Salma Haidrani recommends 14 books to read in 2020 – from Leïla Slimani’s non-fiction about the attitudes towards sex among young Moroccan women, to Naji Bakhti’s highly entertaining coming-of-age tale set in Lebanon
2019 might have seen more books by PoC authors published, giving us a wide spectrum of work from writers of colour the world over. But 2020 is testament to the publishing world’s ongoing commitment to diversify their titles, spanning memorable memoirs to original queer fiction and shifting the conversation beyond simply race. Here are 14 must-reads by PoC authors to look out for over the coming year.
Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani
The award-winning French-Moroccan author makes her first foray into non-fiction. Shedding light on the diverse experiences and attitudes towards sex among young Moroccan women – Slimani interviews 15 different women across 18 chapters – Sex and Lies is a searing insight into what can be sexual double standards in conservative Middle Eastern cultures. This makes for page-turning reading not just because Sex and Lies distances itself from orientalist tropes but it offers an insight – and crucially, celebrates – how Moroccan women are redefining attitudes to sex on their own terms.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
The latest title from the award-winning author centres on a relationship gone awry. It follows an unconventional memoir style – each chapter views the relationship through a different lens – while spanning themes including a religious upbringing and domestic abuse in same-sex relationships. Machado’s prose is as affecting as it is emotionally charged. In The Dream House not only marks Machado as an exciting literary voice but also acts as a rallying cry that not all queer relationships can be safe and utopic spaces.
That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu
A stunning fictional debut from the first novelist to be released on Stormzy’s publishing imprint #Merky Books and the author of SAFE: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space. Following the story of a young boy known as K who’s sent into care and adopted by white foster parents, later returning to his estranged parents in Tottenham, That Reminds Me also deftly explores identity, belonging, addiction, sexuality, violence, family and faith. Written in fragments to evoke memories, this posits Owusu as a writer to watch – and for good reason.
Released in paperback, this is a groundbreaking satirical self-help tome and ‘survival guide’ on how to get ahead at work as a black person by writer and media executive Nels Abbey. Guiding black readers through how to navigate – and ultimately survive – workplace discrimination in white-dominated fields, Abbey’s greatest feat is how he makes an uncomfortable issue accessible and entertaining. Unsurprisingly, it’s won Abbey a slew of critical acclaim.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
This unflinching and unputdownable part-memoir from award-winning poet, essayist and debut author Cathy Park Hong follows the writer grappling with her experience as a second-generation Asian American immigrant in contemporary America. Tackling themes of identity, white nationalism and mental health, ‘Burden’ reflects on Hong’s experience of depression and the burden of the ‘model immigrant’ experience. Meanwhile, ‘Indebted’ acts as a rallying cry to be an ally to minority communities. Hong’s razor-sharp, provocative prose will linger long after you put Minor Feelings down.
Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez
This powerful semi-autobiographical debut grapples with fatherhood, love and loss spanning three generations. Settling in the Black Country in the 1950s, ex-boxer and Jamaican immigrant Norman Alonso battles racism and disability. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Jesse arrives in London at the turn of the 2000s seeking a fresh start through sex work as he seeks to distance himself from his repressive upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness. Moving and memorable, Rainbow Milk heralds Mendez as an original new voice in queer fiction.
The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir by André Leon Talley
A memoir on thriving and surviving the cut-throat fashion industry amid racism and homophobia, The Chiffon Trenches charts Talley’s rise from humble beginnings to becoming one of the most influential men in fashion. From Talley’s first job assisting Andy Warhol at a fashion magazine, to his friendships with the late Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour, The Chiffon Trenches makes for captivating reading for fashion fans and beyond.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
An exciting new voice in fiction, Such a Fun Age follows Emira, a black babysitter wrongly accused of kidnapping Briar, a white child, and the fraught relationship she navigates with Alix, her well-intentioned employer. Touching on race, class, privilege, power dynamics and the emotional toll of domestic workers, Reid’s critically acclaimed debut makes for urgent, timely reading.
Modesty: A Fashion Paradox by Hafsa Lodi
With modest fashion becoming catapulted into the mainstream, UAE-based journalist and debut author Hafsa Lodi draws on her personal experiences with modest clothing growing up in the US as well as her career as a fashion journalist in the Middle East. Speaking to the high-profile figures, fashion labels and high street stores which have played a significant role in making modest fashion a multi-billion-pound industry, Modest Fashion also explores the movement’s limitations. But what really makes for potent reading is how Lodi debunks the myth that modest fashion is simply a ‘Muslim’ movement.
Low by Jeet Thayil
The Booker-shortlisted, Kerala-born author’s latest novel charts protagonist Dominic Ullis’ weekend of self-destruction as he grapples with grief in Mumbai. Set against a backdrop of misadventure and a kaleidoscope of colourful characters, Low is as exhilarating as it is unputdownable.
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women White Feminists Forgot by Mikki Kendall
Exploring her personal experiences of food insecurity while deftly touching on the housing crisis, mental health and transmisogyny, interspersed with reflections on pop culture and politics, self-identified ‘occasional feminist’ and author Mikki Kendall’s latest tome explores the limitations of mainstream feminism. Hood Feminism might make for poignant and page-turning reading but also marks Kendall as an original addition to the black feminist canon.
Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories by Kim Young-Ha
Released in hardback and translated into English, this collection from the award-winning South Korean novelist has unsurprisingly won rave reviews. Split into four tales, ‘Missing Child’ charts the emotional toll of a couple losing their child only to be reunited a decade later while, the titular ‘Diary of a Murder’, charting a relapsed serial killer, is as chilling as it is captivating.
A Man Who is Not a Man by Thando Mgqolozana
The South African novelist reflects on the trauma of when a rite-of-passage circumcision that initiates teenagers into manhood goes wrong. Spanning themes of shame, social ostracism and what it really means to be a man, A Man Who Is Not a Man makes for a tough but timely and triumphant read.
Between Beirut and the Moon by Naji Bakhti
Comedy and conflict clash in this highly entertaining coming-of-age tale from Lebanese debut author Naji Bakhti. Set amidst the country’s sectarian divisions as it attempts to recover from decades of political violence and civil war, Between Beirut and the Moon charts a young boy’s near-death encounters, with a colourful cast and comical escapades. A unique debut.