This post is part of the Reading Writers of Color challenge hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s staff writer and editor, Dan Michael Fielding.
Penguin’s list of 100 Must-Read Classic Books, As Chosen By Our Readers lists just six non-white authors. What does it mean for one of the most famous publishers in the world to emphasize, once again, that classics are written by white people?
There is no one way to define what a “classic” novel or book is, in part because calling something a “classic” is often what leads it to becoming a classic! Classic books have lasting significance beyond the time period in which they were written. They span generations and cultures, and often get at things we consider to be deep truths.
When we repeatedly reaffirm that classic books are written by white people, we are imbuing whiteness with the ability to cross cultures and be true in all times and places. But of course, whiteness isn’t the universal touchstone that systemic racism wants it to be. Many of the books on Penguin’s list would not be considered classic to a non-Western audience. They detail the intricacies of Victorian living or French art or Russian angst–all interesting things to explore, but not necessarily possessing the universality that we imagine of classic books.
For this month’s prompts I would like us to simultaneously let go of the idea that classic books must have universal significance–because clearly that’s not the case–and reaffirm their significance. What do I mean by this?
I mean acknowledging that whiteness is not universal. What is classic in white Britain or white America is not necessarily classic in Black Britain or Black America, or Apartheid South Africa, or for the Pacific Islands, or, or… (You see where I’m going?)
But I also mean acknowledging the universality of the experiences of authors of color. White authors have gotten to be universal for a long time, and we shouldn’t throw away the idea that books can speak to universal audiences just because now authors of color are getting in on the idea. As you chose your reading consider what makes it a classic for its time and place, and what makes it a classic beyond that time and place.
Reading classic books can be intimidating for a number of reasons. If you struggle to connect with the ideas in the classic book you chose to read in a way you never struggle to connect with the works of white authors it’s a good idea to take a step back and consider all the ways we train people to connect to whiteness, to see whiteness as universal and non-whiteness as strange or other.
If you’re feeling intimidated because the language used in classic books feels too dense or confusing, feel free to lighten your personal definition of what counts as “classic.” It doesn’t have to be old, stogy, and long-winded to be classic, regardless of what literary critics would like us to believe.
That’s also why I use the word “foundational” here. Classic often comes with a value judgment, and honing in on what’s foundational to a particular genre, geographical location, theory, etc. can help remove that value judgement. Instead of fretting over whether the book rises to meet the “classic” distinction, consider how the book lays the foundation for future works. How does this book help future authors investigate interesting ideas?
The list below is meant as a jumping off point. If you don’t read much classic or foundational literature this should give you a broad overview of the topic while also presenting some newer works that can still be considered classic.
This list is, of course, not exhaustive. What other classic works by authors of color would you like to see on the list? Feel free to leave comments below so we can all grow our reading lists!
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Gabriel García Márquez is known for his foundational work in the genre of magic realism. As a founder of the genre and one of the authors who closely associated magic realism with Latin American literature, García Márquez’s brilliant prose shines in One Hundred Years of Solitude. I first read this book as a young adult and it rocked me. The beautiful descriptions of a family and community caught in place as war, revolution, and time continue to march towards them were breathtaking. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the genre of magic realism, Latin American literature
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Tapping into the timeless themes of community and change, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart reshaped literature globally and in Africa after its initial publication in 1958. Since then it has been translated into over 45 languages and sold over ten million copies. It follows the story of Okonkwo, the greatest wrestler and warrior alive, and his meteoric rise to frame and sudden crash after he accidentally kills a clansman. Returning from exile to find missionaries and colonial governors where home once was Okonkwo is hurled off balance and towards tragedy.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
Any one of James Baldwin’s books and collections of essays could be included on a list of classics. The Library of America, which works to keep great American literature in publication, considers him one of the great American writers. If Beale Street Could Talk is one of his later works, receiving perhaps less attention than his earlier publications. It tells of a love story between Tish and Fonny as they are tested by Fonny’s wrongful imprisonment.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
A story of revenge, adventure, suffering, and retribution. Alexandre Dumas was the son of a French aristocrat and an enslaved Afro-Caribbean woman. After being brought to France by his father and legally freed, Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo became the most popular book in Europe during its initial serialization. In it, Edmund Dantes is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. While in prison he learned of a secret vast treasure and he becomes determined to escape, find the treasure, and lay waste to the three men who sought to imprison him.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
Published in the fifth century, before the unification of China, The Art of War may be the oldest book on this list, but its insights remain timeless. General Sun Tzu was a military strategist, writer, and philosopher and The Art of War is notable for its focus on alternatives to direct battles. Many have found use in his Art in a variety of competitive endeavors.
Theologus Autodidactus by Ibn al-Nafis
One of the first Arabic novels and an example of proto-Science Fiction, Theologus Autodidactus tells the story of Kamil, a feral child who was spontaneously generated in a cave. Through logic and first principles, Kamil learns about his world until he is exposed to his contemporaries when castaways are stranded nearby. The novel transforms into a coming of age story, before the end of the world approaches and the novel foregrounds many science fiction themes. Because of the book’s age the full English translation is also available for free (pdf warning).
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved by Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison belongs on any list of American classics. Telling the spellbinding story of escaped slave Sethe, Morrison weaves a captivating tale of love and loss and the lasting pain of slavery. Haunted by the ghost of her deceased baby and held captive by the memories of Sweet Home, the farm where she was enslaved, Sethe’s story unravels the cloak that has surrounded the history of slavery in this country.
Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen Lili’uokalani
Perhaps the most important book in Hawaiian literature, Queen Lili’uokalani’s account of her overthrow, plea for reinstatement, and revolutionary action will remain vital historical reading as long as the colonization of Hawaii persists. Lili’uokalani’s plea for justice went unanswered until her death in 1917, and continues today. The full text is available online.
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19 thoughts on “Classic and Foundational Writing by Authors of Color for the Reading Writers of Color Challenge”
I was thinking of something by bell hooks — anyone have a particular rec?
I enjoyed All About Love: New Visions. It’s a quick read about an important topic that I don’t see many writing about.
I’m going with that. I was delighted to discover that hooks was a romance reader! We are legion. 🙂
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I’ll be reading A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry 🙂 @willaful I’d recommend either All About Love or Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks!
This might be more foundational than classic, but I was recommended _The God of Small Things_ by Arundhati Roy.
Foundational, classic, it’s all good! I hope you enjoy.
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I will read “Twilight in Jakarta” (Senja di Jakarta) by Mochtar Lubis.
Well, just out of the 8 books listed here, I desperately want to read 5…but I’ve chosen One Hundred Years of Solitude. Definitely filing the rest of them away for future reading (and possibly challenges) though!
It’s a fascinating read! I hope you enjoy. 🙂
Thanks for the suggestions! I’ll be reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I think would like to read either *Selected Stories of Lu Hsun* or *The Lotus Sūtra*. Maybe both.
Thanks for sharing!
I meant- I think I would like
What do you think about Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler? I bought it for a (virtual) book club I failed to attend in…2020, if I remember correctly. I still haven’t read it! It’s not as old a classic as many on the list, but it’s definitely an SFF foundational classic.
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I really enjoyed it when I read it a few years back. I think it is definitely foundational to SFF and to apocalyptic and dys/utopia fiction.
I’m going to read James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time.
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I’m going to read The Fire Next Time too!
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