Back in the fall of 2015, Corinne Duyvis, the author of several YA novels (Otherbound, On the Edge of Gone) coined the #ownvoices hashtag on Twitter as a way to uplift books about diverse characters written by authors who share those identities. All too often, authors from marginalized groups struggle to get their work in the door of publishing houses, while straight white men everywhere get praised for writing stories full of diverse characters. The stories we tell are important, and so are the people who tell them. #Ownvoices celebrates the work of writers whose characters reflect their identities—identities that are so often under attack. It highlights the importance of thinking critically about what voices we lift up and what voices we trust.
Trump has made it clear that otherness is not welcome in his version of America. His rhetoric seeks to silence too many voices—big, beautiful, dazzling voices, voices full of knowledge and poetry and truth. We are a nation of beautiful others. If we have to live with a president who refuses to acknowledge—let alone celebrate—all of that difference, that vastness of experience and story, everything I love most about America—then it is up to us to raise those voices up and listen to them with all of ourselves.
There are so many incredible #ownvoices books out there. Search #ownvoices on Twitter and you’ll quickly be inundated with recommendations. There’s also a Goodreads shelf!
This list is just a tiny sampling of some of my favorites, books that have moved me and shaped me. Some of them I read in the past year; others have been with me for a long time. They are all exceptional works of fiction.
Read Against Trump, Day 2: #Ownvoices
Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi
Without a doubt, this was one of the best books I read in 2016. It opens with death of Kweku Sai at his home in Accra, and follows his four grown children as they deal with the aftermath of the loss of their father. Everything about this book is stunning–the narration, the structure, the writing, the story itself. Just thinking about it is making me want to read it again. As far as books about the fragile assembles of emotions and memories we call families–Ghana Must Go is one of the best I’ve ever read.
Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg
I read this book for the first time when I was seventeen, and it remains, to this day, one of the most powerful and immersive reading experiences I’ve ever had. I can still remember the physicality of reading it for the first time–my tears, my heartbeat, the catches in my breathing. This book is the big-heated, beautifully written, human-to-the-bone story of Jess Goldberg, one of my favorite trans characters of all time. Feinberg writes about queer and trans families and communities with humor and tenderness and hard honesty. Stone Butch Blues is part love letter, part dirge–joyful and heartbreaking to read.
The Book of Unknown Americans, Christina Henriquez
This beautiful novel is told from the point of view of Alma Rivera, a Mexican woman who has immigrated to the States with her husband and teenager daughter, and Mayor Toro, a first-generation Panamanian-American teenager living in the same building. It’s the story of how these two families become entangled in each other’s lives. Interspersed throughout the novel are vignettes from the POVs of other immigrants living in the building, and this did not feel gimmicky or intrusive, but rather, a vital and necessary addition to the story about community and home that Henriquez is telling.
We the Animals, Justin Torres
I picked up this little book after Orlando, having discovered it on a list of books by queer Latinx authors. This slim and haunting novel, through a series of gorgeously-told moments, explores the childhood and adolescence of three brothers in upstate New York. The writing sizzles. Torres cuts right to the heart of childhood, brotherhood and family, but he does it quietly, with stunning detail and tenderness, without any drama or fuss.
Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
All of Lahiri’s work is astounding, but this is my favorite of her books. Two of my favorite short stories of all time, “The Third and Final Continent” and “A Temporary Matter” live in this book. All of the stories are gorgeous, but those two stories are the ones I read over and over again when I need to restore my faith in the written word.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
Despite this being a classic, somehow I only just read it this month. I was not disappointed. The teenage narrator of this novel, Junior, a Native American boy growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, is a literary voice for the ages. His humor, his insight, his sharp, sharp wit, his openness, his incredible cartoons. As far as narrators in fiction go, Junior is at the very top of the list. There is so much honesty and so much hurt and so much dazzle in his narration. He takes you by the hand and draws you in but he dosen’t let you get away with any nonsense.
The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka
One of the most gorgeously written novels I have ever read, The Buddha in the Attic tells the story of a group women brought from Japan to San Francisco as picture brides in the early 20th century. I have never encountered writing quite like that of Otsuka’s masterful use of the first-person plural point of view in this book. The spell she casts is immediate and complete. Though the women in her story are not named, both their individual identities and their collective identity are precise and deeply felt in the details and the rhythm and the music of the language. I was so moved and awed by this book that I went out and bought it a few days after I had to return it to the library.
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Laila Lalami
Lalami’s most recent book, The Moor’s Account, got a lot more attention (I haven’t read it yet but I want to!), than this one, her debut, which I read back in 2006, according to my notes “after I picked it up randomly on the new fiction shelf at the library.” It completely floored me, and when I was searching my catalog for #ownvoices books I love, I got so excited about it that I’m planning to read it again soon. This book tells the interconnected stories of four Moroccans who leave their home country on a tiny boat headed for Spain. Lalami’s writing is gorgeous and this little book tackles many big questions in such intimate ways.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob
In the quick notes I scribbled down after I finished this book, I wrote “one of those books where the characters are so true and deep it seems impossible that they aren’t real people.” The story is set in motion when the main character, Amina, returns to her family’s home in New Mexico when her father, in his old age, begins speaking to dead relatives. I love a good family drama, but this one had exceptional depth and grace; I could not put it down.
Now is the Hour, Tom Spanbauer
So often, when queer experience is discussed in the public eye, the experiences and identities of rural queer people are forgotten or ignored. Even in #ownvoices queer literature, it can be hard to find stories about queer people living in rural places. Perhaps one of the most famous examples–Brokeback Mountain–was written by a straight woman. Tom Spanbauer’s novel about a young queer kid coming of age on a farm in rural Idaho is gorgeous and funny. It places queer identities and rural identities right in the forefront. And unlike Brokeback Mountain, it has a happy ending.
Other #ownvoices books I love (both fiction and nonfiction, although I think the hashtag was originally intended for fiction): Chulito by Charles Rice-González, Gender Failure by Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon, Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay, Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity edited by Carter Sickels, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, The Farming of Bones by , Another Country by James Baldwin, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, El Deafo by Cece Bell, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki…