These Must-Read Debut Works Center Black Stories and Voices

February 18, 2021  • Aspen Words

Throughout the literary community, Black History Month is an opportunity to promote vital work that has been overlooked, undermarketed, and excluded from both bookstore shelves and the literary cannon. The sidelining of Black voices is a historical travesty—but we should not forget that history includes the right now.

For 45 years, Aspen Words has dedicated itself to encouraging writers and inspiring readers, with a goal of connecting us all through stories. In this spirit, the program celebrates an emerging wave of Black voices. These literary debuts—artful and powerful, as well as hilarious, imaginative, and heartachingly sad—are worthy additions to any bookshelf, and to the great American literary tradition.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age cover

Kiley Reid’s debut novel is very of this time. In the opening scenes, a young Black millennial babysitter is accused by fellow grocery store shoppers of kidnapping the child in her care, and the incident is caught on a cell phone camera. From there Reid weaves together a narrative that tackles racial biases and class divides. However, her strength as a writer is her ability to keep the story moving and even make it “fun,” which makes the depths it reaches that much more impressive.

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds cover

In this debut novel, Micaiah Johnson creates an alternate-universe story about hundreds of different Earths slightly different from our own. It’s possible to “traverse” to other planets, but only if your doppelganger there is dead. Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying—from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun. Cara’s life has been cut short on 372 worlds in total, leaving only eight left.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, Real Life, tells the story of Wallace, a black queer graduate student in a Midwestern university town. With exquisite language, this book elucidates the tensions of being black in a predominantly white field and being queer in a predominantly straight culture. Despite the novel’s intersecting themes of racism, intimacy, loss, and trauma, Taylor’s contemplative pacing and quiet tenderness on the page will leave you feeling softer—and more awake—for having read it.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Luster cover

This is a propulsive novel about the messy life of twenty-something Edie, who is by turns destructive, tender, ravenous, wry, sexy, lonely, and more. Leilani is an acrobatic wordsmith and stylish phrasemaker who has a genius way with sentences. The book deserves all the accolades it has received and then some!


The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper 

The Beauty in Breaking cover

In this powerful memoir, the author, a Harvard-educated emergency room physician with a painful family history and a broken marriage, tells the moving stories of the patients she treats and the lessons she learns about healing both body and soul.



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