As with most major businesses, the writing and publishing industry has greatly undervalued and underrepresented a vast majority of the world’s population. People of color, though representative of 40% of the US population and 84% of the world population, have been relegated to the back burner in terms of publication and character development. Often considered to be “The Other,” not worthy of protagonist status, these characters though they might be described as BIPOC, have been whitewashed versions of those they supposedly represented.
Over the last fifty years, we have seen a rise in BIPOC authors and main characters, but there is still not an equitable amount of representation. Books become beloved in the messages they relay, but it is just as important that readers can see themselves in the physical and cultural descriptions of their favorite characters.
We’ve scoured the stacks to bring you a few of our favorite books written by BIPOC authors with BIPOC characters done so well that we couldn’t have asked for better.
Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, Edited by Sheree Thomas
I love speculative fiction; what better way to escape the realities of our world than to delve into the fantasy world of another’s imagination? Of all the genres to have less of a reason to mark one gender as absent or lesser than another, it is this one. The characters are who the writers create them to be. Unfortunately, many sci-fi and fantasy characters are white or European, and characters of color are often in the lesser races.
Writers such as Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Walter Mosley, and Amiri Baraka have been penning speculative fiction since the mid-1900s. They’ve been helping to rewrite the narrative and bring subjects like Afrofuturism and the black experience into genre fiction. Dark Matter is a collection of short stories written by Black authors with black MCs that prove whitewashing isn’t necessary and, in fact, brings deeper dynamics to any story.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Who Fears Death is a dystopian sci-fi novel that is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan. A woman escapes from her light-skinned oppressors after her village is destroyed and she is violently raped. Wandering the desert, hoping for death, she realizes she is pregnant and gives birth to the protagonist Onyesonwu (“who fear death”). Born of circumstances beyond her control, Onye is further ostracized by the people of her land. This story is written as an interview of Onye before her execution to a journalist and describes her life in every emotionally and physically devastating detail.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
A Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel by the author of The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys, highlights the devastating consequences for Black boys in Jim Crowe-era Florida. In a no hold barred novel, Colson writes unflinchingly of American history that is glossed over or otherwise lost. Elwood Curtis is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reform school. One notorious for its abuse and murder of its charges. Emotionally gripping and deeply realistic of the Black experience in America, this novel will leave you seeing the country, its history, and its people differently.
A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum
This story is an intimate look into the lives of three generations of Palestinian-American women who are caught in the silence demanded by their heritage. Forced marriage and relocation, unmet desires, and secrets that change everything, Rum’s novel reveals the bravery of women who speak and stand up for themselves in a culture of gender oppression.
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
Boulley brings attention to the state of affairs for Native American reservations in this thriller. Her protagonist, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine is pulled into an FBI investigation after she witnesses a murder. The investigation reveals a much deeper and more sinister plot. Daunis must come to terms with the duality with which she lives life and embrace the Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) that she is.
Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
This novel is a beautiful poetic retelling of a princess whose soul worth in the eyes of the male hierarchy is in her marriage and her ability to reproduce who becomes the stuff of legend. Prayers left unanswered by the gods, she picks up ancients text left to her by her banished mother and discovers a magic, unlike anything she could imagine. Kaikeyi is a villain in the legends of Hindu myth; however, Patel’s retelling imagines why she made the decisions she did and humanizes her in a million ways.
Shubeik Lubeik by Deena Mohamed
If you’re a fan of graphic novels and alternate realities, this is the novel for you. You’ll find dragons and talking donkeys in a contemporary setting where electricity and cars abound. In an alternate Cairo where wishes are for purchase, three protagonists battle government, mental health, and religious convictions in the journey to use their obtained second chances.
Brotherless Night by V.V. Ganeshananthan
Newly released in January of 2023, this Sri Lankan literary fiction will leave you in emotional turmoil and heartbreak. Follow Sashi as her dreams of becoming a doctor are on hold as she is swept into the Sri Lankan civil war as a field medic. Her loyalties and morals are put to question as she witnesses the atrocities of war and those in positions of power misuse the trust of her people.
Ties That Tether by Jane Igharo
We couldn’t complete this list without a romance. Igharo’s protagonist, Azere, is a Nigerian-Canadian who promises her dying father she will marry a Nigerian man to preserve their culture. Her mother consistently pushes her together with Nigerian men in revolving disappointment. Azere ends up at a bar and on a one-night stand that becomes more, with a white man. She has to decide if her growing feelings trump the promise she made to her father and if their relationship lessens her Nigerian identity.
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