Five essential works of fiction by Black women that you might have missed


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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The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter — Kia Corthron (Seven Stories Press, 2016)

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.”

GraceGrace — Natashia Deon (Counterpoint Press, 2016)

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.

As a River – Sion Dayson (Jaded Ibis Press, 2019)

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.

Know the Mother: Stories – Desiree Cooper (Wayne State University Press, 2016)

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.

The Loss of All Lost Things: Stories — Amina Gautier (Elixir Press, 2016)

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.

8 comments

    • Also, I’m not a fan of artistic segregation and that’s why I’m not doing one of these myself. But like….if you’re gonna do this, you gotta add Beloved. That’s only the most incredible work of gothic psychological fiction by anybody ever.

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      • I don’t consider this artistic segregation. I typically write about books and authors without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, etc. I only segregate by gender, since this is a blog about women writers. This post is a targeted response to the issues and interests of the day, as I’m sure you know. Also, my intention was to highlight lesser-known books/authors, as that is part of my mission here. Beloved is indeed one of the all-time great novels, but it certainly doesn’t need one more recommendation on top of the millions it has already received in the last 33 years.

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  1. Well… thank you for finally giving me a list of adult, literary fiction books by Black authors. All the other lists I’ve seen are all YA books, mostly romance or fantasy or both. If you have a list like this for LGBTQ+ authors, I’d love to see it as well. I mean, I read Patrick Gale, but I started reading him long before I knew he was gay.

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