A few years ago, I wanted the challenge of reading 50 books in a year. I have never been a prolific reader, but after becoming a mom, I felt like my brain was turning to mush. If I didn’t use it more, I was worried I might not rebound from mommy-brain. So, I set a goal that scared me just to see if I could do it.
That December, I was visiting with a friend, and when I told her I was coming up short on my 50-book goal, she scouted her shelves looking for books that were quick reads and might help me get there. She couldn’t believe I hadn’t read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie. She lent it to me, along with some other books and sent me home with strict orders to meet my goal.
I didn’t quite reach my 50-book goal that year, and I still haven’t read Travels with Charlie. Although short, approachable, and very popular, I’ve never read any Steinbeck. But my resistance to Steinbeck and my 50 books challenge that year helped me understand that I didn’t just want to read 50 books a year.
I wanted to read books I loved, books that were written beautifully and illuminated perspectives that aren’t traditionally part of the canon.
Knowing I wasn’t going to read 50 books that year allowed me to be more selective. Reading takes commitment, and as a busy teacher, writer, mother, and partner, I wanted to spend my time reading books that made me feel good.
Through middle and high school, my teachers rarely assigned books by women nor was I ever asked to read any. I was exposed, almost exclusively, to a classic white male canon, and this made me stop reading. After Ulysses, Shakespeare, Twain, and Steinbeck I just know that there were books out there for me.
In college, I remember picking up The Bluest Eye, and on those opening pages Toni Morrison took the words from the first books I read and did something new.
Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house.
She took all of the rules and upended them. She removed all capitalization and punctuation. She lifted all space, and then, in the following pages, she told the stories of the unspeakably awful things that happen to little girls. She wrote about things we weren’t supposed to talk about, and she told these stories in haunting and beautiful ways.
The next book I remember reading that was so different than the books handed to me by the world was Lois Ann Yamanaka’s Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers. Her use of Hawaiian pidgin exposed me to language in new ways. When her teacher admonishes the narrator for speaking pidgin, Lovey responds with:
But I can’t talk the way he wants me to. I cannot make it sound his way unless I’m playing pretend-talk-haole. I can make my words straight, that’s pretty easy if I concentrate real hard. But the sound, the sound from my mouth, if I let it rip right out the lips, my words will always come out like home.
These books by women of color showed me how to defy convention and call out to a world in a new voice. These are the books I want to read, and these are the books I want to write. In early morning hours, written my own stories of growing up multiracial in rural America with a trilogy of memoirs, and with my reading, I’ve settled on a more reasonable 24 books per year. When I select titles, I consciously lean toward women of color. These are the voices I identify with, but they also show me new ways of thinking about the world. In their pages, I see how I connect and diverge from these worlds and experiences. I learn new forms of empathy and ways of being in the world.
There are times when men of color and white women still sneak onto my to-read list, but the books I’ve loved most have all been written by women of color, and their words always feel like home.
Here’s starting place, ten of my recent favorites by women of color, just in case you are looking for a book to read and people keep handing you copies of Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Or sign up for My Lit Box and get fabulous titles by women of color delivered right to your doorstep. I’m reading toward the change I want to see in the world, and that change lifts up the voices of women of color.
1. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
2. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
3. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
4. The Sun is Also a Star by Niccola Yoon
5. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
6. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
7. Citizen by Claudia Rankin
8. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
9. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
10. Bright Dead Things by Ava Limon
Noriko Nakada writes, blogs, tweets, parents, and teaches middle school in Los Angeles. She is committed to writing thought-provoking creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. Publications include two book-length memoirs: Through Eyes Like Mine and Overdue Apologies, and excerpts, essays, and poetry in Kartika, Lady Liberty Lit, Catapult, Meridian, Compose, Hippocampus, The Rising Phoenix Review, Linden Avenue, and others. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and at www.norikonakada.com.