7 Genre-Defying Books by Women of Color
Caroline Hagood recommends hybrid and experimental literary works that live outside the borders of definition
I call my book, Weird Girls: Writing the Art Monster, a book-length essay or set of interconnected essays but, really, this is a failure of language. Trouble is I simply don’t have words yet for what I’m trying to do, and for what the sui generis women on this list have already done. I long to explode notions such as genre, category, and book. But I don’t just want to destroy stuff. My whole project is to take all those exploded pieces and build a whole new art form. If this process sounds Frankenstein-like that’s because it is. Mary Shelley’s monster is a sort of patron saint of Weird Girls, which is itself a monster sewn together from the various “bodies” of all I was grappling with as I wrote it: motherhood, writing and how the former often tried, monster-like, to devour the latter.
My book explores the topic of the “art monster,” an ancient notion but one named by Jenny Offill in her 2016 novel Dept of Speculation—when the protagonist shares that she wanted to be this kind of artist who gets to focus solely on the art (often a man who achieves this dedication because some woman handles everything else) but then she became a wife and mother. Weird Girls asks what happens when that art monster is also the wife and mother. But it also asks why we need to be limited by all these categories in the first place. I wanted my book to leave you with questions like, What if we’re all something more hybrid and audacious that lives outside the borders of definition?
As I have tried to do, the writers in this list create a whole new kind of literature by breaking every rule and busting down the walls of genre, blowing up such outdated notions as gender, race, genre, and ultimately notion itself. Read them and be thrilled and transformed but, please, whatever you do, don’t you dare categorize them.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Where to even begin when it comes to how Rankine’s book is impossible to categorize? Moving fluidly between what was once called “poetry” and “prose” (but also through “scripts for situation videos,” among other innovative approaches), Citizen unearths what Cathy Park Hong will later call the “minor feelings” of living in a highly racialized America. Even the fact that Citizen is usually (reductively) categorized as poetry reflects on the very questions of borders and boundaries Rankine calls into question in the first place. Through images, prose poetry, scripts for videos, and more, Rankine looks at everything from art and poetry to Serena Williams’ tennis matches to tell a story of race in America. Throughout the book, Rankine telegraphs Zora Neale Hurston’s adage, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” in theory and in practice—as in the case when Rankine dedicates consecutive pages to Glenn Ligon’s artwork that features these very words. In Citizen, Rankine drags poetics (a field often associated with, well, literal fields) into the flawed urban details of a racist modern world, but without losing any of the sublime.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
There is something downright mesmerizing about Hong’s chronicling how binge-watching Richard Pryor’s stand-up comedy enabled her to understand a whole set of emotions concerning race in America and her experience as the child of Korean immigrants. She labels these sentiments that Pryor unearths for her “minor feelings,” or the toxic experience of being forced to question any negative racial emotions under the regime of the so-called American dream. She touches, too, on the doubled sense of debt carried by Asian immigrants both to America—with all its false promises of dreams and equality—and to their parents, who gave up everything so that they may supposedly attain said dreams. By connecting her revelation concerning “minor feelings” to Pryor’s work, Hong also elevates the often-undermined genre of stand-up comedy, offering it up as a mode with much truth-telling potential when it comes to sociopolitical matters.
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
In this genre-defying memoir, Mailhot examines personal and collective trauma through the lens of Native culture. She covers her struggle with the specters of mental illness, abuse, and racism, to name just a few. In a memorable section, she checks herself into a mental hospital with one key caveat: that she be allowed to keep on writing. And keep on writing she does. A key insight comes when she muses on the problem of seeking help from the apparatus (the mental hospital, etc.) of a nation that has always excluded people like her. This leads to a remarkable sequence in which she contrasts the mental health mechanics of the U.S. with the Native practice of healing pain through ceremony. In Heart Berries, Mailhot invites readers to transcend any previous notions of “pain,” “ceremony,” and even “motherhood,” “mental illness,” and “womanhood,” and our brains become so much more expansive for it.
Incubation: A Space for Monsters by Bhanu Kapil
In this book, indeed a space for monsters, Kapil considers monstrosity as a metaphor for all sorts or creative and boundary-breaking potentiality. In this ode to hybridity, a presence called Laloo makes her way through various cultural landscapes, shedding light on each but very purposefully never imprisoning any given one in definition or category. Instead, the spirit of this book is one of shifting perspectives and modalities, which reminds us of our own creative potential as we encounter the lovely stuff of the world but also the more unsettling aspects. In this way, Kapil raises the following question: how can all of it—the world, our texts, our identities—be remade in any given moment? This poetic odyssey is neither for the categorizer nor the faint of heart, but it welcomes all who dare venture down its genre-breaking path.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado explores abuse, and the creativity that can help to combat and process it, via different genres in this beguiling book. For instance, there are chapters such as “Dream House as Inciting Incident” and “Dream House as Romance Novel.” Though this book covers traumatic territory, it’s important to note that it’s actually a blast to read. Fun though it might be, it’s built on weighty ideas, and this gives it a paradoxical flare as we zoom through “Dream House as Stoner Comedy” but all against the backdrop of deeper narrative and cultural theories. For instance, Machado draws on such work as Saidiya Hartman’s concept of the “violence of the archive.” And, let’s just say, if this doesn’t sound fun, this is simply not the book for you.
The Body by Jenny Boully
In this audacious book, Boully asks what the body would be if it literally were an essay… made up only of footnotes. In this way, she somehow creates a text simultaneously about presence and absence, love and loss. Boully plays knowingly with such often-debated forms as the “lyric essay” and even postmodernism itself; case in point: when Boully herself surfaces in a tongue-and-cheek manner in the spiderweb of footnotes to a text that never existed in the first place. Boully has spoken in interviews about having written this text after a breakup, which places it alongside such genre-exploding break-up books as Maggie Nelson’s Bluets as far as breaking forms to discuss breaks between people. Ultimately, if you are not a fan of linguistic and ontological rule-breaking, proceed at your own risk.
Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose
Chew-Bose’s virtuosic and hilarious book explores being a brown girl in a white world by disavowing the very thing that creates this contrast between “brown” and “white” in the first place: any clear-cut notion of category. Chew-Bose is having none of it, and you will feel lucky for this; she will take you on a journey to the far reaches of the mind when it’s let off its categorical leash. Though the trope of a heartbeat as linguistic punctuation officially appears in the first essay (“Heart Museum”) only, this insistent beat-beat-beat punctuates the whole collection, reminding us of the human at the center of all these identity politics. In the end, Too Much and Not the Mood is versatile enough to cover both matters of identity and matters of the heart while remaining innovative throughout.