Well-Read: Summer 2020

As a part of the current direct/indirect action around racialized violence in America and the Black Lives Matter movement, numerous publications have offered up anti-racist reading lists, most of which are dominated by important works of sociological analysis, such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, among dozens of other worthy titles. 

These books are dominating the best-seller lists and for some, hard copies are getting harder to come by. I’m excited and gratified by all of the attention around self-education by these worthy texts, but this summer reading list will go in another direction — though I’m sure I’m not the first to do so.

This month, I’m highlighting two types of books that came out or will come out during this summer; firstly, I want to highlight books that celebrate Black writers’ creativity. I’m featuring two white writers on my list; one is a co-author with a Black writer, but both writers are addressing white privilege, rather than treating whiteness as a given or a default. 

Some of the books on this list are fresh releases, and some are coming out later in the year. That’s partially because I want to emphasize that pre-orders are essential for the success of a book; they encourage bookstores to stock additional copies and publishers to add extra marketing dollars to a book’s campaign. If any of the upcoming releases catches your eye, I encourage you to pre-order to help the book and its author find an even larger audience.

Additionally, LitHub has a great list of Black-owned bookstores that I would encourage you to order from, and remember: most of these are small, independent businesses, and shipping is always slower than the unnecessarily break-neck pace Amazon has trained customers to believe is normal. Also, most of these businesses are, excitingly, receiving an influx of orders far beyond what normally receive, which is slowing processing and shipping even more. This is a long-winded way of saying, plan to wait a bit for your books. 


Your Black Friend Has Something To Say by Melva Graham
Pub. Date: March 3, 2020

Released earlier this year to much less fanfare than it desired, Melva Graham’s book is a memoir of being a Black woman existing in primarily white spaces. With straightforward, candid language, she describes the way racism can creep into everyday interactions. This isn’t a memoir of one major trauma, but the way that racism is a daily experience for Black people. 

Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Pub. Date: July 14, 2020

Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman have made a life out of telling the story of their friendship, first in their popular podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” and now in a collective memoir which is cleverly written in a sort of collective third person, to keep their stories tightly interwoven. As someone who has spent much of my life dedicated to the pleasurable cultivation of close friendships, I feel seen by the ways this book values these intimate but non-sexual relationships and treats them as serious and important relationships, different from romantic relationships but no less important. You don’t need to be familiar with these amazing women’s previous works to enjoy this book, but once you finish reading I expect you’ll be so intoxicated by their creative voices that you’ll seek out their podcast immediately. 


Vagablonde by Anna Dorn
Pub. Date: May 26, 2020

Full disclosure: Anna Dorn is my ex-girlfriend and current close friend (and if this seems insane to you, you’re probably not a queer person in your 30s). I read drafts of this book as she was writing it and my affection for it is impossibly biased. But one of the things that drew and kept Dorn and I close was our mutual respect for each others’ writing and our shared affection for writing about toxic fame and the eastside neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Vagablonde is about a blonde, white lawyer who wants to be a rap artist. Dorn spoke to Them about her protagonist’s appropriative relationship with Black culture: “I don’t think it’s okay to write a novel that takes place in America that doesn’t deal, in some way, with race. It’s an unavoidable part of our country. But I wanted to write about it in an authentic way, so I wrote about it from the perspective of the appropriator, because I felt that that was the only thing that I could write with any degree of authenticity.”

You Should See Me In A Crown by Leah Johnson 
Pub. Date: June 2, 2020

You Should See Me In A Crown is a frothy delightful romp that speaks plainly about the hardships of being a Black teenager in the Midwest, but Johnson gives her character room to feel joy and pride in herself. I knew I would like this book when I heard it described as a “queer prom rom-com” and the book absolutely didn’t disappoint on the premise. I’ve been inhaling rom-coms ever since quarantine began, and this was perhaps the best one of them all.

Luster by Raven Leilani
Pub. Date: August 4, 2020

Often when a writer’s first book is marketed as a “stunning debut” or a “powerful new voice,” the actual novel falls flat; usually these novels are actually good, but the hyperbolic marketing works against the contents of the work, and the whole project turns into a collapsing star. About once a year, this language turns out to be not hyperbolic at all, not one bit, and actually a stunning debut from a powerful new voice. Luster is that novel.

On one hand, Luster sounds similar to a lot of despondent Cool Girl Lit that has been en vogue for a number of years: Edie is living in New York City, underpaid, sleeping with bad dudes, making equally bad choices. That Edie is Black adds dimension and a new perspective to this well-trod territory. But it’s not Edie’s blackness that makes this novel stand out, but Leilani’s masterful use of language. Narrative drive oozes out of every sentence. This novel is a pleasure to read on all levels; from the macro considerations like perspective and plot down to the mirco word choices, everything is firing on all cylinders.

Anodyne by Khadijah Queen
Pub. Date: August 18, 2020

I came to Khadijah Queen’s poetry from her previous collection I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, which is every bit as good as the title makes you think it will be. Her newest collection continues her tradition of excessively good title-ing; “anodyne” (which I had to look up) means “not likely to provoke defense or offense, deliberately inoffensive” — and I personally believe she’s using the word somewhat ironically. Not the opposite, that she’s actually deliberately trying to offend, but that her poems reveal barely-contained but explosive emotions. If someone is being deliberately inoffensive, it means they are thinking provocative thoughts. These poems simmer with the power of things previously unspoken, but committed to the page.

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