their relationship and the resolution of Queenie and her mother’s strained relationship at the end of the novel.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Reading time: 3 days
GoodReads rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Where do I start? I had been looking forward to reading Smith’s work for a very long time, and had to start with her debut. Please don’t get me wrong, I found this book to be amazingly witty, with clever quips galore that had me laughing out loud. Smith uses her quick wit to create a whole world, spanning three generations, and depicts the nuances of the differing cultures within the novel. Smith encapsulates the meeting of different ethnicities, cultures and demographics to detail the lives of Archibald and Samad, and their respective families. Smith writes with constant reference to varying iconographies of popular culture which is an element of White Teeth that I absolutely loved. Archibald himself gave me Humbert Humbert vibes, marrying Clara when she was quite young and in all, seemingly being a little bit dense.
The strange thing about this novel, whilst witty and clever, is that it forms no cohesive plotline. With a deviance in timeline and a wealth of characters to be narrated, I found the lack of cohesive plot difficult to engage with, which is one of the reasons that I was limited to three GoodRead stars only. I felt the length of the novel was unnecessary, the book is split into four different parts and, by the final part, I was willing the ending to come, finding that Smith unnecessarily deviates from the plot onto tangents that add nothing to the story for my personal liking. The parts dedicated to both Samad and Irie were my personal favourites, and read them with the most speed. The lack of cohesiveness for me, makes me think that this novel may be slightly forgettable for me, though the characters themselves are memorable enough.
Nonetheless, I did enjoy this novel – whilst I felt no attachment to the characters, I thought the character development was excellent and Smith’s strong narrative voice made for an amazing debut novel. The quirky characters and their diverse and creative family histories made for some amusing reading and I would not be discouraged from picking up another Zadie Smith novel in the future.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Reading time: a few hours
GoodReads rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The Bluest Eye is novel that follows Pecola, a young Black girl in 1940s Ohio that wishes more than anything to have blue eyes, a feature on many young white girls her age that is considered beautiful. The novel follows both her desire and the traumatic events that happen in her life, and also pertains to her family and their background. Morrison alternates between writing from Claudia MacTeer’s point of view, Percola’s point of view and sprinkles in third-person, omniscient narration to tell the tragic tale of Percola’s life.
Firstly, it is impossible not to mention Morisson’s writing style. Though writing about hard hitting, heartbreaking topics, her prose is soft and fluid and almost feels as though the book is one long, beautiful poem. Morrison’s skill of writing so beautifully of something so heartbreaking only makes the book that much more tragic. Her words and descriptions are reminiscent of the era, the book quite literally taking the reader back to Lorain, Ohio in the 1940s. Every time I picked up the book, I was transported.
I quite literally have no words for the beauty of this book, it left me with a broken heart and is a story that will stay with you forever. Exploring not only the general racial oppressions of the Black people in 1940s America, but also the tragedies and oppressions faced by Black women. From beauty standards devised from white features, to the abuse and violence imposed on Black women by men. The bluest eyes in the novel represent the beauty of the white, middle-class in Lorain, Ohio but, (*spoiler alert*) as she finally obtains the bluest eyes that she has for so long desired, she loses her sanity in exchange. An ironic, beautifully told tragic tale that I will carry with me forever. I can’t wait to read more of Morrison’s work.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Reading time: 2 days
GoodReads rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I have very few words for this book other than utterly incredible. Americanah tells the tale of Ifemelu and Obinze, childhood sweethearts from Nigeria, whose lives change during many years apart during their respective UK and USA hiatuses. The novel details the course of their lives when they meet again in Lagos during adulthood.
I have always been a huge fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, her novels on feminism (namely ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ and ‘Dear Ijeawele’) are those which introduced her to me, and I relied on them heavily to support my thesis during my undergraduate dissertation. I now attribute Purple Hibiscus to being one of my favourite books of all time, so I was keen to read Americanah. I was not disappointed, and now may dare say that I loved it even more than Purple Hibiscus.
The character development in this book is incredible, Adichie leaves the reader actively rooting and hoping for the characters. I loved Ifemelu, and was completely enraptured in her relationship with Obinze. This element of character development and thus reader attachment is what I found to be missing in Zadie Smith’s writing, picking up Americanah which, for me, was a huge page turner, was largely refreshing.
The book is rife with dialogue, conversations in the UK, USA and Nigeria, with both Black and white people, of varying ages in varying social settings, and this together paired with the inflection of time throughout the novel really made clear the continuation of racism, micro aggressions and prejudices. Adichie raises the idea of ‘being Black’ in the USA vs. being Nigerian in Nigeria, and I really learned a lot about Nigerian and more widely, African experiences of expatriation. Adichie skilfully worked the topic of racial injustice and prejudice into a novel that was heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. Whilst the ending was not entirely sad, it still left me sobbing. I can’t recommend Adichie’s works more to anyone, wanting to learn and educate themselves more on issues of racism, or simply to someone who wants to read an incredible novel.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Reading time: 2 – 3 hours
GoodReads rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Renni Eddo-Lodge’s ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ (2017) is arguably the most important book in my entire list. This book taught me more information about Black British history than all of my years in education. If you’re looking to learn and be educated on matters and motivations relating to the Black Lives Matter Movement, this is the book for you. It’s the book for everyone. It taught me how revisionist and reductionist the British education system’s portrayal of British history really is, and I felt that I walked away with a wealth of knowledge that is essential for all to know.
Eddo-Lodge humanises the issues that Black people face in British society. She puts a name to the children who suffered under the racial discrimination of the social care system, the parents who suffered under the prejudice of the British healthcare system and the people who suffered under the brutality and negligence of the British criminal system. Eddo-Lodge makes it impossible for Brits to say ‘it isn’t as bad in the UK as in the USA,’ something which has been circulating around social media for months now. She humanises and showcases the racial injustices and micro aggressions ingrained in all aspects of Britain’s institutions for every reader to see and understand with her poignant words. It is impossible to read this book without feeling ashamed of the UK and without feeling to need to further educate yourself and understand that the UK is an extremely racist country. Whilst it isn’t written into the GCSE curriculum or A Level specification, it is our history, and we need to learn and understand it if anything is going to change.
This book made my heart ache and imposed shame and disgust on me, but in the best way. I put it down feeling more educated and motivated to really understand more of my own country’s history and the ways in which our society needs to change. I couldn’t give this any less than 5 GoodReads stars, I would have given it 10 if I could. If there is any book in this list that you choose to read, I’d argue it should be this one.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Reading time: 1 week
GoodReads rating: 3 out of 5 stars
There were many things that I loved about this book and many things that I didn’t love, hence the 3 star rating on GoodReads. I feel as though a 3 star rating isn’t going to be very popular, given that the book won the 2019 ManBooker Prize! I can totally see why she won the prize, and appreciate the skill of her writing. However, my reading preferences meant that I wasn’t blown away by the novel. I feel separating my loves and my dislikes into two paragraphs is the best way to explain this…
Evaristo’s intersectionality in this novel is incredible. I feel it is so rare to read about, for example, non-binary identifying people in modern day fiction as a whole. So to have a non-binary character in the novel was so refreshing, it added a new dynamic to the plot and I loved learning about it through a fictional tale. In general, Evaristo’s inclusivity of the LGBTQ+ community is something I really loved too. She didn’t stick to the rigid character type of cisgender, heterosexual women with a wealth of men-related issues. It was great to see diverse characters with different life experiences, and actually made the plot so much more engaging. I felt that whilst the book was fictionally enjoyable, I was learning too, which is something I really value in a novel.
The novel also has little-to-no punctuation. At first, I found this so strange and really quite difficult to engage with, but, as the novel went on, I actually found that the book flowed beautifully due to this grammatical element and it made it more of an enjoyable read for me. It made the ease of picking up the book and quite literally flowing through the pages incredible, and felt it was a representation and reflection of the fluidity of characters within the novel itself.
However, I am very much a reader of plot-driven novels. I love when a book is driven by the plot rather than the characters, I feel it makes for much more of a page-turner and keeps me engaged throughout. Evaristo’s chapters focus on a different character each time, whilst they are seemingly all linked in some way. I found it difficult to keep engaged and saw myself oftentimes losing interest in the story. As the book is character driven, I hoped it would be a novel I would be able to dip in and out of, however I didn’t feel this way and found it difficult to pick up once I had put it down.
Having said this, I did enjoy the book on the whole and am keen to read more Evaristo novels. I also thought the cover art was beautiful and love how the novel looks on my shelves. The cohesiveness in art work between all of her novels is so visually pleasing. Perhaps I’ll get on better with more of her work but for this particular novel, I was not blown away but did enjoy the book.
The fight for racial equality continues, and reading/educating ourselves is the bare minimum of work that needs to be done. For more information on how we, as a human race, can help, please see the links below.