Mainstream and social media have been full of recommended reading lists for people inspired to learn more by the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of the books are classics or at least widely known. Here are five lesser-known recent books by Black women that I recommend wholeheartedly. They concern events, issues, and lives from pre-Civil War days to the present day and represent a wide range of approaches to storytelling, from flash fiction to a brick-sized epic.
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Kia Corthron is best known as a playwright, but in her nearly 800-page debut novel she demonstrates that she is also a novelist to be reckoned with. Castle is the story of two white brothers from rural Alabama and two black brothers from small-town Maryland that moves from 1941 to early in the 21st century. The core of the story is the civil rights movement, which has a powerful impact on all four characters. Eventually, the trajectory of their lives brings the two families together, with explosive results. Corthron’s years in the theater make for crackling dialogue, and her inventive approach to storytelling is spellbinding. It’s no surprise that The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter won the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Angela Davis called it “a stunning achievement by any measure.”
Natashia Deon’s Grace takes an unblinking look at the consequences of slavery on women, both the mother-and-child relationship and their freedom to love whom they choose. Starting in Alabama in the 1840’s, Grace tells the story of 15-year-old Naomi, a runaway slave who finds sanctuary in a Georgia brothel run by a free-minded madam named Cynthia. There Naomi falls in love with a white client and has his child, whom she names Josey. From this point, Grace becomes the story of Josey as narrated by Naomi. Half-white, visibly different from the other slaves, she is raised by a freed slave named Charles. When the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, Josey is free, but her fight for dignity is just beginning. Laws don’t automatically change the hearts and minds of the people, and Josey is forced to make her way through a violent, post-Civil War world. Naomi’s narrative voice is authentic and vivid in its unflinching telling of this difficult but necessary and unforgettable story.
It’s 1977 and Greer Michaels has returned to the small Georgia town he fled years earlier to care for his dying mother, Elizabeth. As a River ebbs and flows between 1977 and 1945, exploring racial and class conflicts in the town. Secrets are slowly revealed, allowing us to see how the impact of traumatic events rippled across time. Dayson has written a sensitive character study of four people, highlighted by her lyrical prose. This is a noteworthy debut from a writer worth watching.
Few writers have mastered the art of “flash fiction” better than Desiree Cooper. Every one of the 30 short short stories in this collection is a potent snapshot of a character or a relationship. Cooper reminds us that, as dominating as the role of a mother is in her family’s life, a woman with her own interests and needs lives inside her, too. In just a few pages, Cooper is able to suggest a novel’s worth of connections and import. And her writing is beautiful.
Amina Gautier’s debut collection of stories, At-Risk (2012), won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction. The follow-up, 2014’s Now We Will Be Happy, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. The Loss of All Lost Things is her best work yet. Her characters have either suffered a loss, literally lost someone or something, or are at a loss to figure out what to do with their lives following a significant and often unexpected event. Gautier’s ability to plumb the psyche of very complex characters will break your heart repeatedly. The Loss of All Lost Things is a dark and often disturbing collection, but Gautier is such a gifted storyteller, the characters and conflicts so compelling, the telling details so perfectly chosen, that you can’t turn away.