I have been an avid reader all my life. I’m one of those annoying people who taught themselves to read at age 3 (word up to Matilda Wormwood) and attempted to hide books under my pillow at night. The summer I was 5, my brother was born and I was bored, so I toddled my pre-K self half a mile down to the local library and tried to convince the librarian that she could, in fact, give me my own library card without my mom’s signature. She wasn’t having it, so I walked all the way back home, then back to the library with the completed application in hand. Someone from the local bar called my mother to let her know I was just walking around downtown by myself, and my mom said, “It’s okay, she’s going to the library.” It was a different time.
I have always loved sci-fi and fantasy; growing up in an isolated town in Alaska with no TV meant that I sought escape through books. And that meant that I read a lot of 700+ page books written by cis-het white men (CHWM).
Fast forward to January 1, 2018. Over a glass of champagne looking out on the water — a New Year’s Day tradition I highly recommend if you can get it — I realized that my current reading was all people of color, and that January 1 was the perfect time to kick off a challenge I’d been lowkey considering for some time: five years of only books written by marginalized voices. The parameters are simple: I’m not reading anything by a CHWM until at least 2023. Any book I want to read whose author fits that description goes onto a spreadsheet for reassessment at the end of the challenge.
As it turns out, “challenge” is a very strong word for a practice that has been wholly enjoyable and eye-opening. I’ve encountered new genres, read short stories — something I staunchly refused to do in the past — and broadened a lot of my own horizons as to what is possible in literature. Like many other types of art, once you set aside almost all of the books that get the most attention, an overwhelming percentage of which are written by CHWMs, things start to get very interesting indeed.
My exploration of authors and genres over the last 3.5 years has been surprisingly fruitful. I’ve encountered Afrofuturism, Asian (including Indian and Pakistani) fantasy, some delightful Russian fairytale spin-offs, and, in a plot twist that applies only to me, discovered that mysteries and thrillers can be fun. That last one is akin to someone who has flat refused to listen to country music showing up at a show and realizing “Hey, this can be pretty cool! I have been judging an entire genre of music by what’s popular on the radio!” which is, as we all know, a stupid way to judge whole swathes of art. (Also, as a lover of pop music, I will defend at least a percentage of what’s on the radio. A banger is a banger.)
My Goodreads profile from 2018 reveals a preponderance of books by Asian authors, including a thorough haunting by Rin Chupeco in The Bone Witch, the delightful Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, and the absolutely stunning National Book Award finalist Pachinko. I dipped a toe in the water of the next group of authors I connected with in Yaa Gyasi’s incredible Homegoing, and I am legally required to declare “Ohhh, I loved that book,” every time it’s mentioned.
That subsection is “fiction written by Black women,” and I can say with no hesitation that this is where the amazing work is happening in both literary fiction and sci-fi. Nnedi Okodafor’s Binti is an exercise in gentle mindfuckery. I read the entirety of N.K. Jemisin’s oeuvre right after the final book of the Broken Earth Trilogy was published, and you could do yourself no better favor as a sci-fi fan than to run, not walk, to her books if you have not already. Start with her first published work; it starts out excellent and only gets more intricate and better over her career to date.
Interspersed with more rich and flourishing worlds of magic than I can shake my wand at have crept the aforementioned mysteries and thrillers — largely written by white women, although the delightfully Cabin in the Woods–esque When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole was a stand-out by a Black author. One of the things I enjoy about these mysteries is that without fail they feature a female lead who, while occasionally dumb enough to go into a basement alone, finds herself a triumphant River Tam at the end of the novel.
I have learned in the last 3.5 years that eliminating CHWM from my reading diet may be my permanent solution to the overwhelming number of column inches awarded to their works. That getting to books by marginalized voices is not difficult once I shift the bleached sand on top of the pile of books published every year. That even though I have a year and a half to go as of July 1, I have more than enough books by non-CHWM in my queue to last me another [mumble-mumble] years. And that by making this change, I haven’t been truly missing a single thing.