By Hannah White
March is Women’s History Month. Though we celebrate the great literary achievements made by women year-round here at Literary Traveler, I’ve curated a list of books written by diverse women, ranging from classic works of fiction, to modern tales and memoirs, to celebrate this important month. Though this list only offers a snippet of the many great works of literature women have produced, these 10 great books written by BIPOC women are among some of the best.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970)
In this well-known classic, and Morrison’s best-selling first novel, a young Black girl living in America prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she can be beautiful like the image of the blonde-haired, white American girl she holds as an ideal. According to The New York Times, Morrison’s writing here is “so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry.”
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (1984)
What I love most about this story is just how much it can resonate with so many different audiences. I remember reading The House on Mango Street as a senior in high school, but it is also widely taught in grade schools and universities across the country. Readers of all ages can take away something from this beautiful series of vignettes that tell the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero’s life as a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago.
Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller (2019)
With the recent tragedy that happened in Georgia, and the current racial climate in this country, we must listen to the voices that have often been overlooked. Chanel Miller makes her voice heard in this heartbreaking and powerful memoir. She was known as Emily Doe in the infamous Brock Turner case, “when she stunned millions with a letter. Brock Turner had been sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting her on Stanford’s campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral–viewed by eleven million people within four days, it was translated globally and read on the floor of Congress; it inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case.” In this memoir, Miller reclaims her identity and challenges beliefs about sexual assault and the American justice system.
The Red Record by Ida B. Wells (1895)
Ida B. Wells was a fierce anti-lynching advocate and journalist who fought for the civil rights of African Americans in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. In 1895 she published The Red Record, a 100-page pamphlet that documented lynching of African Americans since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Wells’ powerful words are her legacy, and this document serves as a reminder that even if laws change, systemic and deeply ingrained racism still remains an ongoing battle.
Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley (1761)
Phyllis Wheatley, a young slave girl, arrived in Boston on a slave ship in 1761. She was sold to the Wheatley family, who were impressed by her intelligence, and she was given an education that was very unusual for a slave girl to receive at the time. Wheatley became a prolific writer and employed classical and neoclassical techniques as well as “biblical symbolism to evangelize and to comment on slavery” in her works. Though she struggled in her lifetime to be published in America, today Wheatley is widely taught and known as one of the best poets of her time.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)
Nella Larsen is one of my favorite writers. I’ve already mentioned Passing way too often in my other reviews (it’s one of my favorites), but Quicksand, her first novel, is sometimes overlooked. Larsen was not an extremely prolific writer, but her works are amazing stories that tell us about race in America. In this story, Helga Crane, “born to a white mother and an absent black father, and despised for her dark skin […] has long had to fend for herself. As a young woman, Helga teaches at an all-black school in the South, but even here she feels different. Moving to Harlem and eventually to Denmark, she attempts to carve out a comfortable life and place for herself, but ends up back where she started, choosing emotional freedom that quickly translates into a narrow existence.”
Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang (1943)
Considered “[A] giant of modern Chinese literature” by The New York Times, this beautiful book of short stories “combine an unsettled, probing, utterly contemporary sensibility, keenly alert to sexual politics and psychological ambiguity, with an intense lyricism that echoes the classics of Chinese literature.” This first collection of Chang’s work in English brings a great author’s work to American readers.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)
Earning its title from a quote in Langston Hughe’s poem “Harlem”–“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”–this beautiful award-winning drama about the dreams of a struggling family living in Chicago became an instant classic and is widely taught in schools across the country.
Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson (1859)
This autobiographical novel by Harriet E. Wilson, widely considered the first novel published by an African American woman, tells the story of Wilson’s life growing up as a little girl of mixed race who is an indentured servant for a Northern white family. Frequently abused, beaten, and called by the book title’s name, Wilson sheds light on the horrors of slavery; it is especially shocking as this takes place in the North, a place often associated with the abolitionist movement.
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston (1976)
Last on this list of 10 great books written by BIPOC women is Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. In this book, she “create[s] an entirely new form—an exhilarating blend of autobiography and mythology, of world and self, of hot rage and cool analysis. First published in 1976, it has become a classic in its innovative portrayal of multiple and intersecting identities—immigrant, female, Chinese, American.”