The power of a good book may be underestimated by some who have never experienced a break from reality in the comforting pages of a novel. Fictional novels and short stories have the endless creative abilities presented in television or film but are not restricted by visual presentations on screen.
Although legendary literary titans and fresh talent have produced landmark work across all genres and forms of writing, for Black authors the publishing industry presents similar racism and discrimination found elsewhere. In June 2020, PBS reported the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe exposed the wide pay gap between Black authors and their non-Black counterparts.
One way to support Black authors is by reading their work, whether purchased at a bookstore or borrowed from your local library. Whether you are inclined to reading juicy romance novels or prefer historically base suspenseful tales, below are 15 contemporary fictional works to consider adding to your reading list. The books selected provide a range of brilliant storytelling from a diverse set of authors who all use their gifts to transport readers to different moments across time.
The Vanishing Half By Brit Bennett
Official Description The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?
The Travelers By Regina Porter
Official Description: Meet James Samuel Vincent, an affluent Manhattan attorney who shirks his modest Irish American background but hews to his father’s meandering ways. James muddles through a topsy-turvy relationship with his son, Rufus, which is further complicated when Rufus marries Claudia Christie.
Claudia’s mother—Agnes Miller Christie—is a beautiful African American woman who survives a chance encounter on a Georgia road that propels her into a new life in the Bronx. Soon after, her husband, Eddie Christie, is called to duty on an air craft carrier in Vietnam, where Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” becomes Eddie’s life anchor, as he grapples with mounting racial tensions on the ship and counts the days until he will see Agnes again.
These unforgettable characters’ lives intersect with a cast of lovers and friends—the unapologetic black lesbian who finds her groove in 1970s Berlin; a moving man stranded in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, during a Thanksgiving storm; two half-brothers who meet as adults in a crayon factory; and a Coney Island waitress whose Prince Charming is too good to be true.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf By Marlon James
Official Description: Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: “He has a nose,” people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard.
As Tracker follows the boy’s scent–from one ancient city to another; into dense forests and across deep rivers–he and the band are set upon by creatures intent on destroying them. As he struggles to survive, Tracker starts to wonder: Who, really, is this boy? Why has he been missing for so long? Why do so many people want to keep Tracker from finding him? And perhaps the most important questions of all: Who is telling the truth, and who is lying?
The Business Of Lovers By Eric Jerome Dickey
Official Description: Unlike their younger brother André, whose star as a comedian is rising, neither Dwayne nor Brick Duquesne is having luck with his career–and they’re unluckier still in love. Former child star Dwayne has just been fired from his latest acting role and barely has enough money to get by after paying child support to his spiteful former lover, while Brick struggles to return to his uninspiring, white-collar job after suffering the dual blows of a health emergency and a nasty breakup with the woman he still loves.
Neither brother is looking to get entangled with a woman anytime soon, but love–and lust–has a way of twisting the best-laid plans. When Dwayne tries to reconnect with his teenaged son, he finds himself fighting to separate his animosity from his attraction for his son’s mother, Frenchie. And Brick’s latest source of income–chauffeur and bodyguard to three smart, independent women temporarily working as escorts in order to get back on their feet–opens a world of possibility in both love and money. Penny, Christiana, and Mocha Latte–a college student, Cuban refugee, and out-of-work engineer, respectively–know plenty of female johns who would pay top dollar for a few hours with a man like Brick . . . if he can let go of his past, embrace his unconventional new family, and allow strangers to become lovers.
What We Lose By Zinzi Clemons
Official Description: Raised in Pennsylvania, Thandi views the world of her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg as both impossibly distant and ever present. She is an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, American and not. She tries to connect these dislocated pieces of her life, and as her mother succumbs to cancer, Thandi searches for an anchor—someone, or something, to love.
In arresting and unsettling prose, we watch Thandi’s life unfold, from losing her mother and learning to live without the person who has most profoundly shaped her existence, to her own encounters with romance and unexpected motherhood. Through exquisite and emotional vignettes, Clemmons creates a stunning portrayal of what it means to choose to live, after loss. An elegiac distillation, at once intellectual and visceral, of a young woman’s understanding of absence and identity that spans continents and decades, What We Lose heralds the arrival of a virtuosic new voice in fiction.
The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls By Anissa Gray
Official Description: The Butler family has had their share of trials—as sisters Althea, Viola, and Lillian can attest—but nothing prepared them for the literal trial that will upend their lives.
Althea, the eldest sister and substitute matriarch, is a force to be reckoned with and her younger sisters have alternately appreciated and chafed at her strong will. They are as stunned as the rest of the small community when she and her husband, Proctor, are arrested, and in a heartbeat the family goes from one of the most respected in town to utter disgrace. The worst part is, not even her sisters are sure exactly what happened.
Transcendent Kingdom By Yaa Gyasi
Official Description: Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed.
Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family’s loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive.
Black Buck By Mateo Askaripour
Official Description: An unambitious twenty-two-year-old, Darren lives in a Bed-Stuy brownstone with his mother, who wants nothing more than to see him live up to his potential as the valedictorian of Bronx Science. But Darren is content working at Starbucks in the lobby of a Midtown office building, hanging out with his girlfriend, Soraya, and eating his mother’s home-cooked meals. All that changes when a chance encounter with Rhett Daniels, the silver-tongued CEO of Sumwun, NYC’s hottest tech startup, results in an exclusive invitation for Darren to join an elite sales team on the thirty-sixth floor.
After enduring a “hell week” of training, Darren, the only Black person in the company, reimagines himself as “Buck,” a ruthless salesman unrecognizable to his friends and family. But when things turn tragic at home and Buck feels he’s hit rock bottom, he begins to hatch a plan to help young people of color infiltrate America’s sales force, setting off a chain of events that forever changes the game.
The Other Black Girl By Zakiya Dalila Harris
Official Description: Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust.
Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.
It’s hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realizes that there’s a lot more at stake than just her career.
Wild Women and the Blues By Denny S. Bryce
Official Description: 1925: Chicago is the jazz capital of the world, and the Dreamland Café is the ritziest black-and-tan club in town. Honoree Dalcour is a sharecropper’s daughter, willing to work hard and dance every night on her way to the top. Dreamland offers a path to the good life, socializing with celebrities like Louis Armstrong and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. But Chicago is also awash in bootleg whiskey, gambling, and gangsters. And a young woman driven by ambition might risk more than she can stand to lose.
2015: Film student Sawyer Hayes arrives at the bedside of 110-year-old Honoree Dalcour, still reeling from a devastating loss that has taken him right to the brink. Sawyer has rested all his hope on this frail but formidable woman, the only living link to the legendary Oscar Micheaux. If he’s right—if she can fill in the blanks in his research, perhaps he can complete his thesis and begin a new chapter in his life. But the links Honoree makes are not ones he’s expecting . . .
Piece by piece, Honoree reveals her past and her secrets, while Sawyer fights tooth and nail to keep his. It’s a story of courage and ambition, hot jazz and illicit passions. And as past meets present, for Honoree, it’s a final chance to be truly heard and seen before it’s too late. No matter the cost . . .
Love in Color By Bolu Babalola
Official Description: In her debut collection, internationally acclaimed writer Bolu Babalola retells the most beautiful love stories from history and mythology with incredible new detail and vivacity. Focusing on the magical folktales of West Africa, Babalola also reimagines Greek myths, ancient legends from the Middle East, and stories from long-erased places.
With an eye towards decolonizing tropes inherent in our favorite tales of love, Babalola has created captivating stories that traverse across perspectives, continents, and genres.
Love in Color is a celebration of romance in all its many splendid forms.
Harlem Shuffle By Colson Whitehead
Official Description: “Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…” To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.
Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time.
Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask questions, either.
Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa—the “Waldorf of Harlem”—and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.
Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?
The Prophets By Robert Jones Jr.
Official Description: Isaiah was Samuel’s and Samuel was Isaiah’s. That was the way it was since the beginning, and the way it was to be until the end. In the barn they tended to the animals, but also to each other, transforming the hollowed-out shed into a place of human refuge, a source of intimacy and hope in a world ruled by vicious masters. But when an older man—a fellow slave—seeks to gain favor by preaching the master’s gospel on the plantation, the enslaved begin to turn on their own. Isaiah and Samuel’s love, which was once so simple, is seen as sinful and a clear danger to the plantation’s harmony.
With a lyricism reminiscent of Toni Morrison, Robert Jones, Jr., fiercely summons the voices of slaver and enslaved alike, from Isaiah and Samuel to the calculating slave master to the long line of women that surround them, women who have carried the soul of the plantation on their shoulders. As tensions build and the weight of centuries—of ancestors and future generations to come—culminates in a climactic reckoning, The Prophets masterfully reveals the pain and suffering of inheritance, but is also shot through with hope, beauty, and truth, portraying the enormous, heroic power of love.
Stories from Yard By Alecia McKenzie
Official Description: In the stories set in Jamaica life is hard, and the comforts of ‘away’ are idealized. But in the cold of the streets of the North, there is no passport to success for the people of Yard. Only their resilience, optimism, humour and friendship (and the comforts of beer and ganja) help them make their way. Meanwhile, in the ‘diaspora dance’ of migrants trying to find their place in Europe or North America, new connections and new possibilities are being created.
These stories are coolly unsentimental, but also filled with humour and moments of joy, as when Marie, a middle-aged Jamaican reggae singer, finds the sweet flavour of cane juice lingering on her young Brazilian lover’s tongue.
Muted By Tami Charles
Official Description: Seventeen-year-old Denver’s whole life is music. And she hopes it’s her future, too: along with her bffs Dali and Shak, Denver is determined to write and sing her way to a better life. So when the girls find their way into the sights of R&B legend Sean “Mercury” Jones, a man with the power to make that dream come true — and then some — Denver doesn’t think twice, or look back.
Merc offers them everything, but everything comes with a price. Parties, perks, wild nights — they’re going to live and look like stars. And it’s all worth it, even the pain and the lies. It’s all part of the game. Until it’s not.
Based on the author’s own experiences and further inspired by victim accounts from the current music industry, MUTED is an insightful look at the ongoing abuse of young women of color in entertainment, as well as a moving portrayal of how easily a girl’s dreams can be used against her — and what it takes to fight back.