13 Short Story Collections By Black Women That You Must Read
Ever since I went to the BookMarks Festival last year, I've been thinking about how I can read and write more short stories. An Algonquin Books editor recommended publishing short stories in literary magazines prior to attempting to pitch a full novel to a publishing house, and that piece of advice has fueled my mini-obsession with short stories. Many publishers view short stories as a preview of a writer's talent and ability to craft a longer work like a novel. So I should be good...all I have to do is crank out a few short stories and send them off to literary magazines, right?
Here's the problem...
A story I wrote in high school won 1st prize in a local O. Henry Short Story contest, but that's really the last time I've seriously written a short story.
Most writers know that one of the most important parts of writing is reading the work of other writers so that you can contribute to the literary landscape in context. So, as I start to shake the dust off of what I learned through my experience of writing short stories in high school, I want to read the story collections of black women from different eras and from different parts of the African diaspora. I found this Goodreads list of short story collections by people of African descent which helped me to create this list story collections by Black women. I'll be working on getting through this list this year and beyond.
Like many Black women writers, I've loved Zora Neale Hurston's words since I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God for 11th grade AP English. "Sweat", a story about washerwoman Delia, her abusive and unfaithful husband, and karma, is probably Hurston's most well known and widely taught story, so if you've taken any type of American literature course, you're probably familiar with Hurston's voice within her short stories. I think this collection would be great to use as a starting place and foundation since great Black women writers, like Zadie Smith and Alice Walker, cite Hurston as their writing role model.
If you're curious about "Sweat", I found this free copy of the story that you can print or upload to a Kindle/iPad.
This collection is now in the public domain and freely available online and through Amazon, but for years Dunbar-Nelson's work has been very inaccessible due to her trouble with getting her work published during the late 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century. The Goodness of St. Rocque chronicles creole culture in New Orleans during that time with a dialect infused style that was popular in that era. Ironically, readers of the time seemed to love to read works written in African influenced dialects, yet they were resistant to reading work by these same writers when they attempted to write about racism, the color line, and issues within the Black community, which are topics that Dunbar-Nelson touched on in the works that she had difficulty publishing. The Dunbar-Nelson collection is another one that I'm reading for foundation.
J. California Cooper is queen when it comes to short stories about the spectrum of Black women's lives. Published in 2007, Wild Stars is Cooper's last story collection before her death in 2014, so it will be interesting to see the evolution in her style from her first published collections in the mid 1980s to this one. No reading list of Black women's stories is complete without at least one collection from J. California Cooper...
So I had to put two collections on this list! I read this collection back in high school, so I'm excited to revisit it. Cooper's heroines in these stories seem to always have somewhat of an independent, womanist edge to them, and you'll enjoy this love and relationships-centered collection if you like reading things from that perspective.
I've always wanted to read something by Octavia Butler, so when I found out about this short story collection, I saw it as my chance to finally get an introduction to her work. I've always known Butler to be a major (and rare African American) voice in science fiction, and from what I've read, her work is pretty dystopian as well. Both are elements that I don't usually prefer in what I like to read, but I may be surprised by how Butler treats this genre. I'll let you know what I think.
This story collection was probably one of the most celebrated of the early 2000s, so much so that the literary world has been anticipating Packer's next work since 2003. As of 2015, she's done interviews where she mentioned her novel in progress called The Thousands, and she read from her upcoming novel at a event sponsored by Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Reading this collection was listed in my 2016 reading goals post due to this collection being considered one of the best contemporary collections of the turn of the century.
This is another highly celebrated collection that tackles the issues of race, navigating between two cultures as a bi or multi racial person, gender, and class.
Like Evans' collection, Danzy Senna's You Are Free deals with some of the same issues of bi and multi-racial identity with the added element of motherhood.
Solomon recently published her first novel entitled Disgruntled (2015), but she got her start with this first collection of stories. Set in Philadelphia during the 80s, this collection explores the lives of African American young adults as they navigate the changing dynamics of urban living in a modern age.
Crystal Wilkinson writes about a subset of Black people that is rarely represented in contemporary literature: the African American "country" folk from what she calls "Affrilachia". I must admit that I never thought about what the lives of black people living in Appalachia are like, but I'm looking forward to learning from Wilkinson.
Cooper's story collection explores the intersection of the identity of mother and all of the various identities that women juggle today. The stories range from a lawyer who must act unfazed as she has a miscarriage during a conference call to a mother who reflects on thoughts of suicide while she waits for her daughter to return home one night.
The book will be released tomorrow, and her publisher is honoring Women's History Month with 20 percent off the sale price.
The last two books on this list represent women from other parts of the African diaspora. My hope is that reading their work will give me a global perspective on the art of short fiction.
At The Bottom...is the noted story collection from Antiguan-American author Jamaica Kincaid. The first story from this collection, "Girl", gives the reader insight into some of the suffocating gender based expectations in Caribbean culture, some of which may be familiar to those of us in the US.
Adichie's novel Americanah is still sitting on my to-read stack, but I think I'll read this story collection first. Characters in this story collection are in both Nigeria and the US, and according to some summaries, the stories revolve around exchanging Nigerian traditions for American ones and the conflicts, both internal and external, that arise from assimilating to a new culture while feeling like your own is left behind.
What are your favorite short story collections by Black women?