Many of the best novels of the 20th Century were written by creative and empathetic Black women. And, now, the literary landscape of the 21st Century is all but defined by the words and voices of, and novels by Black women writers.
The female Black writers community represents some of the biggest award-winners, some of the most considered and thought-provoking novels, and many of the very best novels of this century so far. Novels by Black women writers get to the heart of class, race, capitalism, family, social constructs, and so much more.
It has been so exciting to watch how the Black women writers of the world have been steadily taking the publishing world by the lapels and shaking it up, delivering revolutionary works of literature.
And so, here are some of our favourite modern novels by Black women writers. Some are British, some are American, one is Canadian. Every single one is a masterpiece.
Novels by Black Women (UK)
Here are some of our favourite British novels of all time, all written by British (or UK-based) Black women writers. These are treasured authors, award-winners, and celebrated Black women writing some of the best books in the UK today.
Girl, Woman, Other was, perhaps, the biggest talking point of 2019, especially after winning the 2019 Booker Prize and being shortlisted for the Women’s Prize 2020. Evaristo’s eighth novel has become an instant classic of British literature, and for good reason.
This century-spanning masterpiece is a novel that explores the concept of belonging in a country that has been having its own identity crisis for so many decades. Leave it to Bernardine Evaristo to pen a topical masterpiece like this; one of the best novels by Black women ever written, period.
Twelve stories about twelve different people, across a century of British history, all looking for someone, somewhere, or something to hold onto. There is a reason this is the biggest British novel of today: it speaks to the country’s zeitgeist in an honest, critical, and considered way.
Sara Collins’ debut historical novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton, felt like a real game-changer. This is a book that crosses genres, plays with literary tropes, challenges its readers, has fun with its characters, and still delivers a poignant historical message about Black and queer people.
I tore through this book on my first read, hungry for more of Frannie Langton’s story. This is one of the best British novels by Black women, and I cannot sing its praises highly enough.
Sara Collins is one of my favourite people, and this work of gothic historical fiction about a clever and savvy slave girl from a plantation who winds up on trial in London for the murder of a woman she loved is, quite honestly, like nothing else you’ll ever read.
Queenie is a recent novel that has won the hearts of so many readers across the UK. This is a darkly funny, bittersweet novel about real young life in the UK. It’s a book about an ordinary Black woman in London, living an ordinary life full of tragic moments and frustration.
This is a book about race, but it’s a book that stitches the topic into its language and its grammar, while also being a comical book about so many other things.
It juggles a lot, much like Queenie herself, all while being a riot of a read as the titular Queenie struggles to deal with a passive family, and frustrating job, and a lot of losses in love.
Read More: 9 Vital Black British History Books
Renowned British poet Salena Godden turns her hand to prose for the first time with her debut novel Mrs Death Misses Death. As the title suggests, this is the story of the Grim Reaper herself, Mrs Death.
In her novel, Godden reimagines Death as a homeless Black woman living in London. This is the form she chooses to take. Our other protagonist is a struggling writer living in an East London loft; a man named Wolf Willeford. Wolf will write the life of Mrs Death.
Mrs Death Misses Death flits between the perspectives and voices of Mrs Death and the writer Wolf. We see her early years in a loving relationship with Time, and Wolf’s first encounter with death when he lost his mother to a fire as a young boy.
The novel not only shifts perspective, but also tone and style. Salena Godden is a celebrated poet, and she uses that strength and experience to pepper her novel’s prose with moments of beautiful poetry. In fact, the frequency of poetic interludes only builds as the pages turn.
Salena Godden’s debut novel is a balm for anyone who fears death, disease, or injury. It is a comfort and a warm embrace for those of us who have experienced loss, either recently or in the distant past. It offers us multiple angles from which to view the experience of death and loss. It is a gift.
It is astonishing — bordering on impossible — that a book so short (at just 100 pages) can say and accomplish so much, both in terms of its storytelling and its broader political themes. Assembly is a perfect, finely-crafted debut novel, placing itself instantly amongst the most important British novels by Black women writers.
Assembly follows a nameless narrator-protagonist, a young Black woman who has moved from a working class childhood to a commendable investment-banking position. She has a white boyfriend from old money (with roots in the slave trade), and she is also battling with her health.
Written in a series of short almost poetic in their structure, vignettes, Assembly breaks down cultural lies concerning meritocracy and social mobility. It cuts at and exposes the almost invisible aspects of racism that are so finely woven into the fabric of British society. And it does all of this through sparse yet gorgeous prose.
Assembly is a novel about what Britain is built from, and about a Black woman’s place in it as she attempts to reconcile its history, laws, and political systems with her own life, job, and social circle.
This is a timely and topical novel, written and edited with such astonishing precision. One of the most cutting and powerful novels by Black women on the shelves right now.
It is far from hyperbolic to call Noughts & Crosses a revelation of a novel. A deeply political and thought-provoking piece of YA literature. This is the definitive YA book on the topic of race politics, beloved by teenagers across Britain and even studied in some schools today.
This savvy, transformative work of dystopian fiction, as sharp and clever as the writings of George Orwell and China Mieville, tells the story of two worlds: the Noughts and the Crosses.
One group is privileged and powerful, the other less than nothing. And here is the forbidden love story of a Nought and a Cross, the first in a beloved series by one of the UK’s most celebrated Black women writers.
Zadie Smith is an author who needs no introduction. A beloved British writer, and one the UK’s most popular authors alive today. Swing Time is her fifth (and, to many readers, best) novel.
It tells the story of two young girls who dream of being dancers: one is practically skilled, the other passionately knowledgeable.
This is a novel that celebrates our loves and our passions, that explores how our early loves and experiences shape us into the adults we grow up to be. It celebrates the power of music and art, and it mirrors the realities of young friendships and how the carve us up.
Novels by Black Women (US)
These Black American women writers have changed the landscape of American literature forever.
These are the authors winning the best awards; these are the writers whose works communities of readers can’t stop talking about.
The Other Black Girl has been called “The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out” and this is pretty accurate. Set in a competitive and renowned Manhattan publishing house, The Other Black Girl is a story of race, class, microaggression, and chess-like tactics.
Nella is a Black twenty-something from Connecticut, raised amongst white people and now working as the only Black person in her company. One day, Wagner hires Hazel, another Black girl. Hazel is from Harlem, wears impressive dreadlocks, and has just moved from Boston.
Shortly after Nella and Hazel get to know each other, Nella finds a note left on her desk which simply reads: “Leave Wagner Now”. Hazel is the obvious culprit, but far from the only one.
What plays out from here is something of an intimate thriller that spirals further and further down, as The Devil Wears Prada morphs into Get Out.
However, despite being reminiscent of both, The Other Black Girl is entirely its own beast. a furious, vicious page-turner; terrifying and addictive; one of the best novels by black women I’ve ever read.
Luster should be considered the gold standard for millennial fiction. Following the story of Edie, a twenty-three-year-old black New Yorker, Luster takes us on a personal journey of love, lust, work, and struggle in modern-day New York.
Playing on racial, financial, and generational disparity, Luster is a book that uses playful but dark humour, bleak knocks from reality, and rich relationship dynamics to paint a satisfying world and story.
For a debut novel from a young writer, it is remarkable how much of a command Raven Leilani has over language and structure.
She uses a present-tense, first-person narrative to add a sense of immediacy to the events of Luster, and blends this with a “runaway train” approach to narrative that reflects Edie’s state of mind.
The structure of the book beautifully, masterfully reflects the themes of control — or lack thereof — over life and money and people, as well as the approach to life and relationships that Edie has.
Edie herself is one of the most lovable, charming, and knowable characters in modern literature and this book represents a strong future career for a fantastic black woman writer.
To consider that Homegoing is a debut novel is simply mind-blowing. This is an extraordinary debut work of fiction, the kind you so rarely see.
This is like when you remember that Mary Shelley wasn’t even twenty when she wrote Frankenstein. Homegoing is an enormous epic novel which spans continents and decades, generations of lives and the entire history of the United States.
Homegoing begins with two sisters, and the threads which lead on from their lives. These are lives that they had next to no control over, and yet shaped not only what they would become, but what the generations that followed would be.
From Ghana to the US, this incredible novel by an extraordinary Black woman writer is one-of-a-kind.
Yaa Gyasi’s second novel is an entirely different beast to Homegoing. This is a 21st Century novel, reminiscent of Gyasi’s own lived experiences and personal background. It is a short, tightly-woven novel that moves seamlessly from its protagonist’s childhood to her present-day life.
Transcendent Kingdom tells the story of Gifty, a girl born to Ghanian parents in the American south. She is their second child, and their first, Nana, was a sports prodigy — first in soccer, then basketball. Nana, however, succumbed to opioids and died of a heroin overdose.
Today, Gifty is a budding neurobiologist at Stanford University, studying the brain’s relationship to addiction; inspired by her brother’s life and death, as well as her mother’s relationship to God and the church.
Transcendent Kingdom is an intimate family saga that explores the effects of migration, capitalism, and the promise of freedom in America. It pits science and religion against one another. It examines the effects of addiction and depression on the mind and the family. It does so much so well; a perfect novel.
Read More: 9 Transgender Stories by Trans Writers
Here is a brand new novel for 2020 that went straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. A novel of incredible hype matched only by its scope of content and theme. The Vanishing Half tells two parallel stories of twin sisters who grow up to be very different women.
Born into a Black community in the deep south, twin sisters Stella and Desiree leave town at the age of sixteen. After spending a little time in New Orleans, one moves to DC and “becomes” Black, while the other ends up in the white suburbs of California and “becomes” white.
The Vanishing Half chronicles the choices and life events of these sisters, as well as those of their children as we move through the second half of the 20th Century. It considers the relationships between place, race, and class, as well as how our relationships are defined by these seemingly immovable things.
Spanning decades, this is a multi-generational novel that makes clear the visible yet ignored racial, political, and class divides of modern America. One of the great American novels by Black women.
This is a novel so intensely and loudly celebrated across the United States and beyond. Praised by Barack Obama and taking home the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019, An American Marriage explores racism in modern America in a very intimate and on-the-ground fashion.
An American Marriage tells the story of the quintessential American couple, two successful young Black newlyweds about to begin a life together, when he is suddenly arrested and sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit.
This is a mirror to the realities of modern life for so many Black Americans in the 21st century, and a book that will go down as one of the great novels by Black women this century.
The Fifth Season is the first book of the second SFF trilogy written by American author N.K. Jemisin. This trilogy, titled the Broken Earth trilogy, broke records when it was published. It made Jemisin the first author to win the Hugo Award for three consecutive years, and for all three books in a trilogy. And for good reason!
This is a (literally) earth-shattering fantasy novel, the story of which takes place in a world with only one single solid continent, known as the Stillness. Ordinary humans are knows as stills, but there is a subset of people called orogenes, who are born with orogeny — the power to manipulate the earth itself.
Orogenes are treated like outcasts and tools, vilified, feared, and hunted by some, and put to use as weapons and tools by others.
The story follows three protagonists: Essun is a middle-aged woman whose tale is told in the second person, and who is on the hunt for her husband after he brutally kills their son and, presumably, kidnaps their daughter.
Syenite is a young orogene who is being sent on a mission alongside a more powerful orogene, with whom she has also been ordered to have a child in order to produce more orogenes to be used as tools.
Damaya is a child whose parents have locked in a barn after discovering her powers. She is taken away by a Guaradian to be schooled in orogeny at a place known as the Fulcrum.
The power of N.K. Jemisin’s writing and world-building here is second to none, and the way she weaves politically relevant themes metaphors into her writing is masterful, making The Fifth Season one of the most exciting and original books by Black women to come out in recent years.
New York Times bestseller, multi-award-winner, now a major motion picture. The Hate U Give has seen a lot of success, and just as much love from YA readers across the US and beyond. This is a book by a Black woman writer, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Perhaps the most unfortunately poignant read of 2020, The Hate U Give follows a teenage Black girl from a poor neighbourhood, attending a rich high school, whose life is upended when she witnesses the murder of her best friend by a police officer.
Nothing could be more essential YA reading in 2020 than The Hate U Give.
It’s challenging to make a novel as fun to read as it is hard-hitting and powerful, but Esi Edugyan (who is actually Canadian, not American) pulls it off effortlessly. Washington Black is an adventure story of sorts, telling the tale of a young slave boy on a sugar plantation.
He is owned by one brother and freed by the other. The second brother, an inventor, takes Washington Black as his assistant as he builds a flying machine that will free them from the island.
From there, the journey is fraught with perils and Washington Black must face a dangerous world alone, learning and growing along the way.
Washington Black is the perfect example of how to tell a hard-hitting story about slavery from the perspective of a young Black boy, all without sacrificing the thrill of adventure and the fun of the journey.
It is an intensely unique book that hits so many emotions all at once, and it does so with elegance and strength.