Why You Should Decolonize Your Bookshelf

Plus some great book recommendations to get you started. Photo Credit: Canva

Stop for a second and take a look at your bookshelf. Maybe you have rows upon rows of books organized by genre, author, or book jacket color (if you’ve never heard of this, go search #bookstagram for a plethora of bookshelves that are works of art in their own right). Or maybe your collection is a simple stack of hardcovers on your nightstand, or a few books on floating shelves in your living room. Or perhaps you don’t own many books, but you want to build a home library and you aren’t sure where to start.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ve heard the phrase “decolonize your bookshelf” floating around, and you’re wondering what that means. Well, hello. You’re in the right place.

The concept of decolonizing your bookshelf has been circulating a lot since the racial justice protests of summer 2020, and rightly so. The phrase harkens back to the colonization of the western world by white Europeans and the monopoly on global art and culture that stemmed from that. There’s a reason most books that are considered “great literature” are written by white guys: it’s because they were the only people who had the resources to create and distribute their work on a global scale for a long time. 

That’s not to say that these books weren’t groundbreaking or brilliant; it’s to say that there were a lot of people who never got the same platform for their own stories. The western world has centered its own narratives at the expense of great stories published by and about people who don’t fit its “default,” which is to say white, straight, cisgender men.

By decolonizing our bookshelves, we’re actively working to correct this by adding books to our collections that are written by and about people of diverse identities. If you’re white, like me, it means decentering your own experience – one that has been dominant in the cultural zeitgeist for a very long time – in favor of absorbing and understanding a broad array of perspectives. 

But this work isn’t only for white people. If you aren’t white and all your books reflect only your culture, whatever it may be, there might be room for you to examine your media consumption as well. 

At its core, decolonizing your bookshelf is a step toward building empathy for people who have different life experiences. Studies have demonstrated that reading is one of the best ways to build empathy and form connections with other people. Reading is a way to be in two places at once, seeing through the eyes of an author you’ll probably never meet.

So look at your bookshelf again. Are most of your books written by people who look like you? Then next time you go to buy a book or get one from the library, be intentional about choosing books by diverse authors that tell stories from perspectives different from your own. Below, I’ve recommended a few amazing books to get you started.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Published 1958)

This iconic book is a must-have for anyone building a collection of classics. Achebe’s debut novel follows the life of an Igbo man in nineteenth-century Nigeria as he grapples with the changes brought about by white European colonizers.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (Published 2020)

This young-adult novel follows trans teenager Felix Love as he explores his identity, grapples with an anti-trans bully, and falls in love for the first time. The author is trans and an incredibly prolific writer, but this book was my introduction to their work. Be prepared for happy tears at the end.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo, translated by Jamie Chang (Published 2016)

Are you a fan of K-pop and K-dramas? Because I really, really am — and that’s even more of a reason why you should read this book. It’s a searing exploration of sexism and misogyny in South Korea, and it basically helped kick off what Euny Hong calls Korea’s “feminist wave” in her review of the book in The New York Times. 

How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin (Published 2018)
N.K. Jemisin is one of the most groundbreaking fantasy authors alive, and this collection of her short stories will show you why. Most of her work explores the black experience through a lens of straight-up fantasy, from dragons to fey to ghosts to sentient multidimensional cities.

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