A Crash Course in Diversifying Your Bookshelf
Is your reading list looking a little monochrome? We’ve compiled 15 books to help you broaden your horizons
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
I n the past year, I’ve made a conscious and intentional effort to read in an inclusive and representative way. For me this means reading perspectives that differ from mine, about experiences that are new to me, and learning from people who have lived in ways that offer precious teachings. It also means reading nonfiction and fiction in equal measure. Consuming the news and nonfiction about important but heavy topics can be emotionally draining; whereas poetry and comics can uplift us when we feel weltshmerz or despair.
This is why I’ve put together a list of books by writers, poets, and artists from a range of backgrounds. When read in the order presented, it creates a narrative arc of its own. The list builds from a slow crescendo of more accessible books to heavy-hitters that draw on academic and historical research, finishing with a few books that unearth the kinds of futures we want to create.
These titles will humble you and fill you with wonder. But most important, they will hopefully also inspire you to create your own stories in ways that are most representative of your experiences.
So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo
If you are a white person, this is essential reading before engaging any racialized or marginalized person in a conversation about race and racism. If you are a person of color, you may find new ways of understanding other racialized people, while also feeling a sense of validation in realizing that your experiences of racism are shared by many others.
I started following Oluo on Twitter last year when I realized that my social media feed was not very representative of my values or the types of thinkers I wanted to learn from. I am always learning so much from her articles and pithy tweets. This book is the epitome of her compassionate yet disciplined teachings on how we can all learn to think, talk, and act in anti-racist ways.
She of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya
In this beautifully illustrated novel, Vivek Shraya gracefully braids two stories together to ponder issues of sexual, gender, and racial identity and to re-imagine the Hindu myth of the elephant god Ganesha.
I immediately felt connected to this book because of the evocative way Shraya portrays how to love oneself as we grow up and into our bodies and minds.
Shraya is also a multi-talented creator who is also a visual artist, poet, musician, and associate professor of creative writing at the University of Calgary. I had a hard time selecting which of her writing to include—her collection of poetry “even this page is white” was also one of my favorite poetry collections on identities and self.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Eddo-Lodge’s book has such a brilliant title based on a viral blog post of the same name. I think most people of color can relate to the feeling of not wanting to talk to white people about race at some point in their lives. So steep a cup of tea and sink into Eddo-Lodge’s book to immerse yourself in the historical and current issues of anti-blackness and racism in the motherland of colonialism.
Both Canada and the U.S. can thank Britain and other European countries for the origins of our institutional racism, so it only makes sense for those of us living in these countries to learn about one of the birthplaces of white supremacy.
How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? by Doretta Lau
I grew up mostly in Alberta (the so-called “Texas of Canada”) and then lived in Montreal, Quebec for university before moving to Vancouver, British Columbia in my early 20s.
Once I arrived in B.C., I realized I had never before seen, befriended, or interacted with so many other Asians in Canada. I felt a sense of belonging I had never experienced in Alberta or Montreal. Unfortunately, this was also the time that anti-Asian sentiment started rising in Vancouver.
This slim volume contains short stories that portray the struggles and pleasures of the North American Asian experience in a fresh and dynamic way.
The Solidarity Struggle edited by Mia McKenzie
As I read more books that represented different identities and bore witness to the many ways people are racialized and marginalized, I realized that I did not have a working definition of what meaningful solidarity looked like. How could I, with all of my privileges, even begin to act in solidarity?
The Solidarity Struggle helped me start the conversation with myself. It contains essays and comics by a variety of Canadian and U.S. writers/artists that will get you thinking about what meaningful solidarity looks like for you.
A Place Called No Homeland by Kai Cheng Thom
Kai Cheng Thom and I attended the same university in Montreal and I loved reading her weekly column in the McGill Daily, where I worked as an illustrations editor and contributor.
Thom writes about her identity as a Chinese trans woman in a transphobic world in a way that cuts straight to the heart. This collection of poems by this young Chinese-Canadian literary genius is refreshing, intimate, and unapologetically proud.
The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic, and the Whole Planet by Sheila Watt-Cloutier
I lived and worked in Iqaluit, Nunavut during my masters degree in public health. During my brief time in the Canadian Arctic, I learned as a qablunaaq from “down south,” about the many Inuit environmental activists protecting their land and animals from the devastating impacts of human-made climate change.
We hear a lot about Greenpeace and other non-Inuit organizations in Canada and the U.S., but those narratives often erases the decades of activism and the current efforts of Inuit people, especially the women, in protecting their native land from exploitation and degradation.
Watt-Cloutier’s memoir recounts her life story as a proud Inuk woman to provide a compelling argument for the importance of protecting the Arctic, not just for the animals, but the strong people that call the ice and tundra home.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
This classic graphic novel provides a nice break from all the text-heavy volumes in the first half of this list. Part of representation and inclusivity is to recognize that everyone learns differently and that some of us may find images more compelling.
Gene depicts the complexities of growing up Asian in predominantly white spaces by integrating the famous Chinese myth of Sun WuKung, the Monkey King. There is also a very poignant telling of the “gross lunch” story that most Asian kids can relate to. I have many sad memories of tossing away a delicious Chinese lunch lovingly prepared by my mother in an attempt to belong in the White Albertan cafeterias; I didn’t realize at the time that I was also tossing away a tiny bit of my sense of self in the process.
Mixed Race Amnesia by Minelle Mahtani
How do mixed race, biracial, or multiracial people feel about these identities and what (if anything) does it mean for them?
Dr. Mahtani interviewed mixed race women in Toronto to center their experiences and to critically discuss how their narratives fit into Canadian and international assumptions around the so-called “post-racial future.”
Salt by Nayyirah Waheed
Life is tough, and some days we need a poem to help pick us up again.
Waheed’s first collection does just that. Simple, short, and poignant, her poetry is an arrow that strikes straight and true. I often go back to this book in between dense chapters in the other nonfiction books on this list. Reading about race and racism can make us sad, make us angry, and often trigger traumatic memories.
Poetry is healing, so take a swig of this bittersweet medicine.
If by this point you decide that you’re ready for the full truth and nothing but the truth, dive into Maynard’s detailed historical account of how anti-Blackness is pervasive in most parts of Canada’s institutions.
Canada often sells itself as a beacon of multiculturalism and diversity, and although in ways it is more tolerant than the United States, we can’t ignore the incredible exclusionary and violently racist policies that mark our history and our politics today.
By obscuring our racism behind a neo-liberal veil of tolerance, we are not confronting our own discriminatory policies in a settler-colonial nation that has said historically said “fuck you” more often than “thank you.”
Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
Even though I moved to Canada as a young child, I did not learn about the horrifically shameful history of the Indian residential schools until I was an adult. Even then a lot of the stories are sugar-coated in white icing, erasing the intergenerational traumas that continue today as a result of the atrocities carried out by Christian institutions and their leaders.
Wagamese’s novel depicts the tragedies of residential schools (although they were more like child labor camps than schools) in the 1960s to ‘70s through the life of Saul Indian Horse, a young First Nations boy who escapes the horrors of the school through his passion for hockey.
This chillingly beautiful book has also been adapted into a movie of the same name.
Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind by Sakyong Mipham
And now for something completely different.
Although many of the writers included talk about race, racism, immigration, and other political issues, I bet at least some of them would also like to write about all the other parts of their identities. I like to run and bike, but I rarely see or hear about famous recreational runners or cyclists of color.
Mipham’s musings on running meditation are a reminder that we have to take care of our bodies and minds to recharge, not just so we can be a better advocate and activist for the causes we care about, but because our bodies give us so much on a daily basis and are intrinsically worth caring for.
The Three Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin
I wanted to end this playlist with books that look at how to shape humanity’s future.
We know that our past and present are full of racism, violence, and powerful resistance, but what will our world look like in 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years?
Cixin’s delightful and expansive trilogy centers people of color such as Latinx, Chinese, and Australian Aboriginal characters rarely seen in mainstream science fiction. It also respectfully challenges our ideas of masculinity and gender expression in ways that I have never seen in American science fiction while portraying Asian women as prominent scientists and thinkers.
Afrofuturism: the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha Womack
When it comes to Black and Indigenous people, the very act of surviving is an act of resistance. Imagine a future where Black and Brown people are not only surviving, but thriving and telling our own stories.
Afrofuturism is an artistic movement spanning various areas of the creative spectrum, such as film, music, and the literary and visual arts to imagine Black people in our futures. Womack takes us through the history of the movement from legends such as Sun Ra, Parliament, and Erykah Badu to contemporary innovators like Andre 3000, Missy Elliot, and Janelle Monae.
Afrofuturism reads as the ultimate list of who to watch and listen to as we join together to imagine a future that is inclusive and representative.