During a stay in Nigeria—knowing there’d be long periods where we’d languish without electricity—I brought one book: Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Not one to appreciate “throat-clearing,” (I usually skip the introductions—sorry, not sorry), I detachedly skimmed the letters and moved right into the “action.” Every night before bed, my sister, my cousin Deborah, and I would read. Only for me, it felt like the action was always out of reach. Perhaps I should’ve read the letters? Or maybe I just don’t appreciate good literature…
On the other side of the bed my sister and I shared, she would audibly react to the book she was reading. A laugh, a gasp, a sob—I was hella jealous. I wanted my book to entertain in the same fashion. I would soon learn books can do way more than entertain.
Early, early one morning, I was called to get my hair braided on the roof of my aunt’s house. I didn’t think twice. I grabbed my sister’s book: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. As the sun rose, you could hear calls for prayer, vendors opening, people rising for work—the usually bustling town picking up where it left off the night before. But I was engrossed in this book, the dazzling rendering of this beautiful story of brotherhood and redemption. I was 19. That was the first book I remember experiencing.
That’s a pretty blasphemous statement coming from a publishing professional. But it was the first book I’d ever read where the characters came to life in such a way that enraptured me and stayed with me beyond the page. Perhaps I’d met these characters before, maybe they reminded me of some boys I knew growing up, or maybe I related to the way father and son lived in America as immigrants. Nevertheless, I still think on Hassan and Amir today in living color.
It wasn’t until I was 27 that I read a book where I actually saw a reflection of my awkward black self. Where my identity as a not-black-enough, not-Nigerian-enough woman was affirmed. I remember sitting in an editorial board for Off the Shelf, where I was normally tame and in “absorption” mode, ranting and raving about this book. I could count for my fellow Off the Shelf-ers on one hand the many times I’ve spoken impassionedly about something (one of those times I fan-girled about audiobooks narrated by Dan Stevens, but we don’t have to talk about that here).
For many women of color in publishing, whose stories are marketed as niche, the job can have its soul-sucking moments. Without a community to move you forward, you can forget why you’re there. My reading life may have come later in life than most book lovers, but there are some books like Kite Runner and Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl that remind me why I’m here, championing for our stories, in the first place.
Here are a handful of my all-time favorite books—books that have grabbed me and have yet to let go.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Housseini
On the plane home from Nigeria, I read the final pages of The Kite Runner at 1 pph speed (1 page per hour). Once I got home, however, I discovered Housseini had just come out with another book months before my trip. I went to the closest Borders (RIP) and got myself a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns. Every Saturday of that semester, rain or shine, I’d walk to the Borders in Downtown Washington, D.C. and read A Thousand Splendid Suns for an hour.
I’d never been so in love with a book. Housseini has a knack for taking the historically illiterate (raises hand) through the nuances and complications of war-torn Afghanistan painlessly, all the while painting an altogether heartrending and gorgeous story of two women of two different upbringings brought together by the most unyielding of circumstances. I’ve read it three more times since and if I could find my love-worn copy, I’d probably be reading it now. | Buy it.
A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown
Relationship Status: It’s complicated.
A Piece of Cake was a tough read. I read it as an e-book, which did not help. I found the text riddled with typing errors and reported it to my copyediting class every week. But Cupcake’s story to this day informs many of my thoughts on abortion, sex education, and the brutalization and over-sexualization of black girls’ bodies. When, at her first abortion, Cupcake asks the “physician” “What’s a uterus?” I was floored.
It’s Cupcake’s story that gives me pause while others make snap judgments about what a woman does with her body. Because on the other side of pro-life vs. pro-choice debates, and on the other end of decisions made in rooms where our voices are barely represented—there are women like Cupcake.
Also, I read this at a transitional time in my life. I was living this privileged life at 25: filling my unoccupied time by pursuing a master’s degree. By 25, Cupcake had lost her mom, was sold into the foster care system, molested, ran away, got lost, and got found. E-book mistakes or not, Cupcake’s story is one of the most important stories you’ll ever read. | Buy it.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah was the very first Chimamanda book I read and it jumpstarted my obsession with Nigerian lit in style. Growing up and hearing that I was not Nigerian enough, I rejected Nigerian culture for a while there. And how could you not when aunts and uncles mocked the way your tongue twisted the names of your favorite Naija dishes? But reading Americanah was the first time I was able to put into context what it means to be Nigerian in America and more specifically what it means to be a black woman in America. | Buy it.
Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae
Very much like Americanah, I saw myself reflected in truth while reading Issa Rae’s Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl… because, well, I’m awkward and black. Yes, we exist. This was the beginning of a much-needed departure from the loud and problematic black woman narrative that’s been fed to masses for way too long. Issa Rae’s coined term “Halfrican” also hit close to home. While I’m not half African like Issa, I do understand what it means to straddle both African and Black worlds and never quite feel like you’re completely apart either one.
Most notably, Awkward Black Girl is also hella funny. | Buy it.
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel The Fishermen is one of the best books I’ve ever read because, even long after I turned the last page, I could not stop thinking about it. If you’ve ever sat at your father’s feet to listen to him tell folklore-ish stories of his childhood that were just outside the realm of possibility but still believable enough to simultaneously creep you out and ignite a ferocious curiosity—The Fishermen will strike a nostalgic chord with you. Obioma’s writing is so gorgeous and ethereal; another Nigerian writer worth reading and re-reading. | Buy it.