The best books by African American and Caribbean female writers

The Books I Picked & Why

Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Why this book?

I remember reading this book in college and it hitting me like a lightning bolt. I loved her style and the flow of her language. Later I found out that Hurston had been to Haiti, the country of my birth and childhood, and she had written a book about voodoo. She also lived in Central Florida where I lived—so I felt an affinity with her landscape, her south. I could recognize the places and the people she was talking about. She was a trailblazer and a real outsider. She was repudiated by the other great African American writers of her generation like Richard Wright. Her politics were complicated and libertarian, but I think that is also her power: she had a unique vision.


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The Chosen Place, the Timeless People

By Paule Marshall

The Chosen Place, the Timeless People

Why this book?

One of my all-time favorites. I think it is about Haiti, or it is a fictional island “Bourneville” that is based on Haiti. The novel describes a place linked to its history of enslavement and the battle for freedom. She is a beautiful deep-thinking writer. She carefully shows a group of white ethnographers going to this island, and how their attempts to "help" led to tragedy. It illustrates the pitfalls with international aid organizations. How often they damage, instead of help. And the novel is timely to this day. 


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Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

By Saidiya V. Hartman

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

Why this book?

Hartman’s work of non-fiction is lyrical, breathtaking, and brave. She tells about the lives of young black women in Harlem in early 1900, from their point of view and from a point of view of agency and empowerment. She speaks of them as having made choices, not as victims. This book gave me permission to write the book I wanted to write when I wrote The Nine. Her opening “A Note on Methods” is worth reading as its own text. She challenges the limitations of the archives for the marginalized. And she allows us to imagine our way into the lives of people who have been so-long effaced by historical texts, by institutions of control and exclusion.


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The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Why this book?

This is just a must-read book of history. Wilkerson brilliantly tells the story of the Great Migration through the lens of three individuals. It is such an important chapter of American history that has long been overlooked. Over six million African Americans moved from the south to the north. It was a huge upheaval in the cities and towns all across the country—and how it happened, how it reshaped the country, how it had lasting effects on so many lives is painstakingly told here. But it is also a great and compelling read. I love non-fiction that reads like this, that carries you through with the power of the stories.


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Luminous Isle

By Eliot Bliss

Luminous Isle

Why this book?

Eliot Bliss was a Jamaican born Anglo-Irish woman; she was also gay. Her stance as a Creole gay writer interests me. I also think she’s largely forgotten and should be read more. I related to her return to Jamaica (depicted in this novel) and her search for her sort of childhood home—that brings the realization that she both does and doesn’t fit in. She is white, she is gay so she doesn’t fit in British society where she feels out of place because of her Creole childhood and her sexuality, and she can’t fit in Jamaica because she is white and gay. And she sees clearly now the white oppressive colonials who were her family. It is a deeply felt search for home, both geographically but also in her body.


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