There’s a misconception that books centred on Black and/or queer characters are unable to portray universal stories. Any of the works in this list disprove that myth immediately.
Yes, these authors allow many of their Black queer readers to feel seen, maybe some for the very first time – but they also speak to the wider human experience. If you’ve ever fallen in love, if you’ve ever experienced grief, if you’ve ever found yourself dreaming of a better future, then these writers and their words will resonate with you.
The publishing industry has evolved a fair bit since I was in school, when you’d struggle to find books with Black protagonists that weren’t rooted in slavery or trauma. And that’s before you even considered sexuality or gender in the mix.
We’ve still got a long way to go, but if you’re looking to diversify your bookshelf or Kindle this Black History Month (and beyond), here are some authors whose must-read works deserve to be celebrated all year round.
Craving a glorious serving of Black queer joy? Well, look no further than Leah Johnson’s debut young adult novel, You Should See Me In A Crown. Representation is a cause clearly close to Johnson’s heart and her works allow many readers to finally see themselves – the good, the beautiful and the messy – reflected back at themselves. In Rise To The Sun, Johnson pens an irresistible sapphic love story that is perfect reading for music lovers. For readers yet to experience her magic, next year sees the publication of Johnson’s debut middle-grade novel, Ellie Engle Saves Herself. And given it sounds like a queer take on Pushing Daisies, it’s an instant pre-order from me.
I had to include Akwaeke Emezi in this roundup. Ever since their debut novel, Freshwater, Emezi has established themself as a prolific author. In mesmerising prose, they explore the metaphysics of the Black spirit with novels that centre queer African narratives. And they sure know how to hit readers in the feels – as evidenced by their bestseller, The Death Of Vivek Oji, which will leave you ugly crying and reaching for the tissues. With many of their works falling across different genres and age demographics, they’ve proven themself to be truly versatile. If you’re looking for a steamy romance containing a gasp-worthy twist, you need to add You Made A Fool Of Death With Your Beauty to your shelves immediately.
It’s no exaggeration to call Roxane Gay a literary icon. With a plethora of short stories, poems, essays, comics and novels to her name, there’s an abundance of choices to add to your TBR pile. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and looking for a place to start, Gay is perhaps most known for Bad Feminist and Hunger which are both great picks to jump in with. But so is Ayiti, her debut collection in which Gay explored the Haitian diaspora through fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Fans of Gay will know that many of her works are focused on pain and trauma. They can certainly be dark and depressing. But through her unique voice, she applies hope, wit and humour to the piece. And if you’re an aspiring writer wanting to examine hard topics in your own creations, Gay offers up her teachings in Writing Into The Wound: Understanding Trauma, Truth, And Language.
Travis Alabanza is a multidisciplinary artist whose work shines a light on the experiences of those living in the margins, those who voices often go unheard. In their blistering play, Burgerz, Alabanza offers an emotional exploration of the realities trans and gender non-conforming bodies face when they step outside. More recently this year, Alabanza published their memoir, None Of The Above: Reflections On Life Beyond The Binary, which examines seven phrases they’ve experienced through the intersectional lens of their Black mixed-race, working-class, trans and non-binary identity. Alabanza subverts the expectations often placed on trans memoirs. Instead of writing to be understood, their vivid and poetic prose inspires readers to get comfortable with not understanding, and asks us to question how we treat others and ourselves.
James Baldwin is a hugely celebrated author whose literary voice is a vital part of the Civil Rights era. While Baldwin is rare for being a Black author regularly featured on otherwise glaringly white academic reading lists, too often his sexuality is erased from conversations in the classroom. Giovanni’s Room is a classic in its own right as well as within gay literature. His essay collection, The Fire Next Time, which first appeared in 1963, explores the legacy of racism and is sadly still essential reading all these decades later as evidenced by Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. Baldwin is integral to Black and queer history and his craft still ignites a flame within the chests of many contemporary Black and LGBTQIA writers today.
Kacen Callender is a bisexual demi boy and the author behind the fantasy series, Island Of Blood And Storm and young adult contemporary novel, Felix Ever After. In the latter, Callender masterfully balances between trans trauma and trans joy and it’s a truly inspiring story. In a world where Black and trans protagonists aren’t allowed to be as messy or as flawed as their white or cisgender counterparts, it’s truly refreshing that Callender gives their characters the room to do so while still showing they are deserving of love and respect. In their latest novel, Lark & Kasim Start a Revolution, Callender allows even more readers to feel seen and inspires us to embrace ourselves, flaws and all.
Janelle Monáe has worn many hats throughout her career: musician, actor and, as of this year, author. Back in 2018, Monáe proudly came out as pansexual and released the queerstory-making album, Dirty Computer – solidifying her position as a queer icon, but for many of us, she always had been. Much of Monáe’s work has been grounded in Afrofuturism and has allowed Black audiences to envision a better future. And in The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories Of Dirty Computer Monáe continues to do so by collaborating with several speculative fiction writers to create a cohesive anthology set in a dystopian world governed by the neofascist New Dawn regime. If you’re a fan of Monáe or other Black authors who have shaped science fiction such as Octavia E. Butler and Nnedi Okorafor then this is a must-buy.