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Written by: Wu Xueting
War. Riots. Bullying. Rape. Police brutality. Domestic abuse. Gang violence. Poverty. These topics fill the pages of many books, no matter the race of the writer and the characters; books featuring characters of colour seem almost unable to escape these dark and exigent circumstances of oppression.
Compared to ten years ago, it is now easier to find books with a black girl on the cover, with a main character named Asiya, or with two Latino boys falling in love. With the efforts of ‘We Need Diverse Books’ and other similar campaigns, there’s been much progress made on diversity in book publishing as well as our reading habits. We need more than just nominal representation, though. We can’t really call it “diversity” until we can pick up any book featuring people of colour and there not being an overwhelming chance it focuses on their marginalization or on terrible struggles bearing down on their entire people as a race.
Don’t get me wrong; stories that focus on our history and the contemporary struggles for equality are extremely important. There are still many stories that need to be told, voices that need to be heard, no matter how difficult it may be for us to read and hear them.
But sometimes we really need a break from the grim realities of life. I want to read about someone who looks like me going on spy adventures around the world. I want to experience other cultures through laugh-out-loud humour and a cute romance.
Besides historical fiction, immigrant fiction and those I call “social justice issues novels,” even a lot of fantasy and dystopian novels have added to the heavy tone of books by writers of colour. The New York Times and Lee & Low Books recently wrote about the need for more children’s picture books with protagonists of colour that don’t focus on oppression. I think teens and adults also deserve more uplifting stories.
In my own search for lighter reads in which I can see my own and others’ cultural experiences, I discovered eight great books that were recently published. The books here are a mix of young adult and adult fiction, and they don’t sacrifice incisive social commentary to keep things light. Race, religion and the intersectional experiences with gender still come into play, but the writers deftly explore them with humour and hope.
1. No Good Deed (by Goldy Moldavsky)
The wackiest one on this list, No Good Deed, pokes fun at the clichés of the mainstream social justice culture. Gregor Maravilla is excited to be heading to Camp Save the World, a prestigious summer camp for young aspiring social activists like him. Every camper has a very specific campaign they’re championing and some of them are just plain ridiculous. As competitions turn the campers against one another, the book brings the toxic tendencies of mainstream activism into the spotlight.
The issues are complex, but I found the author’s parody of men’s rights (seriously), celebrity activism and more, to be sharp and thought-provoking without being preachy. Things may seem to take a cynical turn at times, but at the heart of the book is a tender and motivational message. From the very first page, the witty, downright hilarious writing celebrates the passions of young people believing they can truly make a difference in the world.
2. Saints and Misfits (by S.K. Ali)
Trigger warning for attempted sexual assault. Saints and Misfits is a very timely contribution to the #MeToo conversations from the perspective of a Muslim and hijabi teenager in the United States. Janna doesn’t know what to do about the boy who is sexually harassing her, not least because he’s an upstanding member of her Muslim community. At least on the surface. But she doesn’t let this boy (whom she calls “the monster”) stop her from living her life as an ordinary teenager.
Like many other high school students in YA coming-of-age stories, Janna experiences bullies, mean girls, the anxiety of crushes, cramming for exams, and her parents’ divorce. Her being Muslim flows naturally with the rest of her daily life through the book’s discussion of Islamic values and practices, which the author would also briefly explain for non-Muslim readers. Drama ensues when Janna’s crush on a non-Muslim white boy develops, but what really drives the story is the cast of female characters. Each of them is smart and strong with their own unique personality. Around these characters, the handling of topics like wearing the hijab and sexual assault never gets too dark. I was laughing even when I least expected it to be funny.
3. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Women (by Balli Kaur Jaswal)
The title isn’t kidding: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows really does contain erotic stories that might make you want to avoid reading it in public. Movie rights have already been acquired for this book, which takes a rare look at the sexual lives of older Asian women. Nikki, a modern Punjabi woman in London, applies to teach an English creative writing class at the Sikh community centre, hoping to empower some Punjabi women with the power of storytelling. To her surprise, the students are barely literate in English and mostly widows who love sharing some vivid and steamy fantasies. Soon, the class comes under the suspicion of the community’s “moral police” because of the women’s’ stories.
Through romance and an engaging mystery, the author deftly tackles a lot of topics (like arranged marriages) involved in the generational clashes between tradition and modernity for Punjabi immigrants. The characters are as vibrant as the author’s depiction of London’s Southall, a suburb that really does have a large Punjabi community. It’s a fun page-turner that also explores the amazing bonds among women in a sexist society.
4. Hollywood Homicide (by Kellye Garrett)
Finally, a fun cozy mystery with a woman of colour (and in the case of Hollywood Homicide, a Black woman) as the heroine, the amateur detective solving the crime. After having little success with her acting career in Hollywood, Dayna ‘Day’ Anderson decides to give it up. She’s barely able to make ends meet for herself, and then she learns that her parents are going to lose their house because they can’t pay their mortgage. A solution comes in the form of a $15,000 reward money from the police for information about a hit-and-run she and her friends witnessed some months earlier.
Pursuing the murderer turns out to be more dangerous than Day expected and she stumbles a few times. With the help of her friends, she remains determined to solve the case. Day and her friends have such unique voices and great friendships. Their adventures in fashion, romance and Hollywood make the book a hilarious and highly engaging read. Through Day’s investigation, the book gives us an insider’s look into the wild world of the Hollywood famous. The author, Kellye Garrett, has eight years of Hollywood screenwriting experience under her belt, including a year writing for the CBS drama Cold Case, so she knows what she’s talking about.
If you love Hollywood Homicide, keep an eye out for the second book in the series, Hollywood Ending, coming out August 2018!
5. The Victoria in My Head (by Janelle Milanes)
You can tell right from the gorgeous cover that music plays a big part in this book. You could even say that The Victoria In My Head reads like a playlist or soundtrack. Each chapter heading has a song title to accompany what happens in that chapter. That’s all because our main character, Victoria Cruz, is a huge music nerd who creates playlists for every mood and occasion she fantasises in her head. She stumbles on a chance to sing lead for a rock band and, bored of her repetitive life at home and at school, Victoria decides to do it. Like many traditional immigrant parents who set high expectations for their children, Victoria’s Cuban parents have her set on the path to Harvard and strictly disapprove of her joining a rock band.
What balances the weight of her parents’ expectations is the ultimate loving family dynamic and her awesome friendships. The female friendships in this book are strong and well-developed amid the boy drama as Victoria searches for love through music, a quinceañera and more. Full of witty humour and excellent song recommendations, this book has a diverse mix of characters who are very human as they battle their insecurities.
You’d be surprised, but this is a debut novel and the author’s next book, Annalee, In Real Life, will be out September 2018!
6. Let’s Talk About Love (by Claire Kann)
If that adorable cover isn’t enough to make you want to read this book immediately, what about these four words: Asexual, biromantic, Black girl. Alice Whitley is someone I want to be friends with: she loves binge-watching TV shows, even writing essays about them and fangirling over Dean Winchester; she has a cat named Glorificus; she loves books and takes a summer job at the library! She’s also a sophomore at college, which breaks away from the usual YA novels about high school students. Like all of us, Alice is trying to figure herself out, especially after her girlfriend breaks up with her when Alice admits she doesn’t care about having sex.
It’s not all gloom and sadness for her, though, as Alice has a supportive group of friends and she soon meets Takumi, a cute co-worker. How does Alice tell Takumi she’s into him, but not into sex? She’s struggling to make sense of that herself. The book delves into serious topics like the social stigma surrounding asexuality, while keeping the tone light and hopeful. Ultimately a feel-good read with a funny and smart female protagonist, it also has much-needed positive representation of therapy and of leading a fulfilled life without sex.
7. Sophia of Silicon Valley (by Anna Yen)
Inspired by author Anna Yen’s own experience as an investor relations expert, Sophia of Silicon Valley gives us an insider’s perspective into the fast-paced and competitive world of Silicon Valley. It’s a breezy and fun read about a young Chinese-American woman, Sophia Young, struggling to build her career in the male-dominated tech industry. We navigate the corporate madness of Silicon Valley in its heyday along with Sophia, who manages to land more than a few senior roles at rising firms, many that will remind you of certain real-life powerhouses and their leaders. At the same time, we follow Sophia’s humorous attempts to please her critical immigrant parents.
Sassy and unafraid to speak her mind, Sophia climbs to the top, but not without having to deal with some racist and misogynistic people in the industry. As the environment around her gets more toxic, she gets more honest and questions if she likes who she’s becoming. There’s some business lingo thrown around that might seem daunting, but at the book’s core is Sophia’s journey of learning to become her own self in her work and personal lives.
8. Ayesha At Last (by Uzma Jalaluddin)
A romantic comedy between two Muslims in their twenties? Yes! A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in a Toronto Muslim community? Heck yes! While her younger cousin Hafsa is receiving and happily rejecting tons of marriage proposals, Ayesha is still unmarried at twenty-seven. She’s okay with that, though, because she’s putting her career and her dream of being a spoken word poet first. When she meets Khalid, she calls him a “fundy” (fundamentalist) for his tendency to make snap judgements based on conservative values, but as they spend more time together, their mutual attraction starts to grow.
More than just a Muslim version of Pride and Prejudice, the book suggests that Austen’s nineteenth century social commentary speaks a lot to the modern Muslim experience of arranged marriages, family loyalty and discrimination. In the spirit of Austen’s novel, misunderstandings and rumours complicate the relationship in amusing and moving ways. But in a refreshing twist, we get the story from both Ayesha and Khalid’s perspectives, giving us a complex subplot of Khalid’s struggles as someone who looks and dresses like a stereotypical conservative Muslim. The author aims to show a romantic side to a devout Muslim man, and she captures the motivation of this article when she says, “I wanted an optimistic ending for my brown, Muslim characters, instead of the tragic endings that so often befall people of colour in books.”
What are some of your favourite light and feel-good reads that feature characters of colour? Share them with us in the comments below!
Editor: Raissa Vasconcelos