2020 has been a key year in shining a light on the importance of promoting black voices across all elements of society, including literature. Thankfully, the world of publishing is taking note, and a rich crop of fiction created by black writers found its way onto our bookshelves this year. From narratives revolving about race issues in America today, to stories about life in African nations, these are the best books by black authors to read right now.
Arguably the hottest debut of 2020, Kiley Reid’s searing novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize and its easy to see why. When a young black woman is wrongly accused of kidnapping while babysitting a white child, the feminist blogger who employs her sets out on a personal mission to right that wrong. But are her intentions as good as she professes? Or is she doing the right thing for the wrong reasons? Holding a mirror up to race, class and gender in 21st century America, Such a Fun Age understandably became an instant Sunday Times Best Seller.
‘My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.’ So begins Tayari Jones’s story of secret daughter Dana, who knows of her father’s other family, while her sister Chaurisse is completely ignorant of it. But after chance encounter leads the girls to meet, Dana takes the chance to insert herself into her unwitting sister’s life. Tayari won the Women’s Prize for Fiction last year for her novel An American Marriage, so this much-anticipated follow up was on everyone’s must-read list.
One of the most talked-about reads of 2020. Bennett’s debut novel was a New York Times best seller across the pond, with The Vanishing Half proving just as popular here. In 1954, 16-year-old identical twins Desiree and Stella ran away from their home in the Deep South. Ten years later, Desiree rolls back into town with her young daughter – but not her sister. It turns out Stella has been passing for white with her new family all these years, who are completely clueless about her background. A clever novel that looks well beyond the issues of race in terms of identity.
In her second novel, Ugandan-born author Makumbi takes the reader back to the 1970s to the small village of Nattetta, Uganda. Here, 12-year-old Kirabo is being raised by her grandparents, but as she grows, the absence of her mother weighs heavily on her. Over the next eight years, while living under the terror of Idi Amin’s regime, Kirabo searches for both her missing mother and her place in the world. The end result is a powerfully feminist, immersive read.
Kevin’s sister Ella has powers –she can see the future, teleport, make herself invisible and destroy objects with her mind. It’s a gift she describes as the ‘Thing’. But when Kevin is incarcerated simply for the colour of his skin, Ella must use her gifts to keep him sane and survive the oppression that consistently surrounds her. Riot Baby is a genre defying novel, giving readers as much of a dystopian novel as a commentary on the Black experience in America today.
One of the most powerful openings we’ve read in a long time. A mother opens her door in southeastern Nigeria to find her son’s body on her doorstep, wrapped in a colourful shroud. From here, the novel moves backwards through time to uncover the mystery surrounding Vivek’s death, as well as the secret he held in life – Vivek identified as a girl. The resulting novel is a dramatic story of loss and an important commentary on the devastating impact that transphobia and homophobia can have.
Brooklyn-based writer Jacqueline Woodson was an instant New York Times bestseller, and received rave reviews over on this side of the pond, too. Telling the story of two families from different social classes who are unexpectedly tied together by an unplanned teenage pregnancy, it explores how history, community and our choices shape us. Kicking off with the 16th birthday of the girl born from that union, this multigenerational tale about class, race and ambition in America.
Writer Bolu Babalola brings together mythology folklore spanning West Africa to Ancient Greece and South Asia in this collection of 18 stories celebrating love in all its forms. Each of the stories has been modernized for a contemporary audience [read: the sexism, racism and gendered violence traditionally associated with them has been removed]. What’s left are colourful, joyful, and moving tales exploring the most complex of human emotions, making them the perfect uplifting read to round off a less than ideal year.
Adunni is a 14-year-old girl in rural Nigerian village. Despite her age, she is already a wife – sold by her family to pay off their debts with her bride price. Sent to work as a servant in Lagos, Adunni focuses on becoming a success – a girl with a ‘louding voice’. This way, she’ll finally be able to speak up for herself, as well as all the other girls traumatically forced into childhood marriage and slavery in Nigeria.
This novel focuses on highlighting the role of women in war – a subject which is far too often written out of history, especially in terms of the contribution of African women. Set in Ethiopia during the 1935 Italian invasion, The Shadow King brings life to the women who fought, helping blur the gender lines to give the Ethiopian troops a greater chance of success. Mengiste has been hailed as the next Toni Morrison for good reason – her astonishing female characters are brilliantly dynamic, capable and compelling.