Stay Woke: 8 Award-Winning Books About Race, Feminism, and Immigration

“Read more books by diverse authors” was a friend’s New Year’s resolution which, in my humblest opinion, is an important evolution from the common and, dare I say, vanilla “Read more!” resolution.

While challenging because of the low levels of publishing industry representation, reading diverse books is a rewarding and crucial task in confronting your perspectives, privileges, and preconceptions. It helps us not only practice empathy but also intersectional empathy—a multi-dimensional way for us to hear, understand, and feel the varied experiences of other humans to the best of our ability. Complex topics like race, gender, immigration, class, and income inequality are at our socio-political forefront (now, seemingly more than ever). Poetry, essays, and fiction on these themes, penned by those with unique perspectives and experiences, are a crucial tool to listen to underrepresented voices.

At eNotes, we’ve been working to highlight some of these important authors and texts with the intent to bring our readers’ more eye-opening, enriching literary experiences. We’ve listed eight of our new, thematic favorites here and welcome your beloved recommendations in the comments below.

1. Between the World and Me

Central Themes: Race and Racism

“It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.”

Between the World and Me is a book-length letter by Ta-Nehisi Coates, written the year Tamir Rice and Eric Garner were killed and the year the world learned that Michael Brown’s killers would go free. It’s written to Coates’s fifteen-year-old son Samori to explain to him what it means to be a black man in America.

Race and the black body are some of the central themes in Between the World and Me—historically explaining how black bodies have been brutally used and imprisoned by their oppressors. Coates has learned how to bear this weighty burden, a burden shared by all African Americans, and he hopes to teach Samori to do the same. The American Dream, fatherhood, and death are other prevalent themes.

2. Bad Feminist

Central Theme: Feminism

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”

Roxane Gay writes about race, gender, sex, politics, and popular culture in this collection of thirty-seven essays. Bad Feminist‘s prevailing theme is, of course, feminism: a complicated word, Gay acknowledges, loaded with social misconceptions. To Gay, feminism is simply the belief that women should be treated as equals instead of second-class citizens (radical, I know). In her opinion, a “bad feminist” is someone who doesn’t always fit the traditional, and often misguided, “mold” of a feminist—she likes the color pink and rap music. As an African American, Gay is an important intersectional voice contributing to the conversation on what it means to be a feminist, even if the core concept is a simple one.

3. Homegoing

Central Themes: Race and Racism, Slavery

“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a novel about two half-sisters who never meet, Effia and Esi, with radically different lives. Effia married a slave trader, and Esi was sold into slavery (by Effia’s husband). The novel is broken into two parts, seven chapters each, with alternating chapters between Effia’s and Esi’s descendants. As is evident, race, racism, and slavery are central themes of the novel.

Family is another important theme as it’s essentially the story of two families with very different histories. Effia’s and Esi’s different family lines came to ultimately represent two different African experiences of being sold into slavery and being spared from it.

4. The Refugees

Central Theme: Immigration

“He repeated his story so often even she allowed herself to believe it, until the afternoon of the seventh day, when they saw, in the distance, the rocky landing strip of a foreign coast. Nesting upon it were the huts of a fashing village, seemingly composed of twigs and grass, brooded over by a fringe of mangroves. At the sight of land, she had thrown herself into the professor’s arms, knocking his glasses askew, and sobbed openly for the first time in front of her startled children.”

The Refugees is a collection of eight short stories by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a professor from Vietnam—his debut novel, The Sympathizer, was a recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The characters in The Refugees are Vietnamese immigrants and their children, many whom fled Vietnam after the communist regime came into power.

The central theme is, of course, immigration. While the journies of the characters aren’t always safe, easy, or even attainable, it’s a complex but critical process to escape the communist regime in Vietnam. That said, communism is another theme of these short stories, as well as death and economic status—two haunting and fate-determining issues hanging over the various characters’ narratives.

5. We Should All Be Feminists

Central Theme: Feminism

“My own definition is a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists was adapted from her wildly popular TEDx Talk. According to Adichie, being a “feminist” means understanding and acknowledging the foundational fact that sexism exists. She draws upon her early experiences growing up in Nigeria and, from there, her anecdotal experience and insight on feminism, economic power, and gender roles. We Should All Be Feminists is more-than-worth the read (and the watch!).

6. Americanah

Central Themes: Race and Racism, Americanization

“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”

Another work by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah is novel about a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who lives in Princeton, New Jersey, and decides to move back to Nigeria—shortly after going through a romantic break-up. Ifemelu reconnects with her first love, Obinze, whom she first met and fell in love with immediately while in Nigeria. Though the prevailing themes are race, racism, and Americanization (Ifemelu manages a blog where she explores the issues of being a non-American black woman in America), the novel is also a powerful story about immigration and, ultimately, love.

7. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Central Themes: Race and Racism, Mass Incarceration

“In every state across our nation, African Americans—particularly in the poorest neighborhoods—are subjected to tactics and practices that would result in public outrage and scandal if committed in middle-class white neighborhoods.”

Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and Ohio State associate professor of law, argues that Jim Crow never died, but that it simply took a new form in the shape of mass incarceration. Loaded with historical and current facts and court cases,  The New Jim Crow underlines how convicts have effectively become slaves—stripped of their freedom, voting rights, and access to government programs. Loaded with historical backdrop, statistics, and recent court cases, this book effectively shows how the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and Supreme Court rulings justifying racial profiling have contributed to systematic racism and oppression.

8. milk and honey

Central Themes: Gender, Abuse, Sex and Love

“my father shoves the word hush
between [my mother’s] lips and tells her to
never speak with her mouth full
this is how the women in my family
learned to live with their mouths closed”

Rupi Kaur’s inaugural book, milk and honey, is a best-selling collection of poetry, primarily written from the point of view of a woman who’s experienced sexual and emotional abuse from men. It’s broken into four parts that form a loose narrative arc: The Hurting, The Loving, The Breaking, The Healing. Kaur is an immigrant from India (currently based in Canada) who was unable to speak English with the other children at school. Her feminist poetry is primarily about abuse (and overcoming it, the healing), sex, and love—which she identifies as not necessarily always going hand in hand.