Last March, I decided to accept Tempest’s challenge: read no books by straight white dudes for a year.
Do I need to explain this decision? Do I need to say why I thought it was necessary? I feel like I shouldn’t. Suffice it that when I started, I felt that the reading I’d done in my life had been woefully top-heavy with white men. And I still do. White male authors were pushed on me at every level of my education, and even in my pleasure reading I defaulted to them. Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan was the first book by a woman I can recall reading of my own volition. The first by a person of color? Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, as best I can recall. Both books completely changed my way of thinking, yet they were very much the rare exception. I’m embarrassed at how long it took me to realize how long I’d been working under this bias. And I have Tempest to thank.
Here it is April. I did it. It really was not hard. At all. In fact, it was so effortless and so satisfyingly mind-expanding I have felt quite a bit of inertia to continue not reading books by straight white dudes. So please do not take the fact I’m compiling this list as any indication I’m quitting right this second. I do have a small pile of books by straight white dudes waiting for me, accumulated over the year, and I’ll get to them. But maybe, first, I’ll finish this thousand page epic romance by a centuries-dead Japanese woman. And who knows what after that.
I decided to include among the restricted category Latin-American men of European descent, who I think according to the letter of the challenge would have been allowed. I’d read so much fitting that description what with my magic realist obsession that I didn’t think reading more would fit the spirit of the challenge. This is, I realize, an arbitrary line to draw. But they’re all arbitrary lines; the problem is that when we don’t interrogate our lines, they start to dig ruts it’s harder and harder to get out of, until they’re imposing drastic limitations on our understanding and thought. I wanted to pick up and move away from my ruts for awhile.
- The Mount by Carol Emshwiller
- Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano
I got into this one before I’d made the no Latin American dudes rule; I’m listing it here because see above about arbitrary lines, and because I’m really glad I read it. It’s a round indictment of the policies of economic imperialism that have persistently maintained the parasitic hierarchy of the first world over the third for the past five hundred years, maybe the first economics-focused text I’ve ever read, and it seems to me eminently appropriate to the spirit of the challenge.
- Spin by Nina Allan
- The Diary of Frida Kahlo by Frida Kahlo
- The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Stylistically brilliant and intensely immersive for such a thin volume. Now that I’ve read it, I feel rather embarrassed I had not before. Seems obvious now that she has influenced a lot of my favorite people.
- Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House
Edited by a white guy, I am only learning now as I dig up the Powells link. Oh well.
- Falling Sky by Rajan Khanna
- The Liminal War by Ayize Jama-Everett
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
- Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace
- Jagganath by Karin Tidbeck
- The Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta
- Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The only Toni Morrison I’ve ever read.
- The Dubious Hills by Pamela Dean
A kind of fantasy novel I didn’t know existed, a sort of sociologial experiment in pocket-universe form. I was fascinated.
- Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
- Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
I’d been looking forward to these for a long time. They were as brilliant as everyone had promised, but completely different than I’d expected. Harrowing, intense, thought-provoking, expanding my understanding of what fiction can do.
- Wakulla Springs by Ellen Klages and Andy Duncan
- The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
I was fooled by this one. Ondaatje, I learned after the fact, is a Sri Lankan of Portuguese descent.
- The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948 – 2013 by Derek Walcott
- A Lady’s Guide to Ruin by Kathleen Kimmel
The first romance I’ve ever read–at least by the modern understanding of that term. I mean, I’ve read Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice and The Romance of the Rose and etc, do those count?
- You Have Never Been Here by Mary Rickert
- Farthing by Jo Walton
- Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay
- Dog Friday by Hilary McKay
Delightful, contemporary, non-genre middle grade: I don’t think I’d ever read any of that before.
- Malinche by Laura Esquivel
- This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
- Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren
- Prodigies by Angelica Gorodischer
- Jaguar of Sweet Laughter by Diane Ackerman
- The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
The best thing I read this year. Brilliant mythmaking heartwrenchingly focused on love and war. I almost want to call it a mosaic novel. A Stranger in Olondria was great, but this is better.
- Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno Garcia
- Lifelode by Jo Walton
Another brilliant thought experiment through worldbuilding, of a kind with and possibly intended in conversation with Pamela Dean’s The Dubious Hills above. Both are novels about how people fit together, how people help each other be themselves. I want to call them utopian novels—I could fit them in with Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, but using fantasy tropes instead of SF—but I think I’d be misusing “utopian” the way most people think on it. More about that in another post, maybe.
- The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
- Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala by Diane M. Nelson
- The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
Eleven hundred pages of quite dense ninth century Japanese court intrigue, considered the world’s first novel. I’ve been reading this off and on since I started the challenge, and I’m not yet halfway through, but I’ll get there. It is quite a thing.
If I may sum up, then: this was amazing. It has changed the way I think about writing and fiction and people and the world. I shall continue in this vein, and I encourage you to try it yourself. If you do, let me know how it goes.