Mecca Jamilah Sullivan's 6 favorite coming-of-age books

The award-winning writer recommends works by Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and more

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan.
(Image credit: Courtesy Image)

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan is an award-winning short-story writer and associate professor of English at Georgetown University. Her debut novel, Big Girl, is a coming-of-age story set in Sullivan's native Harlem in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange (1982)

Shange's dazzling novel is a portrait of Black girl magic and an exemplar of narrative craft. It shifts between the perspectives of three brilliantly artistic sisters who come of age during the American civil rights and Black Arts movements. Incorporating songs, recipes, incantations, and more, the novel follows the women as they discover themselves, their desires, and the collective power that lives in creative expression. Buy it here.

Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (1990)

In this story of a young woman who has left the West Indies to work in an American city as an au pair, the first-person narration is alive with alienation and longing, yet it also sparks with acerbic humor, the lushness of her desire, and her sharp critique of neocolonial power. Buy it here.

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Jazz by Toni Morrison (1992)

Jazz is a portrait of a family contending with the violence and beauty of both personal and national histories. Yet the novel is also a portrait of an era, of a musical aesthetic, and of Harlem. Morrison weaves these stories together with the rhythmic surprise of jazz itself. Buy it here.

White Rat by Gayl Jones (1977)

Jones' short stories are master classes in narrative interiority: They bring readers into the core of the characters' inner worlds, briefly piercing the strictures of race, class, gender, and heterosexism that silence them. Jones renders the tender, nuanced valences of Black girls' inner life with exquisite humor and heart. Buy it here.

Living as a Lesbian by Cheryl Clarke (1986)

A foundational Black lesbian feminist poet, Clarke alights in this poetry collection on key moments of her speakers' lives, tracing the arc of one life while showing the intricate, necessary threads between the personal and the political. Buy it here.

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde (1982)

For me, Zami is a lifelong guide, both in narrative craft and cultural critique. With Zami, Lorde invented the "biomythography," melding multiple forms of prose and poetry to relate a story of fat, Black, lesbian coming-of-age in Harlem in the mid–20th century. Zami created space for books like Big Girl, and for those of us whose voices and bodies refuse to fit. Buy it here.

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