by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
One of our Unabridged Podcast Reading Challenge categories this year is "Classic by a BIPOC Author." Let me start off by acknowledging that the label "classic" is inherently ambiguous, which means that everyone can define the term as they wish.
Now, with that clarified, I thought I'd share a few books by Black authors I've read over the past year or so that I think qualify as classics. (I'll be sharing some recommendations from other authors represented by the acronym BIPOC in future bookish faves.) I also want to point you to this great article from the New York Times, Adam Bradley's "Building a New Canon of Black Literature," which highlights some authors I've read and some who are on my list to read. It opens up a rich conversation about
"the emergence of new arbiters of literary culture reshaping the canon of Black American literature. The word “canon” comes to English by way of the ancient Greek kanōn, meaning “rule.” When applied to literature, it refers to a list, actual or conjectural, of great works that define the terms of a literary education. Historically, canon construction is the work of the few, foremost among them academics who edit anthologies and design syllabuses. But this is changing: I didn’t come across [J. California] Cooper in the pages of a scholarly journal; I saw her name on Instagram."
As a part of the bookstagram community, I've found so many authors I love, and I've had rich discussions—via buddy read—about books that I otherwise may not have read. I think the more we open up the concepts of "classic" and "canon," the more we can find books that enrich our understanding of the world.
One more thing before I get to the books: our Unabridged Podcast Book Club pick this month is James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm), which is perfect for this reading challenge category. The episode will release on the 22nd, and we'll have an IG buddy read chat about it on the 27th. It's a short book with a lot of impact, so just let us know if you'd like to join the discussion by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or messaging us on IG @unabridgedpod.
Recommendations for Classic by a BIPOC Author
Octavia Butler's Kindred (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) - Kindred is the first book I've read by Octavia Butler. I have no idea how I've gone so long without reading this book (or her work in general!), but I'll definitely be reading more soon. This book is absolutely brilliant. The premise is a fascinating one. The book, published in 1979, features two time periods, time travel, and some amazing social commentary. Dana, a modern Black woman considering American life during the year of the bicentennial, is having a conversation with her husband Kevin in their new home when she starts to feel strange. The world goes weird, and she's suddenly in antebellum Maryland on a plantation watching a little red-haired boy drown. She saves him and then begins to register the implications of her situation. Hours pass with Dana trying to do what she can to remain unobtrusive, and suddenly, she's back in her time again. She spent hours in the past, but she's lost only seconds of her life. The time travel continues with little warning, though years have passed each time she returns to the plantation. Of course she has been aware of the horrors of slavery but from a modern perspective. Now, she's surviving them. Butler's writing is vivid and communicates Dana's experiences with details that illuminate not only the peaks of evil but also the horrors that pervade every day of the enslaved people's existence. I don't want to say more for fear of spoilers, but I can't think of a reader who wouldn't appreciate this book.
Alex Haley's Roots (Bookshop.org) - I last read Alex Haley's Roots in high school, alongside the rest of my high school English class. My mom was a big fan of the 70s miniseries, so I had also seen that, as well as the more recent adaptation. But revisiting this book with a group? Wow. We of course had to contend with the discovery that the book didn't really qualify as nonfiction—you can easily read up on those accusations with a quick Google search—but, for me, that didn't affect the quality of the reading experience. This powerful evocation of a single family, the extended depiction of Kunta Kinte's life in Gambia before he is taken, sold onto a plantation in Virginia, was as striking as ever, and watching the fates of each generation of his family develop until they come to Haley's own life is truly epic. I highly recommend this novel, as well as both adaptations.
Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) - This is a novel to which I've returned—and to which I'm sure I'll continue returning—finding new things to love each time. I love the audiobook, narrated by the amazing Ruby Dee, and I focused on scenes that my attention has sometimes skimmed over. I read with new eyes—or, I supposed, new ears (sorry, couldn't resist). A summary here is difficult, but I'll give some hints in case you haven't read this gorgeous novel before. It's about Janie, a young girl raised by a grandmother whose main focus is procuring for her a marriage that will leave her well off. Janie, though, realizes that for her, money and standing are not most important. It's reductive to call this book a love story, though love is at its center, because for Janie, love is the key to setting free her own identity and her understanding of herself. Her search for love provides a sort of structure for the novel. Watching Janie grow—this is a book that covers decades—is as epic as any tale of adventure could be. Zora Neale Hurston is famous for having collected folklore, and that influence is obvious here, in a story told brilliantly in dialect, one that delves into the history of Eatonville, Florida, and that moves on to the Everglades. Janie faces the forces of generational trauma, of racism, of misogyny, and of natural disasters, and yet she emerges strong and with an earned confidence. She is truly one of my favorite characters.
Toni Morrison's Recitatif (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) - While I've read a lot of Toni Morrison's books, I'd never read her one-and-only short story, "Recitatif," until it came out on Libro.fm. Wow. I've now read it several times—it's that impactful. The introduction by Zadie Smith lays a great foundation for the work, which focuses on two girls who end up in an orphanage when they're around eight. We know their races are different, BUT Morrison strips away all indications of which girl is white and which girl is Black. What results is what Smith characterizes as an "experiment" on the reader, who is trying (as readers do) to make meaning and to draw conclusions based on their own understanding of what characterizes each race. Examining those conclusions is illuminating and uncomfortable and powerful. I continue to be amazed by Morrison. What a writer.
I'll add that I taught this one, and my students found it to be equally impactful as they parsed Morrison's style and structure.
Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm - Abridged) - The Women of Brewster Place was a #readtolearn pick for @readwithtoni, and I'm so glad she chose it! This book had been on my list to read for so long, and it is absolutely brilliant. The book is composed of seven interconnected short stories, each focused on a different Black woman. Their experiences are diverse: they come from vastly different places, cover a huge age range, and seek different types of relationships. But they're drawn together by their home, by their desire to support one another, by their deep understanding of the others' experiences. At times, this was a difficult read—many of the women experience some sort of trauma—but ultimately, I found it to be a hopeful one.
I also read The Men of Brewster Place, and while it's not as widely available, reading the stories that include the men's connected points of view from the first book was fascinating.
August Wilson's Fences (Bookshop.org) - This is one of those plays that I've been meaning to read for a long time—I'm glad I finally picked it up. Once I did, I could hardly put it down. The play is set in the 1950s, in a city inspired by Pittsburgh, and it focuses on the family of Troy and Rose Maxson, including Troy's older son Lyons and Troy and Rose's son Cory. Troy is a garbageman who once dreamed of being a professional baseball player at a time before Jackie Robinson had begun to integrate the Major Leagues. Troy's son, Cory, is a talented football player who now has a similar dream, but Troy is convinced that Cory will be disappointed, just as he was, or perhaps taken advantage by those who offer false promises. Rose is stuck somewhere in the middle. She understands Cory's hopes and Troy's fears and just wants those she loves to be reconciled. Fences covers almost a decade of the family's life together, examining the forces that draw them together and keep them apart.
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