Over the course of the past year, America has been forced to reckon with its blatant history of racism. Due to movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and fighting against anti-Asian racism, Americans (particularly white Americans) are beginning to realize the strife BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) still face every day. While we have made vast strides since the Civil Rights era, BIPOC continue to live with institutionalized racism, police brutality, and the struggle to balance multiple identities.
Recently, we have seen a rise in books written by BIPOC writers reflecting on their own experiences of what it’s like to live in America. Some books are direct memoirs while others incorporate their experiences into a fictional narrative. In no particular order, here are 10 books to read to begin to understand what it’s like to be BIPOC in America today.
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Soon to be a Netflix film, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a witty look at the struggle between longing to fit into American culture and the pressure to fit the expectations of a Mexican household. In the story, Julia’s perfect older sister, Olga, studies at a local community college and takes care of her family; she is considered the model Mexican daughter.
Julia, on the other hand, is rebellious and loud—everything a perfect Mexican daughter is not supposed to be. When Olga tragically dies, Julia’s mother begins to berate Julia even more, ignoring the fact that Julia is struggling with her own grief. As time goes on, Julia begins to investigate Olga, and she learns that Olga wasn’t as perfect as she seemed.
Although Kindred does not take place during current times, the themes do connect to institutionalized racism. This sci-fi novel follows Dana, a young Black woman living with her White husband in the 1970s. As they are enjoying her birthday, she is suddenly sucked back in time to the Antebellum South, where one of her White ancestors, Rufus, is drowning. Dana saves him, then keeps getting pulled back in time to save him again and again. She’s forced to work on the plantation as a slave while her husband faces his own struggles (he too is pulled back in time).
Each time Dana goes back, she faces even more danger and strife. Octavia Butler’s beautiful prose highlights Dana’s fear and the horror that slaves faced everyday. Rufus is truly a disgusting villain (he rivals anyone featured in Game of Thrones) but his actions and treatment of the slaves shows just how horrific it was to be a Black woman living in the south during these times. But don't think Butler's novel only shows how terrible racism was in the past—Kindred connects the two timelines, showing how such racism still pervades today.
Arguably one of the best writers of the past thirty years, Lahiri’s fiction focuses on the Indian-American experience. In The Namesake, the Ganguli family leaves their traditional life in Calcutta for a very different life in America. After their arranged marriage, Ashoke and Ashima arrive in Massachusetts and struggle to adapt to their new life.
When it comes time to name their son, they have to forgo the time honored way of naming him and instead name him after a Russian author. Gogol struggles to balance his Indian heritage while growing up in America. The Namesake captures the struggles many immigrants face as well as the balancing act First Generation children often perform.
Heavy: An American Memoir
Laymon’s memoir has won numerous awards, and it’s no wonder—his prose is beautiful, vulnerable, and unapologetically Black. Laymon grew up in Jackson, Mississippi as the son of a brilliant and complex mother. His memoir covers his childhood, including his early experiences of sexual abuse, his struggles in college, and his eventual life as a young professor in New York City.
Laymon discusses anorexia, obesity, sex, and writing, ultimately focusing on how few actually know how to responsibly love. Heavy is a memoir that is poignant for our time and sheds light on what it truly is like to be a person of color in America.
A Map Is Only One Story
Oftentimes personal essays can be just as poignant as a novel or memoir. Edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary, A Map Is Only One Story is a collection of essays that were first published in Catapult magazine.
The twenty different essays focus on immigration, rhetoric, and the struggle to balance different cultures and languages. Each essay’s story is unique, ranging from what life is like for a Nigerian in America to how Miyazaki’s films taught one Asian-American author about her bi-racial identity. Reading A Map Is Only One Story will reveal what life is like for multiple BIPOC.
Lalami has written four novels, each of which were critically acclaimed and Conditional Citizens is her first non-fiction book. Part memoir, part cultural criticism, and part historic exploration, Conditional Citizens focuses on Lalami’s journey from being a Moroccan immigrant to becoming an American citizen.
Throughout the book, Lalami examines the various rights and liberties that come with being an American citizen, as well as how white supremacy continues forth and is a hierarchy that has been passed down generation after generation. She argues that “conditional citizens” are embraced with one arm and slapped down with another. Her book focuses on the idea that even after becoming a U.S. citizen, the strife immigrants face doesn’t stop.
Fairest: A Memoir
Often compared to other notable LGBTQ+ novels such as Call me by Your Name and Giovanni’s Room, Fairest covers the complexities of race, sexuality, and gender. Talusan’s memoir recalls growing up as an Albino boy in a rural village in the Philippines. Neglected by her parents, she found comfort in her grandmother, as others treated her differently.
Upon arriving in the United States, Talusan found that she was perceived as white. Her story in the United States covers her time at Harvard, where she had to navigate the world of privilege, to her eventual decision to no longer be transcribed to her role as a man and her transition to become a woman.
Despite the fact that 70% of the country’s Native American population resides in cities, there is still a misconception that they reside on reservations. While there are Native Americans living on reservations, many Native Americans are “urban Native Americans,” and their experiences have barely been captured in literature.
Tommy Orange’s There There changed that, as his novel explores the lives of 12 different Native American characters living in Oakland, CA. Each chapter focuses on a different character as they come to understand their own identities amid poverty and violence. Orange’s raw voice blends together high school students to postal workers, all of whom converge in the book’s explosive finale.
The Vanishing Half
Bennett’s novel was one of the most popular books of the last year, and it’s no wonder why: Bennett’s tone and style has been compared to Toni Morrison’s. In The Vanishing Half, the Vignes twin sisters feel suffocated in their small, Black southern town, so they both run away at 16.
Years later, their lives are wildly different: one sister lives with her daughter in the same town she tried to flee from, and the other secretly passes for white—so much so that her husband doesn’t know anything about her past. Despite being so far from each other, the two sisters once again become intertwined. The novel spans multiple generations of the same family across multiple decades. The Vanishing Half explores how sometimes one lives separately from their original identity—and the struggles that often come with this.
Heart Berries: A Memoir
Prior to Mailhot’s memoir, there were not many literary works on the lives of modern Native American women. Based on Mailhot’s personal journals, Heart Berries follows her dysfunctional upbringing, being diagnosed with PTSD and bipolar II disorder, her subsequent hospitalization, and more broadly, how colonialist structures still impact Indigenous Peoples today.
While Mailhot acknowledges that her memory isn’t exact, her work does shed light on two marginalized communities: Indigenous Peoples and those living with mental health conditions.