Seeking books featuring well-developed people of colour.
August 9, 2007 2:21 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend books with well-developed characters who are people of colour?

Every book I read with a person of colour seems to assume that people of colour have absolutely no existance outside of dealing with blatant, caricatured hostile racism. I almost never see a person of colour doing anything else in a book. Could anyone please recommend any books with characters of colour that are well-developed, have lives of their own and have their own personalities? Of course, there will be racism they have to deal with (and I don't want authors to pretend they wouldn't), but I'd like them to have adventures, relationships, and character development, too.

I know the books that deal with racism are absolutely important. It's just frustrating that people of colour don't seem to exist in books unless the central theme of the book is racism.

My favourite genre is science fiction and fantasy, which people of colour are completely absent from, so I suppose I'll need to expand into other genres to find some good characters.
posted by giggleknickers to Society & Culture (68 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe.

(IIRC racism is mostly irrelevant to the story, but I may not. It's certainly not the central theme.)
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 2:27 AM on August 9, 2007

The Color Purple
posted by amyms at 2:28 AM on August 9, 2007

Read some Naguib Mahfouz books.
posted by fshgrl at 2:33 AM on August 9, 2007

A number of books by Toni Morrison.
posted by amyms at 2:35 AM on August 9, 2007

The Easy Rawlins novels by Walter Mosley.
posted by uandt at 2:35 AM on August 9, 2007

Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin.
posted by Drexen at 2:41 AM on August 9, 2007

Best answer: The original book trilogy of Wizard of Earthsea for fantasy.
posted by Abiezer at 2:42 AM on August 9, 2007

This article might be helpful.
posted by lastobelus at 2:43 AM on August 9, 2007

Jamaica Kincaid might be worth looking's been years since I read any of her work, but my impression was that while colonialism is sometimes an issue, she generally factors out politics and sticks to the personal.
posted by creasy boy at 2:43 AM on August 9, 2007

Also Caryl Phillips for any number of good books.
posted by Abiezer at 2:46 AM on August 9, 2007

It's a classic and maybe you've already read it, but

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Takes place in Eatonville, and all-Black town in Florida. There's going to be some talk of racism - as you say, it's inescapable - but the book isn't really concerned with that.
posted by dihutenosa at 2:54 AM on August 9, 2007

Best answer: The main character of Snow Crash, Hiro Protagonist, is half-Korean and half-black.
posted by barnacles at 2:56 AM on August 9, 2007

If you read sf/f then you must read Thirteen by Richard K Morgan (of Altered Carbon / Takeshi Kovacs fame). It's his brand new book. It's titled Black Man outside of the States (guess we can't handle that 'sort' of title). The protagonist (in addition to being a badass) is black and a 'genetic variant.'

Here's Rick Kleffel's review.

It's a great book, and I think it'll be shortlisted for the Hugo this year.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 3:19 AM on August 9, 2007

I know Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
is mentioned in every single book thread, but it does actually have one important black character, and better still, it’s a fantasy!
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 3:38 AM on August 9, 2007

Best answer: zadie smith's "white teeth" and "on beauty" both feature several nuanced, complex main characters of color. neither is sci-fi or fantasy, but both are pretty good.

you might look into salman rushdie--his stories are very imaginative and sometimes magical. his characters are usually indian or pakistani.

octavia butler was a highly regarded sci-fi writer of color--i am not familiar with her work, but i bet she is a good one to look into.

i agree, it is hard to find books that deal with characters of color that serve some other literary purpose besides illustrating injustice.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:43 AM on August 9, 2007

Possibly Naipaul?
posted by creasy boy at 3:52 AM on August 9, 2007

Since when were Egyptians and Desis ‘people of colour’?
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 4:01 AM on August 9, 2007

Octavia Butler was black and a woman, and her sci fi is unique in both those respects. I love her books. I highly recommend her "Lilith's Brood" series.
posted by olinerd at 4:05 AM on August 9, 2007

New books: The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White, both by Stephen L. Carter.
posted by yclipse at 4:06 AM on August 9, 2007

Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, and Who's Irish? all by Gish Jen. The first two are novels about the Changs, a Chinese-American family. Typical American deals with the parents' adaptation to the US, and Mona is about their daughter's decision to convert to Judaism (which raises more than a few eyebrows!). Who's Irish? is a book of short stories, also about Chinese Americans. All three books are absolutely fantastic, with humour, thoughtfulness, and well-developed characters. Jen has also written a novel called The Love Wife, but I haven't read it yet.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:07 AM on August 9, 2007

Octavia Butler was a genius, and Parable of the Sower is one of her finest works. It's Los Angeles in the near-future, 90% of the characters are people of colour, and it's just brilliant. I can also highly recommend the sequel Parable of the Talents and Kindred.

Nalo Hopkinson has done some amazing stuff with integrating scifi, people of colour, and Caribbean culture. I really loved Brown Girl in the Ring, and I need to read a lot more of her stuff.

And if you're willing to slip into mysteries, I'm fond of Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January series. They're pre-Civil War mysteries set in New Orleans, and along with solving crimes, regretting that he can't be a surgeon, and playing the piano (no, really), January also navigates through the carefully constructed racial boundaries at the time. The first is A Free Man of Color, but I started with Fever Season, and find that to be much better.
posted by Katemonkey at 4:10 AM on August 9, 2007

Ralph Ellison - The Invisible Man
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:23 AM on August 9, 2007

Oops. I suppose the central theme of The Invisible Man *is* racism. Sorry
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:25 AM on August 9, 2007

Philip Pullman's The Broken Bridge; I couldn't believe a white guy wrote it.
posted by awesomebrad at 4:31 AM on August 9, 2007

I also almost recommended Invisible Man. The book is entirely about racism, yes, but there is rich & extended development of the main character....the protagonist is much more than just a foil to racism.
posted by creasy boy at 4:54 AM on August 9, 2007

The main character in Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys is black, although you could probably read the whole book without realizing it.
posted by rpn at 5:00 AM on August 9, 2007

Do not abandon sci-fi! Thirding Octavia Butler.
posted by lalex at 5:02 AM on August 9, 2007

It's just frustrating that people of colour don't seem to exist in books unless the central theme of the book is racism.

Says who? In most books I've read it never says what the race of the characters are. Where does it say in Lord of the Rings that Gandalf is not a powerful, black wizard? Who says Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is not a dashingly hansome black man? You say so, that's who. You do it in your own head.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:05 AM on August 9, 2007 [15 favorites]

time of our singing by richard powers.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:08 AM on August 9, 2007

Sci -fi with main characters who aren't white...check out Tobias Buckell's short stories and novels.

I recommend the Fish Merchant, Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin.

These all feature main characters who are of color.
posted by imjosh at 5:11 AM on August 9, 2007

Eric Jerome Dickey. I liked Between Lovers especially.
(2nding 'Time of our Singing' and 'Emperor of Ocean Park')
posted by MtDewd at 5:21 AM on August 9, 2007

pollomacho misses the point here, but...

I'm not talking about a token appearance (the hero of the story is Guyanese, or Thai or something), but something that actually impacts the story, greatly.

If we're talking about science fiction, then another poster's suggestion of Nalo Hopkinson comes to mind. Really interesting blending of sci-fi and Caribbean culture (all her books are written with the settlers in the stories being descendants of such), and it makes for very interesting reading. SHe uses a *lot* of Creole and local terms as well.

Orson Scott Card wrote one of the books in the Ender series with the protaganists being from the results of Brazilian colonization. It wasn't anytihng like Nalo's book, but culture and religion, etc. definetly impacted the story in a way that it wasn't just a token mention.
posted by jare2003 at 5:32 AM on August 9, 2007

(I read Hopkinson's "Midnight Robber", btw. Quite good.
posted by jare2003 at 5:33 AM on August 9, 2007

Best answer: The Inkeeper's Song.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:39 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Life of Pi.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:51 AM on August 9, 2007

Percival Everett writes some phenominal stuff. Pretty much anything he's written will knock your socks off (though I'm not sure if he's every written any sci-fi, and 'Erasure' is about the effects of racism on the main charactor, who is a black intellectual). Enjoy.
posted by Pecinpah at 5:53 AM on August 9, 2007

Best answer: One of my favorite authors is Percival Everett, who seems to get almost no play. It makes me sad. He's a great writer with great ideas whose books are almost universally fabulous. He's Black, as are most of his characters, and what's most intriguing about that is that he writes totally against stereotype. Racism is certainly a problem for some of his characters, but they pretty much go about living lives that would be considered atypical for an African-American by anyone whose knowledge mostly comes from fiction. (He's got a lot of Black cowboys in his books set in the West, for instance.)

Erasure, probably his most commercially successful book, is about precisely the problem you describe. If I had to speculate I'd say it was highly autobiographical, but I don't know that for sure. It's a novel about a Black writer of fiction whose books are ignored because they don't deal exclusively with race and racism who writes a parody of ghetto fiction and manages to score a huge hit. It's good, although not, in my opinion, Everett's best. (I really like Suder.)

Someone else you might look at is George Pelecanos, who's White, but who writes many detective books about Black characters in DC. They're imperfect, but he does a good job of avoiding stereotyping his main characters and developing nuanced depictions of life in a very segregated city. His novels are a lot of fun, gritty and engaging. Not all are about AA characters, though.
posted by OmieWise at 5:54 AM on August 9, 2007

Ah, shit, I'm glad to see another Everett fan (where the fuck are they all), but I'm sorry I didn't get there first.
posted by OmieWise at 5:55 AM on August 9, 2007

"The Known World" by Edward P. Jones, Zadie Smith's books and Jhumpa Lahiri's books are mostly all great reads.
posted by jamesonandwater at 5:57 AM on August 9, 2007

No, I think you missed my point. Race is only important to a character in a book if race is part of the conflict in the plot. In what circumstance other than racism would race be an important feature of conflict in the plot? Otherwise, race is just a passing, unimportant feature to give a character a little more depth of description. When it is not specifically mentioned, the race of a character could be whatever you wish.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:06 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. Fantastic short stories.
posted by hooray at 6:07 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Samuel Delany is an excellent black author you should read if you haven't already. It isn't clear in many of his stories what race the main character is which is probably why he has been so successful. Many of his stories deal with alienation and sexual issues but there are a few that have obvious racial undertones. I have no doubt the Kid is black in Dhalgren which is an underground SF classic.
posted by JJ86 at 6:08 AM on August 9, 2007

Anything by: Salmon Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundathi Roy, R.K. Naryan, or any number of South Asian authors who write in English.

Shanghai Girl is good and you can find it translated.

There are actually tons of books out there with lead characters that aren't White, and aren't dealing with racism. Many of them aren't written by White people. You should look for fiction from around the globe.
posted by chunking express at 6:19 AM on August 9, 2007

Well, there's culture as well - in the books I mentioned, the colonist culture made significant impact on the way the book was written and the interactions with the characters. You're welcome to pick up one of Hopkinson's books if you want to see what I mean.

Race/culture play an important part in the books I mentioned. That's really the question I felt that the questioner was posing - not, are there books with a person of X race in it?
posted by jare2003 at 6:20 AM on August 9, 2007

In what circumstance other than racism would race be an important feature of conflict in the plot? Otherwise, race is just a passing, unimportant feature to give a character a little more depth of description. When it is not specifically mentioned, the race of a character could be whatever you wish.

Race is (often) a major component of someone's personal and cultural identity. Also, a dearth of black folks in the social circles about which Ms. Austen wrote is what keeps Mr. Darcy from being black.

Strongly seconding Anansi Boys, which riffs on West African tales.
posted by desuetude at 6:23 AM on August 9, 2007

I'm reading Life and Death in Shanghai.
posted by letahl at 6:24 AM on August 9, 2007

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith leaps to mind immediately. The hero of the books, Precious Ramotswe, is about as engaging a character as I've found. They're mysteries, but not the sort of hard-boiled mysteries I normally associate with the genre. They're a bit quieter - maybe more like the stuff faced by Sherlock Holmes. People come to her with all sorts of problems that need solving.
posted by jquinby at 6:26 AM on August 9, 2007

Bah. Forgot to link to No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
posted by jquinby at 6:33 AM on August 9, 2007

As dihutenosa mentioned: Their Eyes Were Watching God. Absolutely loved it.
posted by Sassyfras at 6:33 AM on August 9, 2007

Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke.
posted by sarahkeebs at 6:58 AM on August 9, 2007

I'll strongly second spending time with Walter Mosely, whose books about hardboiled detective/neighborhood fixer Easy Rawlins are filled with interesting black characters in a variety of realistic situations. The first one is set in 1948 (it's a great quick read) and each successive book advances the characters a few years while commenting succinctly on the changing times. Mosely's also written a contemporary detective, starting with Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, and a number of widely praised scifi/speculative fiction books; I liked the story collection Futureland for its unusual glimpses of life for black characters, including an incredibly chilling look at a future prison. His non-detective books are equally good; RL's Dream is a great, tight little story about a dying bluesman who meets a crazy young woman. Just start flipping through his stuff in the bookstore or reading interviews; you'll find something to like, guaranteed.

pollomacho: When it is not specifically mentioned, the race of a character could be whatever you wish.

To assert that about Pride and Prejudice is just loony.

posted by mediareport at 7:08 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Er, Mosley.
posted by mediareport at 7:09 AM on August 9, 2007

Seconding Alexander Smith McCall and Zadie Smith (I loved White Teeth)
posted by kimdog at 7:16 AM on August 9, 2007

Best answer: Ok, I've pushed this book here before but I truly love it and it fits your criteria perfectly.

The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust

It centers around two main characters who are black, educated, intelligent, deep, thoughtful, complicated, and underemployed. Oh, I believe they're also muslim but are not very religious people.

If you like science fiction and fantasy, you need to read this book. Faust has an incredible sense of style, a great sense of humor, and a love for both his characters and all things science fiction and fantasy.
posted by utsutsu at 7:31 AM on August 9, 2007

"Since when were Egyptians and Desis ‘people of colour’? "

Well, Egyptians are Africans, and the Nubians are actually very black. There are Egyptians who have gone to court to be recognized as black in the U.S.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:40 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much, everyone! I have so much to read now. It was hard to pick best answers, because there's so many wonderful suggestions.

I just want to say to Pollomacho that what I am looking for is a realistic person of colour - not one who is 100% assimilated into "White culture" and enjoys all the White privileges. I'd actually rather read a book where people of colour are absent than a book that pretends that race has no bearings on someone's experiences, culture, or identity.
posted by giggleknickers at 7:41 AM on August 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

Seconding Samuel R. Delany strongly.

Check out Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu. It's a wonderful YA SF/F novel.
posted by ursus_comiter at 7:42 AM on August 9, 2007

The Otherland series of books by Tad Williams has a giant ensemble cast, so to speak, but a bunch of the most important characters are African, and their African-ness is crucial to the story.
posted by Andrhia at 7:49 AM on August 9, 2007

try Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due. They are all scifi and they are all black. Also check out Zora Neale Hurston, not scifi but very well written books (she was an anthropologist).
posted by anansi at 8:01 AM on August 9, 2007

The Left Hand of Darkness, one of my favorite Sci Fi books by Ursula K. LeGuin. Highly recommended to anyone here.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:14 AM on August 9, 2007

Not fantasy/sci-fi, but Hanif Kureishi is worth a look.

Seconding Salmon Rushdie, especially for the fantasy aspect.
posted by goshling at 8:16 AM on August 9, 2007

Short stories, novels, or poems by Sherman Alexie. Start with The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
posted by rtha at 8:34 AM on August 9, 2007

nth-ing Anasi Boys. Great, great, great story.
posted by jknecht at 10:39 AM on August 9, 2007

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

Song Of Solomon by Toni Morrison deals with racial issues, but also deals with so much more. Family, the relationships between men and women, young and old, and how we are shaped by our histories. Amazing book.
posted by billyfleetwood at 11:38 AM on August 9, 2007

Picking up on chunking express' recommendation, Inheritence of Loss, by Kiran Desai, about Indians displaced-- within India, in the US, and in postwar London. Plus a bonus African!

There are very few white characters in the book. I didn't think about that as I read it. The characters dealt more with displacement, status, and differences in background than with pure racial animus.
posted by ibmcginty at 11:50 AM on August 9, 2007

Robert Jordan's Wheel of TIme feature quite a few "dark-skinned" primary and secondary characters, which I've always assumed is shorthand for "skin with a lot of melanin," rather than simply suntanned. The inclusion isn't really noticeable until about four books into the series, as the main characters begin to explore their wider world.

Personally, unless an author explicitly states otherwise, I'll randomly assign race to characters in a story. I read "visually", and it makes the experiencce more fun for me.
posted by lekvar at 4:54 PM on August 9, 2007

Seconding the Intuitionist, although it may fail your requirements as racism is an important aspect of the work. But if you like SF, you might enjoy it as it is sort of an alternate history.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:19 PM on August 9, 2007

Lots of Heinlein books have non white heroes, though race is rarely a major theme in his works. The main character in Star Ship Troopers, Johny Rico, is a Filipino for example.
posted by afu at 8:02 PM on August 9, 2007

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