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January 18, 2022

2 Books with Characters of Color

by MK French

In the last few years, the publishing industry has been trying to provide more diverse voices. Before, characters of color were basically only minor characters and usually not written by authors of color. Now, with the own voices movement we are seeing more authors of color who are creating main characters of color. If you are wanting to diversify your reading or wanting to read stories with characters that are more like you, I have two interesting books you are going to want to add to your reading list.

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Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades

Brown Girls
January 2022; Random House; 978-0593243428
audio, ebook, print (224 pages); women's fiction

Young brown girls growing up in Queens encompass a variety of eclectic experiences. As the girls grow up, they're told to be good girls, to follow the rules, to listen to their mothers. Some of the girls follow those directions, but others leave the borough as they try to find a place for themselves in the world. Sometimes this takes them all over the world, and sometimes they circle back to Queens all over again.

This debut novel is written as a series of vignettes, so it's easy to take it in smaller pieces. Some of the pieces make me incredibly nostalgic for the Queens I grew up with, from the signs and the "Boulevard of Death" reference, the push for education in specialized high schools, the description of the myriad neighborhoods and people within. Many fragments are told from the immediate-yet-distant "we" narration style. At once we're part of this experience, taken into confidence and kept somewhat separate by the fragmented sentences that turn experience into sensory snippets. The "brown" runs the gamut of ethnicities and races, and the universality of these snippets means there isn't a single ethnicity represented. Instead, it's the moments that stress girlhood and being not-white that are stressed.

I think some of this is done in a deliberate way; that becomes very clear with "Musical Chairs." Teachers mean one girl but call her by another's name because they can't tell the brown girls apart. They don't know if a girl is Pakistani or Guyanese or from the Ivory Coast or Spanish or Chinese, or any other darker-skinned ethnicity. The earlier discriminatory behaviors are in sharp relief then, and it's an additional constant along with the subtle digs at being a girl. Those aspiring to be more are picked on, and growing up is difficult when the girls don't feel like others understand their experiences and there are few role models to look up to.

Different phases of life are separated into different parts of the book, which is an interesting way to do it when this isn't written with a clear three act structure in mind. The plaintive "nobody looks like us" is haunting, mirrored throughout the snippets involving dating, attending school, and thinking about family, whether in or out of race. So much of this book rang true, and the branches of possibility between the "us" of narration is a wonderful tactic to show the ways that these girls are the same even when paths are different. The familiarity continues even into the paths that aren't like my own, and I enjoyed seeing the directions that girls can take. It's a thoughtful and interesting way to present the many experiences of minority Queens girls. You can take the girl out of Queens, but you really can't take the Queens out of the girl.

Buy Brown Girls at Amazon

Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Joan Is Okay
January 2022; Random House; 978-0525654834
audio, ebook, print (224 pages); women's fiction

Joan and her brother Feng are first generation born children of Chinese immigrants. Joan is a successful ICU doctor at a busy New York City hospital and is torn between her job and family expectations. Her parents planned to spend their retirement in China, but Joan's mother returns to the United States after her father dies to reconnect with her children. Just as Joan is trying to navigate her work duties as well as her family, a devastating health crisis breaks out.
We start off pre-pandemic, with the very literal and hard-working Joan living in New York City. At the same time, it deals with being a Chinese-American woman, especially in a male-dominated field. She is precise, which allows her to excel in the ICU, and even will describe herself with height and weight and sharp sounding phrases. Neighbors and coworkers are described in the same way, and the need to excel is at once a reaction to being the daughter of immigrants, as well as the need to be seen as useful and wanted. Her brother went for material wealth, showing it off and pushing Joan to match his idea of what the American Ideal should be. Joan's ideal is to constantly work, to be the perfect doctor in her hospital.

In time, Joan compares phrases in Chinese to English, which weighs her heritage against the culture she works in. A loner, being around people and not knowing their expectations bother her; this is a longstanding issue that was never really addressed. The focus had always been on success, and then she was left to pursue it on her own. "If I could hold success in my hand, it would be a beating heart."

There are no easy answers, especially as COVID begins to rear its ugly head in the final third of the book. Family isn't what she expected to be, friends push past limits she hadn't known to set, and she has little outside of her need to work. Ultimately, she is who she is, all facets of her culture and language use, and our glimpse into her world gives us a chance to share it. She's hard to get to know, but it's well worth the effort.

Buy Joan Is Okay at Amazon

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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  1. i have found myself reading more books about characters of color and different nationalities. i do enjoy them and actively look for them
    sherry @ fundinmental