As a queer Pakistani woman, I believe you can’t be what you can’t see. In other words, representation is everything. I didn’t grow up reading heavily, which is why I’m reclaiming my education and seeking out books written by authors of color, especially queer women of color. It’s also why I write so much about mental health, mentorship and storytelling — I want others to feel empowered to tell and own their own stories.
Here are some of my favorite books by authors of color. I’m thankful to have these books as sources of representation, and as opportunities to learn more about communities or lived experiences that are different from my own. Grab one of these six books at your local independent bookstore for your next read.
“Song of a Captive Bird” by Jasmin Darznik. Whenever I tell someone to read “Song of a Captive Bird,” they come back and tell me they read it in just a few days. That was my experience, too — I remember reading this book on the bus, walking around my workplace and while waiting for my coffee. Darznik wrote the book from the perspective of Iranian poet and film director Forugh Farrokhzad using her writing, interviews, films and letters. It weaves throughout her life, from a teenage marriage to motherhood and a tough family life, all of which informed her poetry. In the book, Farrokhzad lives her life on her own terms and represents feminist ideals in Iran; she’s often vilified for her freedom and independence. She embodies an Iranian woman without shame and earns the title of the most celebrated and controversial poet in Iran.
“On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong. Vuong’s novel led me through emotions of love and loss, but it held my hand the entire time. It’s written as a letter from Vuong to his illiterate mother, and he unpacks masculinity, violence and the healing that comes with processing trauma in the book. One line that sticks with me: “They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they can love it.” I cried on a public bus while reading this book, but I think that’s just a sign it invited me to feel Vuong’s words deeply.
“My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite. After spotting this book at my local bookstore and being dropped straight into the middle of a murder cover-up on the first page, I was hooked. The novel stars Korede and her sister Ayoola, who has a habit of murdering her boyfriends. Korede has to decide between protecting her sister or her boyfriend, who’s at risk of being the victim. This one is for all the fans of “Serial” and “Crime Junkie,” so get ready to dive head first into a story that wonders if blood is truly thicker than water.
“Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner. You may know Zauner from her popular indie band Japanese Breakfast, but she also wrote “Crying in H Mart,” where she processes the loss of her mother to terminal cancer, and her life as an Asian American growing up in Eugene, Oregon. Korean food and her identity are inextricably tied, and Zauner forges ahead with the goal of maintaining a strong connection to her cultural roots.
“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones. In this book, Celestial and Roy navigate life as young newlyweds in the American South, but everything changes when Roy is arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The moving story follows their lives during the conviction, and how they come closer together in the end. Their journey isn’t easy or linear, but it’s an honest glimpse into their lives, and an honest reflection of what it can be like to be Black in America.
“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah. You likely know Noah from the “The Daily Show,” but he’s an equally poignant storyteller in his memoir, “Born a Crime.” This coming-of-age story highlights Noah’s upbringing during apartheid in South Africa. His book is a window and a mirror for me — a window into life under apartheid, but also a mirror of the familiar challenges of feeling stuck between two identities. Perhaps I’m not navigating “long, awkward, occasionally tragic and frequently humiliating affairs of the heart,” but I understand the challenges of navigating this world as a queer person of color. Noah, who speaks several African languages, including Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans, talks about how language is used either to create a sense of community or to separate people.