For too long, Black representation in publishing was scant. However, we are finally seeing more contemporary Black authors get the recognition they deserve and carve a much-needed space into the industry. Readers should support and welcome these storytellers as they write about the complexities of Black experience and raw humanness these stories evoke. This list will briefly touch on a selection of contemporary works by Black authors that I believe should be at the top of every reader’s list.
1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi, author of “Homecoming”, speaks to Black suffering, familial strife, pain, and compassion like no other. She immerses the reader in the first line: “The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods…” We are quickly planted in 18th century Ghana, heady ash on the tips of their tongues. The reader jumps headfirst into the reality of the time: where chattel slavery and forced, violent separation thrived. The story begins with two half-sisters, both unaware of each other’s existence.
One is married off to the English gentry, living in comfort in Cape Coast Castle. The other captured and imprisoned in that very castle, sold into slavery and shipped to an American plantation. “Homegoing” reads like a deeply personal oral history, following the paths of each of these sisters’ descendants. Gyasi does not shy away from the ugly. At times it is uncomfortable, grotesque even, unrelenting. The reader feels everything, and through that comes profound compassion and empathy. Add this one to your read list, “Homegoing” is one of the top contemporary works by Black authors.
2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
In their debut novel, author Akwaeke Emezi breathes poetry into this captivating work of fiction. Their voice is a stand out among contemporary Black authors today. Each line in “Freshwater” coils into the next with ease, resembling the two-headed snake that graces the cover. The tale they weave is unmistakably powerful. At its most raw and intimate, the reader can even feel voyeuristic.
We follow Ada, born into a southern Nigerian family, grappling with a fractured self and developing a separate, altered consciousness throughout their growth into adulthood. These fractured selves come to the forefront when a traumatic event happens at the American university Ada attends. This psychosis overtakes her mind, as Ada fades further away. With rich prose and electric pacing, you’re sure to devour this stunning novel.
3. Mr. Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo
“Mr. Loverman” is many things. Author Bernadine Evaristo covers layers and intersections we do not often see in media. The novel follows 74-year-old Barrington Jedidiah Walker living a double life: one side as a proper family-man, a London immigrant born and bred in Jamaica, with a proclivity for Shakespeare and a tailored suit. The other side is a secretly gay man and in a long-term affair with his childhood friend, Morris. This novel tackles masculinity, machismo (and lack thereof), infidelity and sexuality, among many other things.
The voice throughout is mostly from our protagonist, Mr. Loverman himself. There is an air of arrogance and entitlement about the protagonist. This is followed closely by the suffering that comes with holding one’s true identity so close to the chest for so long. From the bustling streets of contemporary London to flashbacks throughout Antigua and the London of yesteryear, we see an intimate snapshot of this elderly man’s life.
The reader is also privy to the dynamics of an immigrant family—the culture shifts from Jamaica to London. There are love and shame interwoven; regret and longing. If you’re looking for a multi-faceted story with characters you feel deeply connected to then pick this one up.
4. Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
In this lush, powerful novel, author Chinelo Okparanta takes on themes of love and war through the eyes of protagonist Ijeoma. This novel tells the story of a girl born during a civil war in her native Nigeria. She meets another girl from a different ethnic community, and they subsequently fall in love with each other. There is an urgency the text evokes, and readers are able to feel deeply rooted in this enticing, raw story. As with “Mr. Loverman”, “Under the Udala Trees” offers intersectional representation and an intimate look into African sapphic love.
5. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
If you are looking for an utterly engrossing, compelling memoir, look no further. Janet Mock spares the reader nothing. Mock takes us through her transition as a transgender woman with unflinching honesty, grounding the reader with accessible language. She details life pre-transition, living poor and Black in Hawaii. Through Mock’s writing, the reader journeys through the hard truths of being working class and multiracial within American society.
In this novel, Mock wears her heart on her sleeve and allows the reader to be entranced by the raw vulnerability of her writing evokes. With “Redefining Realness”, Mock takes subverts misconceptions and stereotypes about femininity and trans existence. This book is required reading for everyone interested in an insightful creative nonfiction piece.
6. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
For those who have not yet picked up Americanah, you need to ASAP. Acclaimed author and speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes of longing and spirited love. She also treats topics like family and community with the highest amount of care. This story follows Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerian natives who fall deeply in love. The two face trials and tribulations when Imfelu immigrates to America. She goes there in order to study at university and to flee war in their home country.
The reader follows Ifemelu as she struggles to find her place in post 9/11 America, while Obinze, rejected from entering the US, heads to London as an undocumented immigrant in order to make a living for himself.
This is a page-turning, vivid work of prose with heart and soul. And now, this incredible work is getting a go on the silver screen. HBO Max is turning this text into a miniseries with Adiche taking on the role of head screenwriter for the project. Heavy hitters such as “Orange is the Black”’s Uzo Aduba and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o are set to star in this adaptation.
7. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Finally, if you’re craving some expansive, imaginative sci-fi, this first book in an explosive trilogy is for you. Author Nnedi Okorafor takes world building to another level. She utilizes imaginative, sprawling landscapes that extend past the familiar. “Binti” follows a woman by the name of Binti. She is the first of her people accepted into Oomza university, a prestigious intergalactic institution. Binti must make the decision to leave all family and friends behind in order to travel through space—but will she make the journey? Okorafor packs this series with adventure, danger and exploration of the unknown. Fans of sci-fi will quickly fall for this riveting series.
About the Author/s
Jo is currently a contributor for The Digest and recent graduate of William Paterson University. When she is not writing, you can find her elbow deep in vintage store racks, curled up with a good book or listening to the new Pheobe Bridgers album.