A Year Of Reading Outside My Ethnicity – Results + Reflections
Towards the end of 2020, I decided to spend the following year reading outside my ethnic group. If you’d like to see my original blog post and the intention I set, click here. The vast majority of books published globally are written by authors of my ethnicity and this is obviously not due to a lack of creative talent amongst other ethnicities, it is because of highly problematic lack of access to and exposure by the publishing industry. This was my very small way of actively seeking out writers and poets and redressing the imbalances in my own reading life.
Before I dive into my list of 2021 reads and my top picks amongst them, I feel that the terminology I used for my reading challenge deserves some reflection and unpicking, so please bear with me. I started the year describing my reading challenge as a year of reading books by BAME authors (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic). But then I discovered in March that the term had been officially ditched by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in the UK and in April, an article in the Guardian stated that ‘ (BAME)…feels wonky and contrived while implying that all ethnic minorities are part of a homogeneous group.’ However, the National Centre for Diversity, a leading race think-tank in the UK has publicly stated that BAME is still the preferred acronym.
I then started using BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) but this come from the US, not my native UK, and something about that struck the wrong chord. Next, I switched over to telling people that I was only reading authors of colour, but I realised pretty quickly that this was completely wrong as many of the authors I was reading had all kinds of ethnic heritages, including Asian and Romani Gyspy. Trawling through all the material out there on the most respectful terms to use, I see what a thorny issue this is. Whilst acronyms can be useful, by grouping all these ethnicities together, there is an uncomfortable implication that ‘whiteness’ is the status quo. Even if I say I am reading books by ‘non-white’ authors, once again this centres ‘whiteness’ which I truly do not want to do. Plus, would Romani Gyspies think of themselves as non-white? I doubt it. Really, each ethnicity needs to be called what it is individually. For the title of this blog, I’ve settled on ‘Reading outside my ethnicity’ which does, I hope, work. But if you have any suggestions for other ways to describe this that are both respectful and accurate, I’m all ears.
I’ve decided to divide what I’ve read this year into a few different categories (Fiction / Non-fiction / Middle grade + YA Fiction / Poetry / Memoir or Auto-biography). My five star reads are capitalised at the top for greater ease of seeing my stand-out books and underneath the following lists, I’ll reveal my top picks.
If you are interested in reading any of these books, best of all support your local bookshop. You can also try out the brilliant bookshop.org (available in the UK or US), Hive in the UK (both of these support indie bookshops) or the ethical online retailer World of Books.
AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE BY TAYARI JONES ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
MY SISTER THE SERIAL KILLER by OYINKAN BRAITHWAITE ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER by BERNARDINE EVARISTO ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by COLSON WHITEHEAD ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE by ABI DARÉ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
LOVE AFTER LOVE by INGRID PERSAUD ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
10 MINUTES 38 SECONDS IN THIS STRANGE WORLD by ELIF SHAFAK ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by CELESTE NG ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
SUCH A FUN AGE by KILEY REID ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
THE VANISHING HALF by BRIT BENNETT ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
IF BEALSE STREET COULD TALK by JAMES BALDWIN ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
THE DEATH OF VIVEK OJI by AKWAEKE EMEZI ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Real Life by Brandon Taylor ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
We are all Birds of Uganda by Hofsa Zayyan ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
The Color Purple by Alice Walker ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Passing by Nella Larsen ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The Yield by Tara June Winch ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipul ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Their eyes were watching God by Zora Neale Thurston ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Happiness by Aminatta Forna ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Waves by Sundara Ramaswamy ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Stay with Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Six Foot Six by Kit de Waal ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
The Age of Magic by Ben Okri ⭐️ ⭐️
This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith ⭐️⭐️
NON-FICTION / ESSAYS / LETTERS
BEING MORTAL by ATUL GAWANDE ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS by CHIMAMAMDA NGOZI ADICHIE ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
THE STOPPING PLACES by DAMIAN LA BAS ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
BRAIDING SWEETGRASS by ROBIN WALL KIMMERER ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
CONSUMED. THE NEED FOR COLLECTIVE CHANGE: COLONIALISM, CLIMATE CHANGE + CONSUMERISM by AJA BARBER ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
Karachi Vice by Samira Shackle ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Intimations by Zadie Smith ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
What White People can Do Next by Emma Dabiri ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
A Self-Portrait (Letters) by Khalil Gibran ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Uncanny and Improbable Events by Amitav Ghosh ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Undrowned – Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Our Only Home – A Climate Appeak to the World by His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Franz Alt ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi ⭐️⭐️⭐️
MIDDLE-GRADE / YA FICTION
SECRETS OF THE HENNA GIRL by SUFIYA AHMED ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
SKIM by MARIKO + JILLIAN TAMAKI (Graphic Novel) ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
BOY, EVERYWHERE by AM Dassu ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
The Royal Rebel by Bali Rai ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Clap when you land by Elizabeth Acevedo ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Freedom by Catherine Johnson ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Kite Spirit by Sita Brahmachari ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
A FIRE IN MY HEAD by BEN OKRI ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
THE PROMISED LAND – POEMS FROM ITINERANT LIFE by ANDRÉ NAFFIS-SAHELY ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
SLAM! YOU’RE GONNA WANNA HEAR THIS Edited by NIKITA GILL ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
Rebel without Applause by Lemn Sissay ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
To Do Wid Me by Benjamin Zephaniah ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Cast Away: Poems for our Time by Naomi Shihab Nye ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Tigress by Jessica Mookherjee ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Rope by Khairani Barokka ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Wild Embers by Nikita Gill ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
MEMOIR / AUTO-BIOGRAPHY / AUTO-FICTION / BIOGRAPHY
I KNOW WHY THE CAGED-BIRD SINGS by MAYA ANGELOU ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
HUNGER by ROXANNE GAY ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
BESSIE SMITH by JACKIE KAY ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
THE RETURN by HISHAM MATAR ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
I AM MALALA by MALALA YOUSAFZAI ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
THE BOY WITH THE TOPKNOT by Sathnam Sanghera ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
MANIFESTO: ON NEVER GIVING UP by BERNADINE EVARISTO ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
1000 Years of Joy and Sorrow by Ai Wei Wei ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
The Narrative of Sojourner Truth ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Phew! There we have it. That’s a lot of reading. Way less than many book reviewers (which I’m not, I just like reading) but more than I’d read in a normal year. There are so many more I wanted to include in this list and didn’t get round to reading but, of course, I will continue to read widely outside my own ethnicity, particularly after this year when these authors are so much more on my radar.
Now, here goes with the award-winning ceremony. This was painfully difficult to choose, but I have a few different categories for winners and I divided the fiction books (my dominant genre) into three further categories.
📚 MOST UNPUTDOWNABLE
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Sometimes in books, I find that sharp plotting can come at the cost of excellent writing, but not so with Little Fires Everywhere. Although there were one or two issues that frustrated me by the end of the book, I devoured it in little over a weekend which I normally would never be able to make time for. But this one had me in a chokehold and wouldn’t let go. Compulsive and compelling.
📚 MOST MEMORABLE CHARACTERS
Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud
Set in Trinidad, I still think about Betty Ramdin and Mr Chetan several months on, surely the mark of incredible skill with characterisation. I mentioned in a previous round-up blog that Love After Love made me both laugh and cry and Ingrid Persaud has masterfully created a novel that deserves every accolade it receives.
📚 MOST SURPRISING
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
This one surprised me because there’s no punctuation in it and by the end of the first page I literally groaned and thought, oh God, can I really handle a book like this? However, it wasn’t long before I stopped noticing the lack of punctuation and I was swept up into the colourful lives of the disparate women that populate Girl, Woman, Other. The other big surprise was how all the characters connected up and the end was one of those fabulous, jaw-dropping moments that I truly didn’t see coming. Simply stunning.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
This was a fascinating, profound and thought-provoking read by surgeon Atul Gawande that had been on my radar for some time. Whilst modern medicine has extended our lives and triumphed in many ways, how well does it prepare us for ageing and death? Gawande explores the limitations of his profession, calling for a reappraisal of medicine’s objective: that one’s quality of life and death with dignity should not be superseded by survival and living for longer.
We will all die one day, and I urge anybody who is mortal to read this book.
MIDDLE GRADE / YA FICTION
Ok, ok I know this is cheating but I’m choosing two as they were both beyond brilliant:
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Junior is growing up on a troubled Spokane Indian Reservation, escaping the ‘rez’ to attend a school outside where he quickly discovers as the only First Nation kid in his new school, he’s beset with a whole host of new problems. Based on the author’s experiences, this book was both laugh-out-loud hilarious at times and heartbreakingly poignant at others. Highly, highly recommended for age 12+, this is a fabulous book for anybody seeking a true-to-life narrative of First Nation Indians in the US today, as well as being a fantastic account of the everyday pains and joys of adolescence.
Boy, Everywhere by AM Dassu
I’m not a huge fan of this cover (covers are important to me!), but let’s forget about that for now, because A.M.Dassu has created a memorable, sensitive portrayal of the realities of Syrian refugees trying to reach the UK, through 13 year old protagonist Sami. I’d say this would be good for children from 11+ but I urge you adults out there to read it too. Boy, Everywhere challenged me in unexpected ways, blowing every refugee stereotype out of the water. I felt in such safe hands with the author as she navigated this difficult topic and the result is a compassionate and realistic story that places the reader firmly into the shoes of Sami and his family.
Slam! You’re Gonna Wanna Hear This edited by Nikita Gill
I have a horror of highbrow, inaccessible poetry (a secondary school hangover perhaps?) and only in recent years have I returned to my childhood love of reading – and writing – poetry. You’re gonna wanna hear this, edited by Instagram poet sensation Nikita Gill is the antithesis to this. In bold letters on the back of the book the words ‘It’s time to reclaim poetry’ are emblazoned, and Gill’s collection celebrates British poets of colour that are both well established and up and coming. I discovered some fabulous new poets from her volume and loved the bold freshness of many of its offerings, as well as enjoying words from the poets themselves on the inspiration behind their work.
The Boy with the Topknot by Sathnam Sanghera
I loved this first-hand account of Sathnahm Sanghera growing up in 1980s Wolverhampton as he tries to navigate being a teenager and Sikh in Britain, as well as his difficult and often baffling family. As he gets older, he finally discovers the truth behind his father and sister’s erratic behaviour as his sense of identity is tested to its limits. I thought this was a hugely brave memoir; it can’t have been easy for Sanghera to take the decision to publish this intimate family portrayal but his courage pays off in spades. The Boy with the Topknot is filled with humour, wisdom and tenderness.
A Couple of Final Reflections
⇨ It was hard to find books in which experiences with racism and prejudice did not feature. It goes without saying that this speaks volumes and is very far from the reality of books written by authors of my own ethnicity, a damning indictment. Where are the fun and frivolous Bridget Jones-esque books? They are out there, but they are much, much harder to find. A friend I used to know in Nairobi set up Afro Bubble Gum that celebrates ‘a fun, fierce and frivolous representation of Africa‘ through the arts. We need more of this in Africa and far beyond to paint a more inclusive and broader picture of the realities of ethnicities not classified as ‘white’ and to stop perpetuating stereotypes.
⇨ Here’s something I’ve noticed: as I have spent twelve months in bookshops, libraries and charity shops only seeking out authors outside my ethnicity, I have a strong hunch that this will continue for some time to come. Actually, I hope it continues forever. I’m not saying I didn’t read books by these authors before, but I didn’t actively look for them and this meant that they didn’t feature in my reading life often enough. Truth be told, when the Black Lives Matter movement erupted across the US, the UK and beyond (though I acknowledge that the sudden jumping on to this bandwagon has also been a cause for controversy), I decided to look closer to home and examine my bookshelf. I didn’t like what I saw and this year has also been about reading more intentionally. As a white British writer and reader, I have so much privilege and it’s high time that I championed the writers out there who do not have this inherited privilege.
⇨ Finally, I have tried to read as widely as possible but there are some glaring omissions in my list, for example Latino authors who don’t feature as widely as they should. I acknowledge this and also that if I spent my entire life reading, I would still barely scrape the surface. Perhaps a challenge for another year?
This is a LONG blog post. If you have read all of this, I salute you. If you have even read sections of it, I invite you to create your own book reading challenge for 2022. It may just change the way you read forever.
Please do share this post – let’s challenge one another to read outside our ethnicities. And if you enjoyed reading this, please sign up for my monthly newsletter here.
As for my own personal reading challenge for 2022, well it’s going to be quite different from last year. I’ve decided that in 2022 I’m not going to buy a single book (ok, ok, with the exception of the ones for my book clubs), the reason being that I have SO many books at home waiting to be read. This might not sound very difficult, but believe you me, it is. I am a compulsive book buyer – mostly from second hand or charity shops – forget clothes, forget make-up, 99.9% of the time I go for the books!
Remember, if you are interested in reading any of the books I’ve mentioned above, go for these for your first port of call: Your local bookshop, bookshop.org , Hive or World of Books which scores top in the Ethical Consumer’s online platform for books.
So, it’s time to breathe and dip into the joys already of my shelf. Any suggestions for where I should begin?
Thank you for reading this blog post and I wish you a happy and healthy 2022 💫
What an interesting thing to do. I’ve only read a few from your list. The Vanishing Half was on my Top Reads list this year.
Hi Joanne, thanks so much for reading this. Yes it certainly was an eye-opening year for me of reading! The Vanishing Half was brilliant, wasn’t it. Interestingly, I read Passing later in the year by Nella Larsen and I feel sure that Brit Bennet was inspired by this book to write hers.