1. Natalie Baszile
Natalie Baszile is an essayist and the author of the novel Queen Sugar.
Why you should read her: Queen Sugar is about a single mother who suddenly inherits a sugarcane farm in Louisiana, and moves there from Los Angeles to make a new start for her and her daughter. You’ll want to read this not only because it’s a rewarding story of an uphill battle and deep transformation, but because it’s also about to be adapted into a TV series by Ava DuVernay and co-produced by Oprah.
2. Mat Johnson
Mat Johnson is the author of the novels Drop, Hunting in Harlem, Pym, and the forthcoming Loving Day. He has also published work with Vertigo Comics, including a Hellblazer mini-series and the graphic novel Incognegro.
Why you should read him: Johnson’s work explores race — blackness and whiteness, the politics of passing, interracial marriage — in a way that is no less serious for all its playfulness and sharp wit. Fans of Edgar Allan Poe and postmodernism alike will love his disregard for genre boundaries.
3. Edwidge Danticat
Edwidge Danticat is the author of books such as Breath, Eyes, Memory; Claire of the Sea Light; and Brother, I’m Dying. Her young adult novel Untwine is coming out later this year.
Why you should read her: In her complex and eloquent work, Danticat explores Haiti’s history of violence and trauma, and what it is to be exiled from a place while knowing it cannot truly be left behind.
4. Hilton Als
Hilton Als is the theater critic for the New Yorker and the author of the uncategorizable memoir/non-fiction hybrid The Women and the stunning essay collection White Girls.
Why you should read him: Drawing on his vast knowledge of popular and literary culture as well as his personal experiences, Als writes about art, sexuality, and identity. But you’d still want to read Als if he rewrote the phone book — his prose is that beautiful and complex, pulling us through precise yet unexpected leaps of thought.
5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of the novels Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah, as well as the story collection The Thing Around Your Neck. She is also (so far) the only writer on this list to be featured in a Beyoncé song (her TED talk was sampled on “Flawless”).
Why you should read her: Adichie is one of today’s most celebrated contemporary writers. Her novels confront girlhood and feminism, the Biafran war, and Nigerian politics. Most recently, she wrote about the complications of black identity for a Nigerian-born writer in America in her not-to-be-missed book Americanah.
6. James Hannaham
James Hannaham is the author of God Says No and the forthcoming novel Delicious Foods.
Why you should read him: Hannaham’s novels take us on strange journeys with incredible characters — in his debut, God Says No, a young black gay obese fundamentalist man has just gotten married to a woman (both happen to be Disney World obsessives). In his amazing new novel, Delicious Foods, a young boy searches for his drug-addicted mother, who has been held captive to work on a farm and whose experiences are narrated mockingly and seductively by the drug itself.
7. Helen Oyeyemi
Helen Oyeyemi is the author of novels such as The Icarus Girl, Mr. Fox, and Boy, Snow, Bird.
Why you should read her: Playful and disturbing, imaginative and strange, Oyeyemi’s novels bring fairy-tale weirdness into our daily lives. Her latest, Boy, Snow, Bird, is a stunning retelling of “Snow White” that also explores the consequences of “passing” in a 1950s New England town.
8. Dinaw Mengestu
Dinaw Mengestu is the author of the novels The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, How to Read the Air, and All Our Names.
Why you should read him: Mengestu writes about the experiences of Ethiopian immigrants in America in a way that is both universal and particular. His exploration of alienation and the human struggle to leave the past behind will ring true to anyone who has felt like an outsider, or a stranger to themselves.
9. Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay is the author of the short story collection Ayiti, the novel An Untamed State, and the essay collection Bad Feminist.
Why should read her: Gay’s An Untamed State, the story of a woman kidnapped for ransom in Haiti, is political and deeply personal, describing the myriad ways in which people can hurt and heal one another. Her nonfiction is similarly powerful, leading us through topics light and heavy with ease; whether we’re reading about race, abuse, gender, or Channing Tatum, Gay’s nuance, intelligence, and passion keep us in good hands.
10. Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an editor and writer for The Atlantic, where he published the feature “The Case for Reparations,” and the author of the memoir A Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood.
Why you should read him: When you read Coates’ thoughtful and nuanced writing in The Atlantic, covering everything from race to politics to history to masculinity, you’ll see he is one of the best commentators and thinkers about contemporary America we have today.
11. Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward is the author of the novels Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, and the memoir Men We Reaped.
Why you should read her: Ward explores the lives of the poor and disenfranchised in the contemporary South. In telling the story of a pregnant teenager awaiting Hurricane Katrina (Salvage the Bones) and the real-life tragic deaths of five young black men she knew (Men We Reaped), Ward writes with grace and honesty, open to both joy and sorrow.
12. Paul Beatty
Paul Beatty is the author of the novels The White Boy Shuffle, Tuff, Slumberland, and the forthcoming The Sellout, as well as two poetry collections.
Why you should read him: Beatty started out as a slam poetry champion, which you can still see in his astonishing, hilarious, and energetic sentences. The Sellout is a blistering satire that will make you laugh while confronting undeniably difficult truths.
13. Tayari Jones
Tayari Jones is the author of the novels Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow.
Why you should read her: Whether her characters are coming of age during a series of child murders in Atlanta (Leaving Atlanta) or coming to terms with a father’s secret family (Silver Sparrow), Jones writes about love, death, and family secrets with sensitivity and perceptiveness.
14. Jeffery Renard Allen
Jeffery Renard Allen is a poet and the author of the novels Rails Under My Back and Song of the Shank and the short story collection Holding Pattern.
Why you should read him: In Rails Under My Back, a family saga about the lives of two brothers, and Song of the Shank, which follows a blind piano prodigy after the Civil War, Allen’s experimental and poetic use of language takes us to as many unexpected and rewarding places as his grand narratives do.
15. ZZ Packer
ZZ Packer is the author of the short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
Why you should her: ZZ Packer’s stories build worlds inside small spaces, taking us seamlessly through the lives of such disparate characters as a depressed Yale freshman, a Brownie troop, and a poor expat in Tokyo. Packer is an amazing storyteller, leading her characters to dramatic and decisive moments without sacrificing their innate complexity.
16. Marlon James
Marlon James is the author of the novels The Book of Night Women, John Crow’s Devil, and A Brief History of Seven Killings.
Why you should read him: A Brief History of Seven Killings astonished everyone when it came out last year, a huge, ambitious, and wild novel about a legacy of violence and turmoil in Jamaica that spans from the late ’70s to the ’90s. You’ll be wowed by James’ difficult but necessary ruminations on the ways in which violence touches his characters’ lives, as well as his incredible mastery over the multitudes of voices populating his fiction.
17. Taiye Selasi
Taiye Selasi is the author of the novel Ghana Must Go, as well as a playwright and photographer.
Why you should read her: Selasi’s ambitious novel Ghana Must Go introduces us to a brilliant and talented Nigerian and Ghanian family. As they travel from Lagos to Accra to Boston, Selasi’s characters (and the ways they reshape themselves and their relationships to one another) are persistently riveting, and fallibly human despite their gifts.
18. Teju Cole
Teju Cole is the author of the novella Every Day is for the Thief and the novel Open City, and the new photography critic for New York Times Magazine.
Why you should read him: In Cole’s hands, Open City is both the diaristic meditations of a Nigerian doctor who takes long walks around New York City and an intellectual thrill ride. With his dazzling and expansive mind and penetrating eye, Cole’s writing shows us the world anew.
19. Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW, as well as the essay collection Changing My Mind.
Why you should read her: Starting with her blockbuster debut White Teeth, Smith’s novels are must-reads — not only smart and wonderfully written, but full of storytelling verve and excitement. Smith has established herself as one of our most important contemporary authors, and a brilliant and insightful essayist and cultural commentator.
20. Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead is the author of the novels The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, and Zone One, as well as the nonfiction book The Colossus of New York and the poker memoir The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death.
Why you should read him: Whitehead can make elevator inspection seem fascinating, magical, and utterly vital, as in The Intuitionist, and shine a gentle, quietly funny spotlight on the lives of rich black teenagers in 1985 Sag Harbor (Sag Harbor). Though Whitehead’s books are all very different (Zone One is about surviving a zombie apocalypse in New York City), they’re distinguished by his restless imagination and dry humor.
21. Ayana Mathis
Ayana Mathis is the author of the novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.
Why you should read her: Mathis’ devastating and powerful The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is the epic saga of Hattie Shepard and her children, whose lives are full of tragedy and trauma. It is a microcosm of the 20th century, one that fearlessly shows how much Hattie and her loved ones have to lose, and how hope and redemption are still possible even when everything seems lost.
22. Toni Morrison
Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison is the author of numerous award-winning novels, including The Bluest Eye, Beloved, Sula, and the forthcoming God Help the Child.
Why you should read her: Morrison’s brilliant and unflinching novels grapple with such huge themes as race, sex, and the darkness of human nature, while also delving into the lives of unforgettable characters. Also, she’s Toni Morrison.