My Favorite Books by Writers of Color That I Read in 2020

In a world of chaotic news updates, books can offer a quiet harbor for thought.

Posted Jan 18, 2021

The last 12 months have been incredibly difficult for everyone, but I’ve found fiction (and a few non-fiction books, as mentioned below) a welcome respite, escape, and life-sustaining companion in moments where everything felt overwhelming. Much of the experience of 2020 has involved monitoring news and information hour by hour, and trying to keep steady as things change rapidly around us. This can be psychologically exhausting. While the books below reflect the world as it is and has been back to us, I’ve found fiction and essays to be a quieter, more contemplative place for my brain. A place where I can engage with thoughts and ideas at a slower, less frantic, and often more meaningful pace. This has been an important part of my self-care: finding quiet and thoughtful places to dwell in, as opposed to the frantic, ever-changing nature of life over the past year. 

These are some of my favorite books by authors of color that helped me to get through 2020. I hope they can help you, too.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

On best-seller lists everywhere this past year, The Vanishing Half, tells the story of a pair of twins in 1960s Louisiana, tracing the different paths their lives take once they embark on young adulthood. The novel intertwines themes of race, identity, cultural standards of beauty, sexuality, and gender. Beautifully written and engaging, it’s easy to see why this novel has so many fans. 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age is about a young, Black nanny who works for a well-off white family in Philadelphia. The novel is light and easy to read, but explores complex and often fraught questions of race, class, and power, particularly through the lens of different types of interracial relationships. 

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

This is the Great Zambian Novel, but that’s perhaps the smallest description you could give it: an era-spanning, speculative epic that is about everything all at once (relationships, beauty, disease, power, pain, womanhood)—oh, and it’s partly narrated by a chorus of all-knowing mosquitos. 

The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esme Weijun Wang

A series of essays about Wang’s personal experience of mental illness that provides a glimpse into what it’s like to actually live with a psychotic disorder. It’s a beautifully written exploration into the societal treatment of mental illness, cultural myths around schizophrenia, and the reality of the lived experience of psychosis

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

Sarah M. Broom tells us the story of her family’s house in New Orleans, and in doing so tells us the story of her family, the story of herself as a girl and then a woman setting out into the world, and the story of a city. The house is a living, breathing character, a respiratory of secrets, hopes and knowledge, and we watch it change, develop and age, just as we do the family members. 

Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom 

I loved this collection, but one essay in particular stands out: "In the Name of Beauty," which explores whiteness, desirability, and socially constructed beauty standards. Although I have spent a considerable time thinking about race and beauty standards, this essay blew apart many notions I had, and changed how I thought about the subject. McMillan Cottom is a brilliant thinker and writer, and I continue to revisit several of the essays, learning something new every time.