Why All of the Books I Read in May Were Written By Black Men

This is a guest post from Troy L. Wiggins. Troy is from Memphis, Tennessee. He was raised on a steady diet of comic books, fantasy fiction, and role-playing games. His short fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Griots: Sisters of the Spear, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History, The Mash-Up Americans, The Afrikana Review, Literary Orphans, and Memphis Noir. He currently resides in Memphis with his wife and their tiny expuptriate. Follow him on Twitter @TroyLWiggins.

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Back in February, K. Tempest Bradford issued a challenge to readers that nearly broke the internet. The challenge was simple: for one month, readers should take it upon themselves to seek out and read books that weren’t written by straight, cis white men. The goal: for readers to broaden their ideas and understanding of quality fiction while exposing themselves to authors and stories that they may not have considered. The backlash took a form that is familiar to anyone who reads speculative fiction and isn’t a straight white guy. Bradford was called–among other horrible things–a RACIST for deigning to omit white men from her reading.

I’d heard of the challenge, and put a few pieces from the authors that Bradford suggested on my TBR list. My reading tends to skew diverse anyway, mostly because the literary magazines I enjoy make it a point to publish authors that aren’t straight, cis white men. Like all readers, I can stand to further diversify.

While considering Bradford’s challenge, I began to think about my own identity as a straight, cis black Man, and how that assumed identity manifests itself in my reading choices. All too often, I realized that I find myself turning to black authors of all genders when I need a spiritual, cultural, and intellectual refill. The decision to read only black men for the month of May was spurred by the need to reconnect with my inner black man, and as the rallying cry of #BlackLivesMatter sweeps the nation, I realize that this month of reading was a necessary form of self-care.

PYMcoverAt the suggestion of a friend, I picked up Mat Johnson’s Pym, a witty tale that tackles some important investigations of race and identity through a recently-dismissed academic’s examination of Edgar Allan Poe’s racially bombastic The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket. Johnson’s culturally relevant wit was like a “Welcome Home” to my grimdark epic fantasy-scarred soul. Pym delivered on the fantastic as well, with gigantic white-skinned prehistoric monsters (dubbed “snow honkies”), a two hundred year old racist straight out of a Great American Classic, and a voyage to a mythical island where all of the inhabitants are black.

May continued with Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, which introduced us to heroin-addicted, death cult survivor and chronic underachiever Ricky Rice, then made him a member of a historic paranormal investigation unit founded by a prophetic former slave. Immersing myself in Ricky’s story, watching him laugh and lust and cut to the quick was like a visit from extended family. Watching him and his comrades save the world was a balm to my world-weary spirit.

A few days ago, I finished Bill Campbell’s Sunshine Patriots, which is a mind-bending book that takes identity, gender, faith, sex, and race, puts them in a military sci-fi pressure cooker, then boils the whole thing until it explodes. I found myself mesmerized at the creativity of Campbell’s worlds, and at his portrayal of characters in such unconventional ways. To enter into those worlds and see men and women of all ethnicities coming together, becoming a singular goal was inspiring to me, even as I lamented their too-familiar misfortunes.

Even though I can’t claim to have chosen these books as part of K. Tempest Bradford’s challenge, I found myself challenged all the same. Pym made me question the notion of assumed identity in general, even as those questions helped me reinforce my own identity as a straight, cis black man. Big Machine challenged me to remain faithful to my choices, and Sunshine Patriots reminded me that it’s okay to choose to fight, especially if fighting is what people expect out of you.

I think that I made some good choices this month. Of course, I could have done better. I know that my reading would not have suffered had I chosen books written by black women. Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium and Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix were released recently, and those would have been welcome additions. Instead of beating myself up about May’s choices, though, I think I’ll dedicate next month to books written by black women.

And since it’s almost June, I have reading to do.

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