Black Women Novelists You Should Be Reading
If you don't know, now you know
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’m incredibly thankful to live in a time when Black artists continue to carve out their voices in the field, making waves through self-publishing and traditional methods. While the percentages of our representation still leave much to be desired, these days it’s not uncommon to find Black women writers paving their own way and using a voice that speaks to the multiplicity within our culture. There are the legends whose names come up, deservedly, time and again, and those who are establishing themselves in the canon with each story, essay, poem, or novel including Dorothy West and Octavia Butler, Elizabeth Nunez and Toni Morrison, Beverly Jenkins and Candice Carty-Williams. There are a slew of Black women writers to add to your shelves and your reading is incomplete if you leave out this list of Black women novelists.
Black women, especially, have been a crucial part of my upbringing and solidifying my own sense of self and of the stories I want to tell. In their lives (and creativity) Black women encouraged deep levels of introspection and contemplation needed for me to recognize that there’s really no limit to what we can do. It’s with that in mind I wanted to list Black women authors who, if you didn’t know about them before, now you do. From crime to horror to historical tales, these women have established a new scope, a different way of thinking, and also mentored many upstarts, be it through their prose or through their work within the industry. Again, I am thankful to live in a time to be exposed to their work and am equally happy to share some of these powerhouse artists with you in the hopes you’ll add their work to your shelves, if you haven’t already.
Establishing herself in the crime genre with books following the life of Black woman detective Marti MacAlister, Bland became prolific within the genre, editing an anthology Shades of Black: Crime and Mystery Stories by African-American Authors and numerous short stories. Her work drew from her experience in a Midwestern town mirroring the one she wrote about in the MacAlister series, which also reflected the hardships for a woman in this type of position while pushing against the ways Black women were typecast in fiction. The organization Sisters in Crime created an award in Bland’s name to support unpublished writers within the genre.
Cole’s work is not tied to one genre. The experiences of Black characters are always prioritized in her novels, which range from historical to romance to science fiction (and sometimes two or more of those genres mixed together). She may be best known for her award-winning An Extraordinary Union books, which take place during the Civil War—complete with spies, the looming Confederacy, and forbidden love. Cole’s stories do not ignore the travesty of war and provide agency to the enslaved, and formerly enslaved, in deciding their own destiny.
DeLoach first pursued writing in her 50s, winning contests that encouraged her to keep going. She went on to pen the Mama Detective books featuring paralegal Simone Covington and her social worker mother Grace (aka Mama Candi) in Atlanta. For some reason mother and daughter always get entangled in a murder mystery ultimately working together to set things right. Written in a voice that is as warm as the honey Mama Candi’s complexion is compared to, this series pulls readers in with suspense and holds us with the family dynamics between mother and daughter. Their frustrations with each other are evident, but there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for and with each other.
Due is not only a well-known author within the speculative/horror realm; she’s also a filmmaker and the co-producer of the documentary Black Noir. (And I believe we have some new nonfiction from Due to look forward to.) Her filmmaking background may account for the cinematic nature of her writing, which draws us to her characters while weaving a larger story around place, history, and culture. Her most recent collection of prose, Ghost Summer, is a must-read, as is her novel My Soul to Keep among many others. Due has not remained pigeonholed within any one way of storytelling, yet has never separated Black experiences from the aspects of horror, fantasy, or thrillers, capturing the humanistic and relatable threads of life within a larger scope.
Hopkinson’s name is often said in the same breath of legend Octavia Butler and award-winner bestseller NK Jemisin for a reason: over many books she has firmly established herself within the speculative genre having tapped into Caribbean folklore and sci-fi/fantasy. Metaphors and symbolism have larger implications in the worlds Hopkinson constructs be it in stories where nations are divided quite literally by class to characters bonding over the promise of freedom with the aid of a goddess. Her prose showcases a diverse reality and an alternate perspective. It would be hard to suggest a definitive book to introduce yourself to Hopkinson’s style, so just read all of them.
Locke is one of the most renowned Black contemporary mystery writers, having won an Edgar, the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, and the Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, among many other accolades. She’s worked with Ava DuVernay and on the show Empire. Even with her busy schedule, we have more novels from Locke to look forward to, including the next installment of the Highway 59 series, Heaven, My Home, publishing this fall. Locke’s work tends to be centralized in the South, specifically Texas. Her upcoming novel and the award-winning Bluebird, Bluebird take on white supremacy, red tape within law enforcement, and the ties that bind family through the viewpoint of Texas Ranger Darren Matthews, who has a dark past he’s trying to reckon with.
A 2018 recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize, Makumbi has been praised for her unique writing and searing depictions of East Africa and East Africans. Her debut novel Kintu was a sweeping narrative reimagining the history of Uganda through the Kintu clan. The perspectives in her novel didn’t only seek to survive but to break the chains of a brutal history. Next up for Makumbi is a short story collection, Let’s Tell This Story Properly, publishing in April.
Like many of the women listed here, McFadden is prolific, with a number of novels you can enjoy. You can even purchase the Bernice McFadden collection, a package of several novels, to hold you over while waiting for her next novel. McFadden’s work has fictionalized moments in history from The Book of Harlan to Gathering of Waters, exploring the harsh truths and vivid experiences of those who navigate reinvention, sometimes at a price. McFadden’s stories have consistently taken readers into the heart of not just the land but the people, reflecting base instincts and our truest selves.
Named a Best Young British Novelist by Granta in 2013, this Somali-British writer has written two novels. Her debut, Black Mamba Boy, was a fictionalized account of her father’s life, taking place in Yemen in the 1930s, and her second follows several women in 1987 in the town of Hargeisa, part of the Republic of Somaliland on the brink of war. Using the personal to project larger discussions on race, class, and political upheaval, Mohamed’s fiction has tapped into a history that deserves a wider audience.
Selena Montgomery (aka Stacey Abrams)
While many of us wait in anticipation to find out whether or not Stacey Abrams will declare her candidacy for president in 2020, many may also know her under her pen name as romance novelist Selena Montgomery. (Abrams has also written nonfiction with her most recent out in March.) Montgomery’s books aren’t strictly romance though: they include mystery and murder. Will the girl get the guy and help find the real culprit of a crime? It’s a recipe for success in the novels she’s produced over the years, centering Black love and personal growth in each one.
In addition to contributing to and editing anthologies, Nisi Shawl has written the novel, Everfair, that explores a speculative history of colonization in the Congo, imagining how this historical atrocity might have played out in an alternative universe. In addition to her creative writing Shawl is committed to the teaching of better writing. Shawl composed, with Cynthia Ward, Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, a guide to recognizing and executing the responsibility of representing others outside a writer’s background. With K. Tempest Bradford and other marginalized artists, she established a workshop series, also called Writing the Other, for folks to get in the know and work towards equity and responsible representation.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is Shoneyin’s only novel to date, and it’s one to be savored. Baba Segi’s Wives follows the participants in a polygamous marriage via the perspectives of, you guessed it, his four wives. The arrival of Baba’s new, young wife, Bolanle unraveled not only her life but those within the family she’s just married into. Shoneyin’s debut gives the women the chance to tell their tales; each wife has a fully-realized and unique personality that goes beyond cliché, showing their fullest desires and also the limitations of the choices they’ve made.
You may be familiar with Thomas because of her popular Nappily Ever After books, the first of which was adapted into a movie for Netflix. While Thomas’s books are full of humor, the ongoing series is also rife with real-life circumstances ranging from relationship troubles to larger expectations of femininity in the workplace and outside of it. What Thomas’ books offer is a contemporary look at the professional and personal side of a Black woman’s journey through adulthood.
Another winner of the Ernest Gaines Award for her short story collection We Are Taking Only What We Need and an NAACP Image Award for her novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us, Watts has already established herself as a voice to be admired and observed. Her work has been hailed for the multifaceted explorations of Black identity on a macro- and micro-level, always embedding her characters and readers in a singular reading experience.