So far, I have had a summer of joyous reading. It also happened that I read books featuring diverse characters, which I don’t think is a coincidence. These are books by established authors, and I think it is important to remember that; Brown Girl In The Ring was first published in 1998. Most of these books are for adults, but there is no reason that teenagers couldn’t read them; they’re far less graphic than my Virginia Andrews/ Stephen King teenage reading habits.
The Baba Yaga by Una McCormack. (disclosure: Una very kindly sent this book to me), This book is set in Eric Brown’s Weird Space universe, which I haven’t read, but I didn’t find it too tricky to get myself into the plot and setting. It’s a really great, thought provoking story about media manipulation, xenophobia and heroic, but flawed, women characters. I particularly admired the way that Una doesn’t make fatuous points about maternity making her characters brave; the women who are not mothers are not broken or any more flawed than the women who are.
Brown Girl In The Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Ti-Jeanne and her un-named child live with her grand mother, Gros-Jeanne, in post-apocalypse Toronto. In the wake of economic collapse, the city is empty except for those who have nowhere else to go, and the streets are ruled by a gangster named Rudy. Ti-Jeanne’s former lover and the father of Baby, Tony, is a hanger-on of Rudy, and as a way of attempting to create a better world for Ti-Jeanne and himself, he agrees to carry out a terrible deed for Rudy.
Full of references to Caribbean literature, folklore and Obeah beliefs, this is a beautifully written book, which again has complex and interesting women characters. It is the only book by Hopkinson that I have read, but it won’t be the last, and it is a great book to read if you are one of the many people who wonders why Black people never seem to survive in post-apocalytic films.
The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson
Again I must express an interest here. I really like Catherine Johnson and have met her on a couple of occasions. I am also a great fan of her writing; she writes wonderful historical fiction featuring mixed race and Black characters, reminding us that Black people have been in Britain since Roman times. This book is set in Georgian Britain, and is based on the true story of a Devonian girl called Mary Wilcox who was taken in by the wealthy Worrells family after presenting herself as a princess from Java. That story alone would be fascinating, but Catherine Johnson’s imagining of what could have driven Mary to behaving in this way, and her exploration of class exploitation, including sexual exploitation, makes for a rewarding and enriching read. This book is YA, but I would recommend it to anyone age 13+. Be aware of a non-explicit rape scene in the first chapter if you’re buying it for a young person.
Farthing by Jo Walton
I have read Jo Walton’s Among Others, which I loved, but none of her other work. Farthing is an alternate history which posits what would happen to British life and politics if Hess’s 1941 flight to Scotland to negotiate peace had been successful. The novel is told in alternate chapters from the point of view of Lucy Kahn, the daughter of a prominent right wing member of the House of Lords, and Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard, investigating the murder of a politician at Lucy’s parents’ country house, which seems to be the work of her Jewish husband.
The voice of Lucy is beguiling, and the alternate history of a right wing, anti-Semitic post war Britain is all too believable. Carmichael as a Lancashire-born, gay police officer is made doubly an outsider as the chapters from his point of view are told in the third person. I look forward to reading the other two novels in the trilogy.
Engraved on the Eye by Saladin Ahmed
I don’t read many short stories, but having completed a SF masterclass weekend where we discussed short stories with Pat Cadigan I was driven to return to this e-published collection. The stories are a mix of SF, horror and fantasy, some set in the world of Throne of the Crescent Moon, Ahmed’s debut novel. I feel that the collection is a little uneven; some work better for me than others; I by far prefer the stories featuring Doctor Adoulla from Throne of the Crescent Moon and I have certainly been inspired to buy it.
Most of the stories have Arabic and Middle Eastern settings, and the mythology of djinns, ghuls and dervishes; my favourite, Judgement of Souls and Swords is the story of a young female dervish caught in a power struggle in a school for dervishes. The collection is free on Kindle and Smashwords and is well worth checking out.
As a final point, I would like to return to the title of my post. It is important that diverse voices make it to print. It is important both that women, readers of colour and LGBTQ readers see themselves reflected in their reading, but also that white, straight, male readers are required to make the imaginative leap of reading about other characters. But if we as readers don’t seek out and support the diverse books that are already in existence, there will be little incentive for publishers to devote resources to promoting new ones.