In 2020, the world is hugely connected, both physically and socially.
We can order almost anything online and have it shipped to our front porch on the other side of the world in just a few days. I still can’t believe that we can hop on a bus and end up in a different country, just like that.
We can uproot ourselves and our families, move across the planet, and plant roots in an entirely different cultural setting with relative ease.
However, there are numerous economic systems and currencies, hundreds of languages, thousands of leaders, millions of shades of skin colors, billions of opinions on the internet, and an infinite amount of reasons we are all different.
However, we all know that technological development has been swift.
Since the turn of the millennium, we have opened up every communication channel possible. Understandably, we get angry sometimes when the opinions we hear don’t adhere to our perspectives. To find meaning in this collective existence as human beings who walk this earth, we must learn from each other. Be open. Be kind. And the best way to do this is to read.
Here are eight novels that explore different racial perspectives. These are some fantastic books that force you to view the world from someone else’s perspective. They force you into another culture and racial background and ultimately transport you from your living room into a strange society that you’ll grow to understand by the time you turn the last page.
Buckle up. Read quickly. Reflect gently. Let’s go.
1. Heart of Darkness – Josef Conrad
European Colonialism in the 1800s
This classic novel is ultimately about imperialism and colonialism – but wait! It’s essential to understand this ‘old’ perspective before diving into today’s literature that has a modern moral compass.
Written in 1898, Heart of Darkness follows the character of Marlow: a white man working for a Belgium trading concern who sails to Africa as a riverboat captain with the Company. He begins to feel uncomfortable with the level of exploitation he comes across.
Why is this important right now? Well, it’s a valuable insight into the European control of the world, which was just over a century ago. The novel is as much about self-doubt, hypocrisy, confusion, and alienation as it is about colonialism. It addresses the question of whether one man can be sane or wrong when he is part of a system both corrupted and corrupting, a critical view of European imperial activities.
Sound a bit more relevant to today now? Yep. Give it a read and see what your take is.
2. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
Four Indians in mid-1970s India
Let’s jump forward a century and hop over to a different continent into another one of these novels that explore different racial perspectives.
Set before the 2000s, A Fine Balance throws you deep into the thoughts of four characters with their conflicting views and opinions on the same topics. Mistry leads you through being a concerned and doting parent one chapter, and a frustrated and restricted child the next. He gives you the gift of understanding both sides thoroughly. There is no right answer. There is only perspective and striving to understand each other.
The story follows these characters through their life’s struggles and illustrates a generational rift as well as an economic rift, as some characters are hugely disadvantaged. One character observes that a white man is always looking up and wishing he had more, while an Indian man has cracked the secret to happiness by looking down and feeling grateful he is not the one in the gutter. Each character strives to make the best out of what he has in an inspiring story.
But clear your schedule; the print is small, and you might need a month or so to get through it.
3. Capital – John Lanchester
A residential street in London, 2012
Capital is one of those incredible novels that explore different racial perspectives. It exposes us to the minds of differently situated individuals by following the menial and mundane activities of London city-living.
One moment you are cozying up to the man who has seemingly earned his worth and spends 12 hour days in the office, supporting him in his morning routine to ensure he is best prepared for the tough meeting that day. Ten pages later, you are agreeing with the poorly treated, over-qualified, and under-appreciated assistant who is being neglected and ignored by the very same man.
An emigrated parking warden made out to be the most unpopular person in the street has her own story of standing up for human rights in her country, being beaten, deported, and made state-less. Working as a parking warden and meeting her ticket quota is the only small achievement she is allowed in a day (albeit illegal) after having her rights stripped from her as a human being.
There is a sense of isolation within the community of women, men, the young, old, local, expat, unlucky, gifted, spoilt, and attentive, and the author breaks down stereotypes; everyone has a backstory.
4. American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins
Mexican migrants on the run
Published just last year, American Dirt is a real-time character-driven exposé of a regular Mexican citizen whose life is turned upside down. A loving mother and wife, protagonist Lydia owns the bookshop of her dreams and is grateful not to be impacted by the growing cartels in the region.
A young man buys some of her favorite books one day, and they strike up a friendship. He visits regularly, and they discover intimate things in common, like losing a father to cancer. Meanwhile, Lydia’s journalist husband is working to uncover the kingpin of the biggest cartel and – yep, *awkward* – it’s the bookshop guy.
After the profile piece is published, her whole family is massacred at a birthday party, which is where the book begins. With her eight-year-old son Luca, she leaves immediately in an attempt to reach the safe neutrality of El Norte, narrowly escaping the grasp of the cartel at every turn. This story skilfully addresses the negative preconceptions of migrants. As Lydia realizes she now belongs to a group of people she has pitied her entire life, prejudices are dissolved, and readers realize that it is: cross the border illegally or die.
There is no choice, and we have no right to judge those who have undergone such a journey.
5. Noughts and Crosses – Malorie Blackman
Black superiority over whites in a different reality
This mind-blowing novel series plays with racial roles in an alternative 21st Century in which Africans have colonized Europeans rather than the other way around.
Slavery has officially been abolished, but racial segregation in society is still at large. So the dark-skinned Crosses are in control of the light-skinned Noughts. The emotive language is intense, with white people described as blank, colorless, and worthless, and rich, beautiful black skin envied.
Noughts and Crosses is a novel told from two people’s perspectives: Sephy, a female Cross, and Callum, a male Nought. They grow up together (Callum’s mum is Sephy’s nanny) and inevitably fall in love. Callum encounters all kinds of setbacks in his life, as his more miserable society – the second race, as it’s called – is excluded from good jobs, the best schools, and any kind of wealth. Now there’s a forbidden interracial relationship that feels impossible. The girl being of a superior race adds another dimension of controversy in terms of gender roles.
This young adult fiction forces you to address any discomfort you feel while reading it, and dissect your thoughts about race.
6. Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo
Black British womanhood in today’s London
This winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize has got to make the list of influential works of art that explore racial histories and identities in our ever-mingling world.
There are many stories in this book of black British women navigating their way in society. It’s one of the best novels that explore different racial perspectives.
With various heritages, sexual biology and preferences, and levels of understanding of what’s socially acceptable in the UK these days, the characters try to break away from their ‘otherness’ and embrace it simultaneously. The perspectives are enlightening, and the best part is that the characters progress throughout. Nobody is the same person by the end of the book as – like in real life – people learn, develop, adapt, change their minds, and grow. It beautifully illustrates mother-daughter relationships as well as friendships and racial differences with white British people.
The style of a continuous narrative stream of personal thought even inspired me to write my lockdown novella, so I encourage you to read this book and see what happens because of it!
7. The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz – Jeremy Dronfield
Vienna in the 1930s, the rise of Nazism
Let’s hop back in time again and into a different culture, a different racist atmosphere.
It’s a seemingly ordinary time for the Kleinmann family of six living in Austria’s capital. However, soon they are on the precarious edge of Germany’s Nazi invasion. Young Kurt cannot believe that yesterday he was playing with his friends, and today they don’t allow him to join in simply because he’s Jewish. The family is heartbreakingly separated. The father Gustav, a furniture upholsterer, is sent away with his son Fritz. They end up in a concentration camp and endure many horrors. But it is not the only concentration camp they will visit; they are imprisoned in many before arriving at the infamous Auschwitz & Birkenau.
This gut-wrenching novel follows familial love and highlights the dark realities of the time.
I’ve also loved The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Cilka’s Journey, and The Librarian of Auschwitz too. However, I can appreciate how Dronfield’s novel begins with a healthy life and a slow degradation into Auschwitz rather than the story opening in the camp.
For insights into how the Holocaust developed, this is an incredibly well-researched and historically accurate novel based on a true story that wasn’t all that long ago.
8. Once Were Warriors – Alan Duff
New Zealand Māori culture 1990
And lastly, a novel from our backyard for those of us lucky enough to call New Zealand home.
After being published in 1990, Once Were Warriors was immediately well-received. It became a classic since here in New Zealand instantly. It was made into a film in 1994. Additionally, Alan Duff is still a prominent literary figure in NZ in 2020.
Duff drew from memories of his childhood to produce this contextual fiction that embodies the genuine struggle of modern Māoris becoming divorced from their culture, and the psychological effects this separation can cause, namely domestic violence and alcohol abuse. The characters are subject to the result of European New Zealand culture pushing native Māori culture to the margins; the social unrest that pursues is evident and quite inevitable.
Read, read, read!
Get to your closest independent bookshop or library and seek out these titles today!
Read. Digest. Have conversations. Be kind.
Do you have any favorite novels that explore different racial perspectives? Read any of these? Share!