Whenever you see a list of the greatest literary heroines, you can always expect pretty much the same characters to appear with little variance.
There are the requisite Jane Austen heroines, maybe a Charlotte Bronte character or two, and the modern YA trifecta of Katniss, Hermione, and Tris Prior. If we’re lucky, there are also one or two obligatory token heroines of color from what seems to be the only books any has ever read that prominently feature people of color. This usually means Janie Crawford from Their Eyes Were Watching God, or maybe Celie from The Color Purple to represent the Black women. To represent the entire Middle Eastern region, you might see Scheherezade of The Thousand and One Nights make an appearance. Hua Mulan might make it hold it down for all Asian women, and we just may get a mention of Ursula Iguaran from One Hundred Years of Solitude for the Latinas.
When the only East Asian heroine to hit popular radar likely only makes it because of a popular Disney movie based off of the real tale… you know it’s pretty bleak out there for heroic literary ladies of color. I admit that I’ve also committed some of these same literary list crimes, because it’s a lot easier to compile the quick list of characters everyone already knows and loves than it is to take a look at the giant, glaring blind spot Western literature lovers have for literature by and about characters of color.
Heroines of color may go under recognized by mainstream media and even school syllabi, but these characters are often crucially important to the young women of color who encounter them for the first time despite popular opinion obscuring them. For example, when I first encountered The Jaguar Princess by Clare Bell, my whole world exploded as I discovered a heroine who shared the same heritage as the people in my largely Latino community. Suddenly, I found that fantastical worlds and heroic tales didn’t just belong to white people. Soon, I was discovering other heroines of color whose particular worries and experiences reflected my own.
As important as it is for young women of color to see themselves reflected in literature, it’s also important for all people to see these cultures and peoples represented in literature as well. It fosters cross-cultural understanding and empathy. Besides, who wouldn’t want to learn more about the world and its many different ways of being?
So, what is it that’s keeping these important and impressive literary characters from popular recognition? Surely it’s a combination of many factors, including publishers’ fears, readers’ prejudices, narrow-sighted school boards, and maybe even bookstore layouts that often relegate literary fiction about people of color to sections labeled “Ethnic Literature” or “African American Studies.”
Regardless of the causes, it’s high time that anyone who dares to call themselves well-read makes an effort to read beyond the canon, an effort to actually seek out books rather than relying on what’s popular to represent entire regions and peoples (i.e. reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez doesn’t make you an authority on Latin American literature; reading Toni Morrison novels doesn’t mean you understand the Black experience).
Need a little help finding those books? Google! Peep the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, or sign up for the newsletters for presses or bookstores like The New Press, New Directions, Two Lines Press, Marcus Bookstore, organizations that make it a point to focus on underrepresented literature or literature in translation.
We all have big, gaping, embarrassing holes in our reading knowledge. Time to own up to them and do something about it. We’re missing out if we don’t.
There are any number of excuses we give ourselves to get away with a homogenous reading habit. But most of them are pretty bad excuses, or just downright incorrect assumptions. Now, let’s get one of the worst of those excuses out of the way.
There is no mysterious dearth of women writers of color or literary characters of color.
Of course, publishers’ fears and readers’ prejudices certainly get in the way of there being more books published that feature prominent characters of color. It’s easy to read a couple of books by Toni Morrison or gush about Gabriel Garcia Marquez then pat ourselves on the back and call ourselves well-rounded. But as intelligent, interested readers, we can’t let ourselves get away with rallying behind one or two authors of color as representatives of entire bodies of literature.
Writers have been writing about women of color and marginalized communities for ages, so we know it is not an issue of lack. Some of the oldest literature in the world came out of what we now call the Middle East. An Akkadian high priestess Enheduanna is often cited as the very first known author in history. And today worthy contemporary women writers of color are many and spread across many different genres, even if they’re not getting the attention they deserve.
I certainly don’t have the literary chops to offer up a comprehensive history of profound women of color characters in literature (and a frank discussion of exactly what it means to be “of color” is out of the scope of this article), but I can do a little better than the usual sprinkling of token characters that make the cut to inspire a little more diverse reading. So, here’s a small sampling of some of the badass literary heroines you might be missing out on.
Frado (Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson)
Frado is born to a pretty raw deal in the world. Abandoned by her mother and left to a white family run by a cruel mistress Mrs. Bellmont, Frado endures physical and verbal abuse and a great deal of loss. But through faith and the affections of others of the Bellmonts, Frado finds the strength to do the unthinkable for an indentured Black woman in her situation and stands up to Mrs. Bellmont and dares to strike out on her own despite everything that stands against her.
Su Nan (Naked Earth by Eileen Chang)
Eileen Chang is something of a tragic figure and a hopeless romantic, and both come through thick in Naked Earth and in the novel’s heroine Su Nan, whose strength and vulnerability are equally poignant, making her one of the most realistic characters you’ll ever read. She’s a romantic and tragic heroine whose revolutionary idealism and life succombs to the the cruelties of Maoist China and the Korean War.
Angela Murray (Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset)
Plum Bun is a romantic tale that would fit nicely alongside the likes of Jane Austen’s heroic romances. Angela Murray is a flawed heroine who grows as she navigates the racial situation of the 1920s in the U.S. at first by passing for white. But she soon learns to love herself and let herself be loved.
Josefita (Tita) de la Garza (Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel)
Arranged marriages, frustrated love, self-sacrifice, evil mothers, and magical defiance… it’s the perfect setting for a Western heroine, but still, even despite the popularity of the novel, Tita de la Garza is pretty underrated when it comes to popular acknowledgement of literary heroines. She stands strong against the cruelties and discriminations she faces and dares to defy traditions of family, social expectations, and even the hardening effects of loss and heartache in order to secure her own happiness.
Sierra Santiago (Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older)
These days the heroines who seem to be commanding the spotlight tend to come from the YA genre, young women fighting in magical or post-apocalyptic worlds against impossible odds. Shadowshaper’s Sierra Santiago would fit right in with this group. Inheriting the ancestral gift of shadowshaping, Sierra is suddenly thrust into a world of magic and danger, but (because Older is a genius) she is also still navigating the very real issues of a very real Brooklyn, including race, gender, gentrification, and the complexities of being simply being young, Puerto Rican, and female in American society. Sierra, however, is that perfect YA combination of strong and kind that makes her truly heroic yet human.
Wang Xifeng (Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xuqin)
A complex, complicated heroine, Wang Xifeng isn’t always kind or even morally upstanding. She can be harsh and downright cruel when her autonomy and power are challenged, but she it is this same boldness and strength that make her fearless and badass. Honestly, she kind of resembles one of those likeable mob boss characters we all fall in love with. She may be one of a large cast of main characters but she’s one of the most interesting characters in this behemoth of a book.
The closing point here is that there are plenty of well-written diverse books out there. You simply have to look for them.