Toni Morrison and Other Excellent Female Novelists of Color

Toni MorrisonI was starting to read Alice Walker’s novel The Temple of My Familiar the morning of August 6 when I learned that literary great Toni Morrison had died the day before. So it seemed time to write a long-overdue piece about female authors of color.

Of course the women I’m about to mention are AUTHORS — one word, stop. But being female and not being white informs much of their fiction. Their writing expresses anger over racism and sexism, illustrates the evils of those isms, depicts coping mechanisms for women and people of color, and also includes all kinds of other personal, social, political, and non-political elements.

Not much I can say about Toni Morrison (pictured above) that hasn’t already been said. Nobel Prize winner, Pulitzer Prize recipient, professor, book editor, and more. I’ve read only two of her novels — Beloved and Sula — but found her writing about the black experience in the U.S. and other topics to be brilliant, evocative, harrowing, and highly original. Song of Solomon is prominent on my to-read list.

The Temple of My Familiar is my second Alice Walker novel — after the ultra-memorable The Color Purple, of course — and it’s an absorbing/heartbreaking book with magic-realism elements and fascinating characters from different places and times. Haven’t finished it yet.

Perhaps my favorite living female author of color is the biracial Zadie Smith — whose London-set debut novel White Teeth is at times hilarious, at times dead-serious, always multicultural, and published when Smith was only in her mid-20s. Two books later came the set-in-U.S.-academia On Beauty, also a winner.

Another stunning debut novel was The God of Small Things by Indian author Arundhati Roy. A heartbreaking book with many socioeconomic and political overtones.

Then there’s American author of Indian descent Jhumpa Lahiri, whose excellent novels The Namesake and The Lowland look at the immigrant experience and more.

I’ve also enjoyed reading Terry McMillan, whose work is somewhat lighter than the other authors I’ve mentioned but still compelling. Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back

Some additional deceased authors of color who shouldn’t be missed include Zora Neale Hurston and her masterful Their Eyes Were Watching God, which chronicles a black woman, her three marriages, and more; science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, known for novels such as the searing time-travel work Kindred and the apocalyptic Parable of the Sower; the Nigerian-born Buchi Emecheta, perhaps most famous for her gripping semi-autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen; and Maya Angelou, who wasn’t a novelist per se but whose autobiographies (including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) read like novels.

Sort of/sort of not “eligible” for this post is the great French novelist Colette (Gigi, The Vagabond, etc.), who had some black Caribbean ancestry.

I’ve obviously left out many authors. Your favorite women-of-color writers and your favorite works by them that I mentioned or didn’t mention?

I’ll be skipping an August 18 post next Sunday because of a vacation week. Back on August 25!

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — written by my cat 🙂 — is here.

Sex in Literature Wasn’t Invented a Half Century Ago

Marjorie MorningstarMany novels of the past 50 years or so, including literary ones, have been fairly candid in their references to sexual matters. That’s the case with parts of John Irving’s In One Person, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, and numerous other fiction books. (Fifty Shades of Grey? Haven’t read it.)

But while sexual references were often more coded and subtle in pre-1960s fiction, things could still get relatively frank at times. I was reminded of that last week while reading Marjorie Morningstar, which was published in 1955 and mostly set in the 1930s. (Poster of the movie version above.) There’s plenty of G-rated “necking” in Herman Wouk’s novel, but also adultery, sex with no plans to get married, flashes of naked skin, and more — even as much of the novel has non-romantic things on its mind (show biz, ambition, conformity vs. rebellion, class divisions, obsessive parenting, Jewish culture, the rise of Nazi Germany, etc.). An excellent novel, though the plot turn at the very end was disappointing.

Going further back in time, we have Henry Miller’s sex-heavy Tropic of Cancer (1934), which was banned in the U.S. for many years; Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre (1933), which contains scenes explicit enough for its time to get the author taken to court and the book banned in some cities; D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), which was graphic enough to have about 10% of its content edited out before publication — even as some remaining scenes were still pretty risqué for their day; Emile Zola’s Nana (1880), with its blunt depiction of the life of its prostitute protagonist; Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852), which focuses on a possibly incestuous relationship; and Honoré de Balzac’s The Magic Skin (1831), which includes an orgy scene.

Long before that, there’s plenty of amorousness in novels such as Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) — with characters like the revealingly named Lady Booby.

What are your favorite pre-1960s novels that were more sexually frank than you might have expected? And some of the more candid ’60s and post-’60s fiction you’ve liked?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about yet another oversized building coming to my town — is here.