Great Fiction Not Written by White People

As Darby Dixon III has suggested, with the exception of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Dick Meyer’s list of great books written after 1900 has all the literary sensibilities of a grand wizard. To counter Meyer’s vanilla extract sensibilities, here’s a very hastily assembled list of great American fiction written after 1900 not written by white people. This is by no means an authoritative list. It pretty much came together in one mad mnemonic rush. I have also limited the list to one book per author. But all of these books have moved me or wowed me or otherwise floated my boat in some manner and are certainly worth your time. Please feel free to add more to the list in the comments.

Chimamanda Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Octavia Butler, Kindred
Ana Castillo, The Mixquiahuala Letters
J. California Cooper, A Piece of Mine
Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine
Percival Everett, Glyph
Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
Aleksandar Hemon, The Question of Bruno
Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Ha Jin, Waiting
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
Nam Le, The Boat
Chang-Rae Lee, Aloft
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
John Okada, No-No Boy
Z.Z. Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Susan Power, The Grass Dancer
Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
Zadie Smith, On Beauty
Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days
Richard Wright, Native Son

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18 Comments

  1. If we’re talking non-American writers, then:

    Helen Oyeyemi, THE ICARUS GIRL, THE OPPOSITE HOUSE, WHITE IS FOR WITCHING
    Natsuo Kirino, OUT
    Faiza Guene, KIFFE KIFFE TOMORROW
    Ngugi Wa Thiongo, THE WIZARD AND THE CROW
    Michelle de Kretser, THE HAMILTON CASE and LOST DOG

  2. Ed: Here’s a couple more of the multitude of possibilities, depending upon your definition of great. I’d say all of these writers have written great books.
    Naguib Mahfouz
    Junichiro Tanizaki
    Kobo Abe
    Taichi Yamada
    Amos Tutuola
    Ben Okri

  3. Chinua Achebe is on the list, so non-Americans are welcome.

    Thomas Mofolo, “Chaka”
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  4. Personally, I would choose Zadie Smith’s White Teeth in preference to On Beauty

    A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul
    Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
    Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
    Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (since you have already included Half of a Yellow Sun)
    Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
    The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk
    Them by Nathan McCall
    The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin
    The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima
    The Year of the Shanghai Shark by Mo Zhi Hong

  5. Not to mention 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa, Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar, among countless others.

  6. Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortazar, and “countless others” would be very surprised to discover that they’re not “white.”

  7. Given the great writers here, I’m sure Hemon would be honored to be included on this list, even if he does happen to be Slavic.

  8. Andy, They might be “white” by your definition but they’re certainly not considered as such in the Anglo world.

  9. The terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” denote ethnicity, not race, GB. In most states, the designation includes people of Spanish (i.e., Spain) origin, who most certainly do think of themselves as white. The entire thread suggests, I think, that what the “Anglo world” thinks is not central to the actual definition of such things.

  10. Andy, Not really. Most surveys (federal, state, etc) define Hispanic as someone from Latin American origin, not a Spaniard. And yes, we agree on what the thread is actually suggesting. That was also the point of my original post.

  11. I think that’s why I’m allergic to these kinds of lists, GB: we’re actually having a back-and-forth over your suggesting for inclusion on a list entitled “Great Fiction Not Written By White People” people who would only be considered nonwhite if they emigrated to the United States and chose voluntarily to identify themselves racially as other than white. Given the fact that none of the names you’ve mentioned are routinely omitted from any serious consideration of important 20th century literature, the function of such a list then becomes not one of identifying unrecognized authors, but of fulfilling a virtuous agenda via the inclusion of ringers. If we include every Latin American and Spanish writer of distinction as being among the “nonwhite” writers, then suddenly the balance tilts — nearly decisively, I’d say — toward nonwhite; not just the round-out-the-quota balance, but the overall Greatness in Fiction balance. I’d have no problem with that (setting aside for the moment the question of whether or not Puig, Borges, Fuentes, etc. are white), but it does sort of end the argument, in an unuseful way, by which I mean there isn’t much motivation to locate the nonwhite in the nooks and crannies of neglect if we can just chuck every writer with a Spanish surname (and some without — e.g., William Carlos Williams, just one example of an American author of Latino descent without a Spanish surname) on the list.

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