The diverse voices of classic literature

While they may have been greeted with shock or entirely overlooked at the time of publication, these novels from diverse voices are literary classics which should definitely be on your must-read list.

by Marissa Constantinou
26/01/2022
2 minutes to read
Mrs Mary Seacole tinted photograph portrait

People from every walk of life, no matter the colour of their skin or sexual preference, have long been expressing themselves through writing. Because school syllabuses and the western literary canon don’t always reflect the full breadth of authors, diverse classics have often been left out of mainstream history and culture. Sometimes they bubble under the surface awaiting discovery, and sometimes they’re loud and proud, fighting for a way in. Here we showcase our pick of must-read classics from diverse authors: two unforgettable novels, a pioneering autobiography and a poetry collection.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

by Frederick Douglass

Book cover for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Portraying a key moment in the anti-slavery movement, this unique memoir tells the incredible story of a man's escape from slavery and journey to freedom. 

Maryland 1818, Frederick Douglass is born into a life of slavery. Spending his youth being passed from master to master, city to field, he is subjected to unimaginable cruelty. But, coming to the realisation that education might be the key to his salvation, he learned to read and write. Using everything he learned, Douglass managed to escape and eventually become a free man. This memoir was hugely influential in the abolition of slavery, a goal that Douglass devoted his live to. 

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

by James Weldon Johnson

Book cover for The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

This groundbreaking novel examines race and class in America at the end of the nineteenth century. The narrator, who has lost his mother at a young age, is forced out of his comfortable middle-class life and into the world. His love of music takes him from an all-Black church in Georgia, to ragtime performances in New York, to the threats of the South. Here, the narrator abandons both his passion for music and his race, deciding to pass for white to survive.

Orlando

by Virginia Woolf

Book cover for Orlando

Following it’s immortal namesake through three centuries of history, Orlando is an whimsical exploration of perceptions of gender and love through the ages. It’s also a love letter, written by Virginia Woolf to her long time female companion and fellow novelist Vita Sackville-West, who inspired the character of Orlando.

Passing

by Nella Larsen

Book cover for Passing

Immerse yourself in 1920s New York through Nella Larsen's distinctive and revealing novel. The story centres around identity, belonging and two childhood friends who’ve long grown apart – Clare Kendry who is proud of her Harlem roots, and Irene Redford who has abandoned them altogether, ‘passing’ as white to her racist husband in the upper classes of New York. As their worlds intertwine once again, tensions lead up to a truly shocking conclusion. A classic far ahead of its time, Passing reads like the best of contemporary literary fiction.

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

by Mary Seacole

Book cover for Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

Mary Seacole was a fiercely independent self-funded entrepreneur from Jamaica. A trained nurse, she was desperate to offer help during the Crimean War, but was denied work by officials and by Florence Nightingale. Mary knew what she wanted to achieve and wouldn’t let anything stand in her way, so she set up her famous hotel for British soldiers, offering respite from the front line. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands is her gutsy autobiography.

Leaves of Grass

by Walt Whitman

Book cover for Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman started writing the poetry that comprises Leaves of Grass in his thirties, and published multiple editions throughout his lifetime, editing and revising it even from his deathbed. Each edition was met with criticism and controversy over the overt sexual imagery, but it was his 1860 edition that took this a step further, collating all his poems about ‘manly love’ in a section called ‘Calamus.’

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

Book cover for The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde has long been a gay icon for his treatment of homosexual desire in his writing – bravery which resulted in heavy censorship from his publisher and shock amongst his 19th century audience. The Picture of Dorian Gray follows artist Basil Hallward as he endeavours to paint a full-length portrait of Dorian Gray, his muse and subject of infatuation. But as Dorian explores his own hedonism and sensuality, the painting starts to morph, reflecting Dorian’s cruel sensibilities, whilst Dorian himself remains unaged.



In this episode of Book Break, Emma shares even more diverse classics you won't want to miss: 

Diverse Classics That Belong on Your Bookshelf