Diversify my book shelf: a short reading list

Studying English Literature at university exposed me to a huge range of different literary works by different authors and from different time periods. What was the main thing they had in common? Most of the authors were white. However, there were two modules I studied which were deliberately designed to make you read from a more diverse set of authors and consider the westernised attitude we have when it comes to literature, and a lot more besides. My Global Literature module at university was one of my favourites because we had some fantastic lecturers and I was exposed to a whole load of concepts I had never previously considered. Since leaving university I’ve made an active attempt to make sure my reading list is more diverse and that I’m reading books which not only tackle a range of subjects, but are written by different people and set in different locations.

With the current discourse on racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, now seems like the best time to share some of the books which I’ve read and enjoyed in this area. I’m not an expert on this subject and there’s a lot I still need to learn, but I am trying to do better and hopefully this list might inspire you to do the same. There are a few places below where I acknowledge my own ignorance – some of this is embarrassing to look at now but learning is an ongoing process and we all have to start somewhere. Some of the books that are here I’ll have talked about on other lists too and that’s because they are fantastic reads.

My Reading Recommendations

Noughts and Crosses – Malorie Blackman

I really believe that this book should be on the national curriculum and read by all teenagers at school. It feels a lot more relevant and informative than some of what you have to read and I know that me and a lot of my friends got a lot out of reading it. By the time I read Noughts and Crosses I had been to South Africa twice, had an awareness of apartheid and had witnessed racial inequalities first-hand. I wasn’t unaware of racism, but I was ignorant about the levels of racial inequality in our society. The example I always use from Noughts and Crosses is when one of the characters is unable to find a plaster in their skin colour. This is something I’d never had to face and hadn’t even considered, yet for some people is a regular occurrence.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about RaceReni Eddo-Lodge

On the bestseller lists and sold-out in a lot of places, I’ve seen this book being mentioned again and again, and topping many lists like this one. It’s not an easy one to read and at times I felt myself becoming defensive, feeling guilty, upset – all the reactions that Reni expects you to. But it’s important to get past that and consider the wider implications. If you’re looking to be an effective ally and actively anti-racist rather than just against racism it’s an important one to read.

Lucy – Jamaica Kincaid

This was one of the books on my university reading lists and one of the books that has stayed with me due to a very specific scene. One of Lucy’s memories is having to learn and recite Wordsworth’s poem ‘Daffodils’ to her school. Some of us might have similar memories. Except that Lucy is from the West Indies, was educated there and has never seen a daffodil. It was a clear indication of the impact of colonialism and whilst I could read it and found it ridiculous, it did make me wonder how many education systems are still being shaped by our own and how many people are receiving a colonised education but are being told they should be grateful just to be getting an education.

Passing – Nella Larsen

This is another book I read at university, at the recommendation of one of my lecturers. It was the first time I’d come across the concept of ‘racial passing’ and the complexities that come along with it. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember many of the plot details but I remember it making me think a lot at the time.

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has become one of my favourite authors and I find her books to be incredibly moving and powerful. I’ve listed Americanah here as it was the first of her books that I read. I think it’s particularly interesting as it’s a book that talks a lot about race, which is something the main character had never had to consider before she moved to the USA but is then left with no choice but to be aware of it and think about it. Another detail, another thing to add to my list of things I’d never considered due to my own privilege and ignorance, was her difficulty in finding a hairdresser who knew how to cut and style black hair.

Becoming – Michelle Obama

The place where I work did some research into the BME attainment gap a few years ago, and one of the findings was the difficulties BME students had finding role models at university. This is a book which is empowering for all women as Michelle Obama really is an inspiration. But I imagine it’s particularly poignant for young black women who are deciding on their futures and looking to make their way in the world.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

This novel covers several hundred years of history across multiple chapters and starts by following two half-sisters – one who marries a British man and another who is captive in the dungeons below. Each chapter is almost like a separate short story as it follows the descendants of these sisters through different moments in history. It is really well-written and covers some really important events from the past.

Swing Time – Zadie Smith

This is the only Zadie Smith book I’ve read (so far) but I’ll be raiding the library for more soon. It was really interesting to look at and consider upbringing and socio-economic factors as well as race and how this shapes someone’s outlook and attitude to life. Is it possible to be a ‘white saviour’ in Africa if you’re not white? Do you relate to people more based on shared experience or the colour of your skin? This book gently raised some really interesting questions and gave me a lot to think about afterwards.

Books Recommended to Me

I put a call out for recommendations on Instagram not so long ago and wanted to share some of the suggestions which came through as these are now all on my to-read list:

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams

An American Marriage – Tayari Jones

Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

I am a white woman who grew up in a white area, went to a very white school and went on to a predominantly white university. My experience will probably be similar to other people who grew up in rural parts of England and the ignorance I have will be also be shared by them. I’m a real believer in how powerful education can be and agree that there could be much more diversity brought into the current curriculum, and that we shouldn’t veer away from young people having difficult conversations. I also think that we all have a responsibility to self-educate and where our awareness or knowledge is lacking, we take steps to amend this. Reading is one of my ways of attempting to educate, but I’m always open to more suggestions.

Do you have any other recommendations to add to my list?

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