Diverse Books Tag

The marvelous Sharlene at Olduvai Reads tagged me for the Diverse Books Tag.

The Diverse Books Tag is a bit like a scavenger hunt. I will task you to find a book that fits a specific criteria and you will have to show us a book you have read or want to read.

If you can’t think of a book that fits the specific category, then I encourage you to go look for oneA quick Google search will provide you with many books that will fit the bill. (Also, Goodreads lists are your friends.) Find one you are genuinely interested in reading and move on to the next category.

Everyone can do this tag, even people who don’t own or haven’t read any books that fit the descriptions below. So there’s no excuse! The purpose of the tag is to promote the kinds of books that may not get a lot of attention in the book blogging community.

Find a book starring a lesbian character.

I choose my favorite of Helen Oyeyemi’s books, White is for Witching. It’s about a pair of twins who live in a haunted and xenophobic house. The girl twin, Miranda, goes off to Cambridge and gets involved with a black girl. The house is not happy about it.

Find a book with a Muslim protagonist.

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead features a Canadian Muslim detective trying to solve a mystery relating to a possible Bosnian war criminal. This was obviously right up my alley, as I read very widely about genocides in history and their aftermaths. I enjoyed the mystery a lot and was excited to find that it’s the first in a series about this detective, Esa Khattak, and his right-hand woman, Rachel Getty.

Find a book set in Latin America.

A Latin America-set book on my TBR list that I can’t wait to read when it comes out next month is Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun, which is about three Jamaican women who fight against the installation of a new hotel in their community. It got a ton of buzz at BEA, and my pal Shaina raved about it, so I’m in!

Find a book about a person with a disability.

Do mental disorders count? If yes I am choosing Nathan Filer’s wonderful The Shock of the Fall, which made me cry many times like a tiny, tiny child. The depiction of what it’s like to live with schizophrenia is so beautifully done, without ever being patronizing or overly sentimental. I am tearing up now thinking of one moment in particular. Sniffle, sniffle.

Find a science fiction or fantasy book with a POC protagonist.

Don’t mind if I doooooo. A recent read that I enjoyed a lot, but didn’t get around to reviewing, was Nnedi Okorafor’s book Lagoon, in which a race of aliens makes their first contact in Lagos, Nigeria. All of the various protagonists trying to make sense of this bewildering new state of affairs are black Nigerians, and it’s a weird and spooky and excellent piece of scifi.

Find a book set in (or about) any country in Africa.

Jenny cracks her knuckles and does some jumping jacks in preparation, then remembers she should be reasonable about this and not get all crazy with it. Suffice it to say, I love reading books set in or about countries in Africa, and it is hard for me to pick just one.

I’m going to choose a book from a smaller press, Imran Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System. This book (which I’m still waiting for my library to order for me!) is a novel about the changes in South African society over the last forty years. I have been given to understand that it deals with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which I am extra interested in.

Find a book written by an Aboriginal or American Indian author.

Your recs for this category would be appreciated, as I didn’t have a ton of choices lined up. I’m choosing Ambelin Kwaymullina’s very enjoyable The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, a YA dystopian novel with (I’m delighted to report) a sequel to be published in America this year.

Find a book set in South Asia (Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc.)

I really like Ru Freeman’s book On Sal Mal Lane, which I read a few years back. Set on a road in Sri Lanka at the outset of the Sri Lankan Civil War, it depicts a group of families (some Tamil, some Sinhalese, and some Burgher) dealing with the changing political and racial dynamics of their country. It reminded me of one of my all-time favorite authors, Rumer Godden, and was just altogether great.

Find a book with a biracial protagonist.

Everyone was crazy about Fran Ross’s Oreo last year, when the 1974 satirical novel was reprinted. It’s a comic novel about a mixed-race woman in Philadelphia and New York, and although it has been described as picaresque and that is not really my jam,1, I am excited for Oreo to become the exception to my picaresque hate.

Find a book starring a transgender character or about transgender issues.

For this one, I’m choosing Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl. Protagonist Amanda has just started at a new school and is falling in love with a boy named Grant; she badly wants to come out to him as trans, but fears how he will take it. I hear amazing things about this book and this author and can’t wait to try it!

  1. although I love the word! Picaresque! I wish it meant something awesomer.

Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor

I’ve read a few articles recently about diversity in fantasy, the main point of which is, There is diversity in fantasy, and if you don’t see it then you’re not paying attention. One name that came up repeatedly — and I remembered it from Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe blog tour last year — was Nnedi Okorafor. So I was pleased to spot the beautiful hardcover edition of Who Fears Death on the bookshelf of a coworker, and he was kind enough to lend it to me even though he has no idea whether I treat books well.

(I do.)

Who Fears Death

Who Fears Death is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, where a racial group called the Nuru are set on wiping out a racial group called the Okeke. The protagonist, Onyesonwu (her name means “Who fears death?”), is the daughter of an Okeke woman whose village was all slaughtered and who was raped by a Nuru man; as a mixed-race child — what the Nuru and the Okeke call Ewu — she faces discrimination and hostility from the Okeke. As she grows up under the protection of her mother and her kind, affectionate stepfather, Onyesonwu slowly realizes that she is a sorcerer. Her magical training is difficult to begin and difficult to continue, but she must learn to control her powers in order to realize her destiny.

SO.

Outcast child with a special destiny is one of those tropes you soon have enough of. I have read a dozen outcast with a special destiny books, and I have loved many of them (hem Harry Pottter hem), but there are times when you get tired of reading about the protagonist who is the most special of all the special girls and boys in Special Land. There were two reasons I didn’t feel that way about Who Fears Death:

  1. Gender stuff. Y’all know I love my gender stuff. The gendered nature of the magic in this book is unusual and fascinating — Onyesonwu’s power is feared because she is a woman and dire hints are dropped about what might happen if she ever got pregnant while also being a magical person. She struggles to find a teacher because she is a woman, and her determination to be instructed in the use of her powers is one of my favorite things about her as a character. Even better, she’s in a relationship with another Ewu, a boy who failed to become a full sorcerer, and the tension between what he believes about women and magic, and what he knows about her, continues to come up throughout the book.
  2. The damage stories can do. Is a theme. One of my favorite themes in all the land is the power of stories theme. Everyone in this novel believes in a story called the Great Book, which tells about how the Okeke became too proud and too powerful, and so the goddess Ani brought forth the race called the Nuru and decreed that the Okeke would be their slaves forever. Oh man. I know it’s not everybody’s thing, but I love having the proposed resolution to any problem in any book be to tell a new and better story than the characters in the book have been using so far.

There were times when the book dragged a little, with the characters wandering drearily through the desert and not accomplishing much. There were times when the worldbuilding could have been more precise, and there were times when Onyesonwu was making decisions I didn’t understand and the author didn’t explain. Although the magic system was interesting and cool and I liked watching Onyesonwu become stronger and learn to do more things, the logic of it in important plot moments didn’t always make sense to me.

Y’all, I feel so silly, but I just realized writing this post that these problems? The above ones? Are the exact same problems basically that I had with Akata Witch, and that book is by the same author. I am forgetful but at least I am consistent by God. My other problem of course was that sexual violence upsets me a lot. It was worth it for this because of the complex and fascinating way Okorafor wove gender and gendered violence into the magic of the story she was telling; which is to say, I’d read more by this author but I might not read this book again.

Have a happy Fourth of July if you celebrate the Fourth of July! I will be back next week to chat with you about the Tudors and the Plantagenets. (I know. You are so excited you can’t hardly stand it. HISTORY.)

Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

A More Diverse Universe is a blog tour hosted by the lovely Aarti to spotlight speculative fiction by authors of color. Hence, I tried Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch (my word, that cover is gorgeous). It is all about an albino girl, Sunny, who comes to live in Nigeria, where she feels utterly out of place. Her parents are African but she has grew up mostly in America. She can’t go in the sun but she loves playing soccer. One day at school as she is being bullied, a boy called Orlu comes to her defense, and through him, she learns that she is one of the Leopard People, people who have magical abilities. Along with Orlu and her new friends Chichi and Sasha, Sunny learns more about her powers and the magical world. Also there is a magic serial killer they are destined to destroy.

Akata Witch is that tricky, tricky thing to pull off, an origin story. I spent several long sentences on the origin story stuff and one sentence on the serial killer stuff, and the reason for that is that origin stories often have this same problem. It’s this: An origin story means there is a lot to establish about the rules of the magic and the stuff that exists in the magical world, and sometimes the plot part can get shunted off to the side, and VERY SUDDENLY AT THE END, all the plot happens really fast at once. The plot stuff of Akata Witch, when it finally happens, is really cool, but it represents only a small amount of the book.

(Cf., among others, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone & that new Spiderman movie with the unrelentingly adorable Andrew Garfield & Emma Stone. Origin stories are tricky.)

Another origin story issue was that the set-up felt forced and inorganic — the characters seemed to be narrating the premise/rules of the world rather than experiencing them. A character would say, X should happen! or Y is happening!, and then that’s taken as a given in the future. For instance, Chichi and Sasha and Orlu and Sunny say at one point that hey, the four of them are a coven! I’ve never heard of a coven before in the book, but okay, they’re a coven now. Sure. Actually the Most Important Evil-Stopping Destiny Coven Ever. And it just doesn’t feel earned. Or as another example, their magic teacher sends them out to meet people, without explanation, and then, hey! Those people are going to be mentors to Sasha and Orlu and Sunny! We didn’t know mentors was a thing in this world, but okay, they have mentors now. I don’t object to the plot points themselves, but I just wanted them to feel more necessary to the story.

That said, the magic system and the world of magic was really cool. Chichi, we find out, lives in a hut that is absolutely stacked full of books. They are sitting on piles of books when they go there. HOORAY. This isn’t super related to the system of magic and I’m just mentioning it because stacks of books are wonderful. There is also this thing where you have a juju knife, and you use it to cut the air, and then you summon music from the hole in the air that you’ve created. Cool, right? And the different places in the magic world — although the reasons to go to the places are thin, the places are interesting and unexpected. I would definitely be up for reading a second book in this series. I’d love to see what Okorafor would do with this world when she doesn’t have to spend all her time setting everything up.

Also cool is the fact that Leopard People’s powers are often related to physical anomalies. I love when people have all different powers from each other within the same supernatural universe. It is why I watched way more episodes of Alphas than I enjoyed it, and it is also why the X-Men movies (the first two) are my favorites of all the superhero movies. (Also because, Hugh Jackman.)

In sum: Basically good, but I require further convincing.

Other reviews: Good Books and Good Wine, Charlotte’s Library, Reading in Color, The Happy Nappy Bookseller, Waking Brain Cells, So Many Books, So Little Time., APOOO Book Club. Let me know if I missed yours!