Big Issue Vendor

Books about identity: The best reads to explore race, sexuality and gender

Author Dima Alzayat's latest set of short stories explore ideas of otherness and transgression. Here is her list of the best reads on identity.
Author Dima Alzayat. Photo courtesy of Blake Friedman

Books about identity offer a lens through which the reader can explore issues of race, sexuality, gender, nationality and culture.

Dima Alzayat is a Syrian author with a PhD in Creative Writing. Her latest book, Alligator and Other Stories, has been longlisted for the 2021 Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize. In it, Alzayat explores what it means to be the ‘other’; the woman, the Syrian, the Arab, the immigrant. Here, Alzayat tells us her top books for exploring identity and belonging.

The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine

Alameddine is the master of interrogating identity – how it’s made for us and how we attempt to make it for ourselves. This intelligent, funny, and creatively daring novel juggles race, gender, religion, sexuality and culture. It’s heartbreaking and heartmending.

The Arab Apocalypse by Etel Adnan

This book-length poem is a work of visual and literary art. Its subject is the Lebanese Civil War, a conflict in which identity meant life or death for many. The speaker, unmarked by sect or nationality, continuously shifts perspectives, reminding us that identity is fluid and can divide and unite.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

This novel is told from the point ofn view of Japanese ‘picture brides’ who journeyed to the US in the early 20th century. Otsuka uses the plural first person ‘we’ to tell their stories. What results is a powerful collective testimony that still honours individual experiences.

Alligator and other Stories book cover
Books Alligator & Other by Dima Alzayat

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Rankine brilliantly investigates complex identity subjects – like race, gender and class – while creating an interactive reading experience that challenges assumptions. The text is punctuated by photographic television stills, highlighting the media’s role in perpetuating stereotypes.   

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is Lahiri’s second short-story collection focusing on Indian-American immigration and diaspora. With beautiful language, Lahiri probes what it means to belong to a family, a culture, a nation, and even to oneself.

Alligator & Other Stories by Dima Alzayat is out now (Picador, £8.99), and was shortlisted for the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize