Illustration by Jasmine Snow @jasminesnowart
Contributions by: Ella Clucas, Kate Waldock, Ellie Hutchins, Ella Lloyd, Annabelle Ingram and Rhian Lock (in order of appearance)
Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler
If you’re looking for a book that will enthral you in its narrative whilst at the same time educating you on the history of racial politics, Kindred is it. In this poignant science fiction novel Butler brings the past and present together, as black protagonist Dana is repeatedly pulled back in time against her will into the enslaved Antebellum South.
Forced to adapt and survive on a plantation owned by none other than her white ancestor, Dana is plunged into a reproduction of the traditional slave narrative. But whilst the colour of her skin subjects her to violence, pain, and loss of autonomy in this new old world, Dana struggles to connect to her black bloodline as much as to her white one. Her experience of the plantation enables her to discover and deepen these connections, as she finally begins to comprehend the roots of her existence.
Through the positioning of her modern protagonist in an Antebellum setting, Butler hopes to emphasise the importance of black history in the fabrics of modern society; she is pointing to the old world and declaring it the new, perhaps revealing that the two are not dissimilar after all. In Kindred Butler names the past as an essential key to unlocking an equal and progressive future. She shows us that we haven’t come as far as we had hoped. She tells us we have work to do. Because of this, Kindred will remain a vital piece of literature for now and for years to come.
Home Fire (2017) by Kamila Shamsie
Kamila Shamsie’s gripping fiction, Home Fire, has strong reflections of the post-Brexit world we live in. Racially influenced crime surged after the referendum, as anti-immigration sentiment seemed to become more socially acceptable. Shamsie places Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz into this Britain as the distrusted minority. They live at odds with the Lones, a family whose father has just been made Home Secretary. Both families have an immigrant background, but Karamat Lone distances himself from the Muslim religion, as lines are blurred between Islam and extremism.
Shamsie provides readers with the views often ignored; Parvaiz’s eventual radicalisation and regret, and the characters she focuses on are more than one terrorist dimension. The book is based off Antigone, the Sophoclean tragedy in which Antigone defies the King’s orders in order to grieve and bury her brother. Aneeka is the modern Antigone, betraying the Home Secretary for the love of her ex-Jihadi brother. Often in the media, we see the Home Secretary’s side of the story, and Shamsie excellently shows how the media demonises the minority.
For once, readers are given a story about how families are affected by the Islamophobia that has increased in the years after 9/11. It forces readers to be uncomfortable, facing our own prejudice and the part we have to play in the polarisation of communities in our country. The final nail in the coffin comes as Shamsie uses Karamat Lone’s own son to suggest that scapegoating minorities has tremendous consequences. The book urges us to look beyond our own bias and recognise the difficulties that Muslims face in modern Britain.
Noughts & Crosses (2001) by Malorie Blackman
Malorie Blackman is a huge name in both children’s and YA literature. She’s won numerous awards for her novels and, in 2013, she became Britain’s first black Children’s Laureate. Noughts & Crosses is the first book in a six-part series by Blackman, and was this year adapted for a BBC drama. Both compelling and thought provoking, the themes touched on in Noughts & Crosses are as poignant today as when the book was first published, nearly twenty years ago.
Set in a dystopian world with an alternate history – one in which Africa colonised Europe – the novel inverts the race relations we are all familiar with, creating a hierarchical society in which the dark-skinned ‘crosses’ are the ruling class, oppressing the white-skinned ‘noughts’. Central to the novel’s storyline are Sephy (a cross) and Callum (a nought). The pair grew up together (Callum’s mother was employed by Sephy’s wealthy family), but interracial friendships are frowned upon and so now they must meet in secret.
On the surface, Noughts & Crosses is tale of two star-crossed lovers, but underneath it is so much more than that. The novel tackles issues of race head-on, switching between the two protagonists’ point of view to provide the reader with an understanding of how racism dominates society – both overtly and covertly. Grief, betrayal, fear and violence are entwined in Sephy and Callum’s romance. This is certainly no fairy tale, but rather a cultural commentary on what humans are willing to do to each other when divided on the basis of race.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid
‘Do not be frightened by my beard, I am a lover of America’. These are some of the first words spoken by our narrator Changez, as he begins a conversation with a nameless American man in a café in Lahore. Through this frame, Changez recounts his time as a Pakistani immigrant, graduating from Princeton University and working at a high-powered valuation firm in New York City, immediately before and after 9/11. As Changez narrates his role at Underwood and Samson LTD, his relationship with a White American girl, and how this was changed by 9/11, the reader begins to question which is more dangerous- Islamic Fundamentalism, or American Fundamentalist Capitalism.
Mohsin Hamid’s New York Times bestseller is a story of failures of empathy between the East and the West, and the dangers of American ideology post 9/11. Hamid constructs the novel in a way which challenges western readers perhaps orientalist preconceptions, by creating an entirely singular narrative.
The American’s voice is not heard, and the reader must interpret his speech through Changez’s replies. Thus, the reader is forced to embody a perspective unfamiliar to them, to question their own biases, and reconsider who is the real fundamentalist? However, he simultaneously makes Changez’s voice sinister and beguiling. The reader distrusts Changez and questions his motives; as he and the American regard each other with a wicked and slippery mutual suspicion. Akin to a psychological thriller, the reader must work to understand what is right, what is the truth, and who to believe?
Queenie (2019) by Candice Carty-Williams
Navigating the modern world as a woman can be challenging. Navigating it as a black woman can be harder, particularly when your workplace is predominantly white, your ex-boyfriend’s white family refused to accept you and your Jamaican family is complicated. Candice Carty-Williams is a Queenie herself with this disarmingly honest, comical, and insightful debut. The novel deals with issues faced by women in the 21st century, many of which are exacerbated for those of the BAME community.
Queenie faces a lot throughout the novel, including losing the false sense of security provided by her ex-boyfriend, the consequences of sex with toxic men and a group of friends who mean well but don’t always see eye-to-eye. Not to mention, the trauma caused by her mother’s loyalty to an abusive partner. Even seeking the courage to attend therapy is problematic, with her grandmother declaring that she is projecting shame on the family for doing so. The truth of the matter is, that in recognising her weaknesses and unhealthy habits (eh hem, the toxic booty-calls), Queenie is able to recognise her worth and begin to set her personal and professional life back on track.
If you’re a woman, of any ethnicity, I highly recommend this book, if not to show you that you’re not alone, then for a compelling and comical read.
Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates asks his readers: ‘How do I live free in this black body?’ After reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Coates was inspired to write a letter to his fifteen year old son, Samori, in order to prepare him for life as a black man in America. Coates tells his son: ‘In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage,’ and he reflects upon his life throughout adolescence and adulthood and discusses how he became increasingly conscious of systemic racism in America.
Coates conceptualises the ‘dream’: the idea of freedom and comfort to live freely within one’s own body. However, he goes on to explain that the ‘dream’ is intended only for white people and has been built through the destruction and enslavement of black bodies. Coates draws upon his personal experiences and American history to discuss police brutality and warns his son: ‘The police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body […] the destroyers will rarely be held accountable.’
In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the world, it is important that we educate ourselves in addition to protesting, donating, and signing petitions. Toni Morrison declared Between the World and Me as ‘essential reading’, and it gives context to readers looking to inform themselves upon matters such as police brutality, systemic racism, and the social construct of race.