- The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi
The Icarus Girl is a compelling work of post-colonial fiction, all the more impressive considering it was written during Oyeyemi’s time at school. It tells the story of Jessamy Harrison, an eight year old girl struggling to reconcile her British roots with her Nigerian heritage. During a trip to the family compound, Jessamy meets TillyTilly – a young girl with the power to bring Jess’ subconscious desires into being. At first this friendship seems to empower Jessamy, to give her voice when she was previously overlooked because of her position as outsider, but their connection soon develops into something altogether more sinister. Through the supernatural, Oyeyemi explores themes of race, identity, and heritage with a deftness rarely found in debut novels. However, although Jessamy is a precocious child, her insight extends well beyond what could realistically be expected of an eight year old. That being said, the questions her story raises will stay with the reader long after turning the final page.
- Noughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman
Having loved Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series as a child, it was a delight to revisit it as an adult. What I remembered was an exciting story. What I found, upon re-reading this series, was an exciting story filled with powerful political messages about race and class, power and privilege. This series is set in a society divided by skin colour, where the dark-skinned Crosses have a monopoly on wealth, representation and status, and the fair Noughts are reviled. The novel follows the relationship between Persephone Hadley, a pampered politician’s daughter, and Callum McGreggor, the son of the Hadley family’s housekeeper. As Persephone questions her privilege, as Callum grows increasingly radical, an extraordinary love story unfolds.
- Passing, by Nella Larsen
Set in New York City during the roaring ‘20s, Passing presents a stark contrast between the constraints placed upon Black communities governed by the politics of respectability and the easy yet precarious glamour of the lives lived by those ‘passing’ for white. A chance encounter with a childhood friend leaves Irene Redfield, who has always played by the rules, dissatisfied with her lot. Claire Kendry went from abject poverty to the upper-echelons of society through marriage – marriage to a white man. Even now, Passing has the power to shock. Claire husband refers to her affectionately as ‘Nig’, a deeply ironic allusion to the cast of her features. As Claire seeks to reconnect with the Black community and Irene grows increasingly unsettled, tension builds until a startling conclusion.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a striking novel, in that it is specifically focused on the happenings within a Black community, and is addressed directly to a Black audience. At the beginning of the novel, Janie Crawford is marginalised by her position as a young Black girl. She is married to a much older man by her grandmother in the hope that he will bring Janie security. As the plot unfolds, Janie gains a distinct sense of self, asserts control of her destiny, and learns to live for herself – revolutionary, considering the way in which Black women’s labour was consumed by whites and Black men alike.
- Other Lovers, by Jackie Kay
Having read most of Jackie Kay’s poetry this year, it was a struggle to settle on one collection. What makes Other Lovers particularly special is Kay’s homage to Bessie Smith, a sequence which breathes life into her story whilst honouring her extraordinary talent.
“…Exactly the same
note, like the church bell, could bring people running,
could tell them she’d been in their heaven or hell.
Every note she sang, she bent her voice to her will.”
[Jackie Kay, The Same Note]
This collection is a stunning constellation of words, with the power to attract both poetry novices and connoisseurs. Kay’s poems map human relationships, the nature of nostalgia, and what it is to remember.
- 5. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou’s writing is so delicious, so nourishing, that I finished Caged Bird in a single sitting. Early on, she confesses that her younger self longed to be like “those sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world.” Though Maya Angelou was born more than 60 years before me, though Maya Angelou grew up in the segregated South as opposed to modern day Scotland, this experience of Black girlhood mirrored my own.
Angelou’s keen insight into the dynamics between young and old, black and white, male and female – combined with her adventures – create a spellbinding narrative. In spite of a harrowing account of being sexually abused by her stepfather, in spite of the twin spectres of racism and poverty, there is something fundamentally uplifting about Maya Angelou’s story. Her grace and humour in the face of adversity demonstrate strength of character that continues to inspire even after her death.
- Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Though it is the saddest book I have ever read, Beloved is also one of the significantly more important. Morrison based this novel on a true story: that of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave woman who killed her children rather than let them be forced into a life of slavery. Indeed, the novel is dedicated to the “Sixty Million and more” who died due to the slave trade. Like Garner, the character of Sethe attempts to end her children’s lives rather than see them enslaved. With the magical realism characteristic of Morrison’s writing, Sethe longs her murdered infant daughter Beloved back into being with disastrous consequences. This novel has the power to haunt the reader as surely as Beloved haunts Sethe, highlighting slavery’s legacy of trauma.
- 3. As a Blackwoman: Poems 1982 – 1985, by Maud Sulter
With this collection of Black feminist poems, Maud Sulter altered the landscape of British poetry. The titular poem, As a Blackwoman, highlights that – for women of colour – race and sex are intrinsically connected in shaping our experiences of the world. Sulter’s writing is passionate and fiercely political. Her articulation of Black womanhood is assured, her voice forceful, and the beauty of her writing ensures that its message hits home.
- Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
With piercing wit and an abundance of humour, Americanah details the experience of Blackness in different cultural contexts. The story begins in Lagos, where Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love during their teenage years. However, the potential of this relationship remains unrealised as Ifemelu moves to America in order to escape the military dictatorship and pursue an education. Unable to secure a visa, Obinze cannot follow her. Instead, he moves to London and struggles to navigate life as an undocumented immigrant. Although they fall out of touch during their time abroad, the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze are both fascinating. Ifemelu’s blog posts on race and racism were so on point that I wanted to stand up and cheer. Obinze’s wry observations are similarly relevant. Yet, for all it teaches, Americanah is never dry. The story is compelling. In your gut, you will feel hope that Ifemelu and Obinze will reunite.
- Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde
Although I have read many brilliant books in 2015, it is fair to say that Sister Outsider changed my life. With this collection of essays and speeches, Audre Lorde forever altered my perspective on race, sex, class, sexuality, and how they all fit together. By connecting her experiences as a Black lesbian woman to a wider social context, every one of Lorde’s essays proves the old feminist adage that the personal is political. Though our shared identities gave Lorde’s writing particular resonance to me, her ideas remain relevant to this day. If you want to know about how power is structured, if you want to know where you fit within the dominant hierarchy, and – most importantly – if you want to know how to dismantle those power structure, read this book.
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Claire Heuchan is a Black radical feminist from Scotland. She graduated in Politics and Journalism from the University of Stirling, where she is presently working towards an MLitt in Gender Studies. Both professionally and personally, Claire is committed to mapping the intersection between race and sex. Claire is a volunteer with Glasgow Women’s Library and blogs as Sister Outrider. Tweet her @ClaireShrugged