You don’t get to choose your family, nor they you. No matter if you prescribe to creed or genetics, there is some sort of higher power at work that does the familial selection for us, for better or for worse. I imagine that most of us by now have realized that no family is perfect. By nature, we normalize what we see until we have the opportunity to step away and gain some perspective. As always, books have been the best conduits for me to gain that perspective.
As a woman of color, I found that my familial experiences were rarely portrayed accurately in the media. There are cultural and religious nuances that the movies never got right, and I was always left scratching my head and wondering if my experiences were just outlandish. As always, books to rescue.
For BIPOC folks, our family dynamics are influenced by the pressures of “isms,” whether they be racism, colonialism, or colorism. On top of that, there are the insurmountable pressures of surviving in spaces that have not always been built for us. Here are five books that have helped me shed light on the experiences of BIPOC families. Although my experiences aren’t precisely like that of the authors, there are plenty of common denominators to keep the lightbulb on.
A note: Please remember that authors don’t represent their entire communities but rather themselves and their lives (in which race plays a significant role). These are all important stories that shed light on specific family dynamics and the cultural forces that shaped them.
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
Laymon is a writer after my own heart. I moved to Mississippi when I was 15 and so I always get excited when my old stomping ground is featured in a story. Laymon’s memoir is actually a letter he’s written to his mother, with whom he has had a complicated relationship. Growing up as a young Black man in Mississippi is hard, and Laymon pulls out all the stops as he walks readers through his relationship with his brilliant but complicated mother and journey out the south. As hinted by the title, Laymon also honestly talks about his obesity and the gambling addiction that threatened his relationship with his mother.
Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson
Sequoyah is a 15-year-old Cherokee boy who has been placed in foster care after his mother is sent to jail. Sequoyah is an introvert coping with the scars of his mother’s addiction but finds solace in a friendship with 17-year-old Rosemary, who also lives with the foster family. Their shared Native American heritage and experiences in the foster care system result in a surprising bond. However, Sequoyah’s feelings toward Rosemary deepen, threatening the fragile foundation of their lives.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
I’ll be honest, this one was a difficult read for me. I generally enjoy reading about complicated family dynamics, but Ng has done a stellar job in Everything I Never Told You when she accounts how the children of immigrants are othered and isolated, and how that trauma translates onto their own children. The story begins with the death of Lydia, the favorite daughter of Marilyn and James Lee. Lydia’s death forces the couple to peel back the layers of their relationship and how the lies and stories they constructed helped them and hurt them.
His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
I listened to the audiobook of His Only Wife and found myself fully engaged with the story. In fact, I found the intricacies of the Ghanaian family dynamics portrayed by Medie to have some similarities to families in the Indian community. Afi Tekple is a young seamstress who’s given an opportunity to marry the wealthy Elikem Ganyo, a stranger who marries Afi in absentia. After the marriage, Afi is installed in a sleek apartment in Accra, Ghana’s capital, and is tasked by Elikem’s family to draw him away from the woman he’s in the love with. Medie does a wonderful job weaving in and out of the complicated family dynamics and expectations that Afi has to navigate while retaining her sense of self.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
Mistry’s novel takes place in Mumbai, and he fully shows the city’s life, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Family Matters follows the story of Nariman Vakeel, who has Parkinson’s disease. When he’s 79, he breaks his ankle and must depend on his family to live. And of course, the family dynamics play out over the course of the novel, as Nariman discovers the strengths and weaknesses of his family ties.