This week Krysta and Briana at Pages Unbound are hosting the discussion: Recommend a diverse classic. I should start off by saying that I haven’t read enough of them. My classic niche is definitely 1800s England and France, which I think we can agree weren’t the most diverse places. And so many of the “diverse” classics assigned to us in school (To Kill a Mockingbird, Heart of Darkness, Siddhartha) were actually written by white folks. In fact, if I’m being honest, both books I want to recommend today were written in the 1980s, so I don’t know that I can even really call them classics. So if you want a good recommendation for classics by diverse authors, I might recommend this list from Bookriot.
In the end, though, I think I’m going to stick with my wheelhouse, 1800s England. It’s pretty common knowledge now that Oscar Wilde was gay, but at the time homosexuality was still illegal and Wilde actually went to prison as a result of a semi-public affair. And while queer themes are usually veiled in Wilde’s work, his exuberant personality makes them such a joy to read and watch.
Oscar Wilde was most famous for being a playwright, and I highly recommend the 2002 movie version of The Importance of Being Ernset starring Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, and more. Wilde’s comedy is laugh out loud funny, and these actors really bring the larger than life characters to life.
But Wilde wrote a single novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, that is my recommendation today. It’s a haunting tale of young Dorian, a wealthy socialite so beautiful and self-absorbed that he wishes his portrait would age instead of him. When his wish is mysteriously granted, Dorian leads a life with no other purpose than to fulfill his every desire. As you can imagine, this leads to all kinds of tragedy for the people surrounding Dorian, and soon Dorian’s portrait is unrecognizable.
You’ve probably seen Dorian presented as a monster story in modern media adaptations, which I suppose in a way is true. But in the original novel Dorian is much more terrifying: a wealthy young white man whose privilege protects him and allows him to wreak terrible harm on himself and those around him. This story is haunting for all the ways we see reality reflected in it.
The modern reader will also clearly recognize queer themes in the novel, especially surrounding the character of the artist who paints Dorian’s portrait. Considering the time the novel was written in (1890), the directness of the character’s sexuality is brave indeed.
I’ll also take a moment to recommend the 1980s classic novels by people of color I referenced at the beginning, The Color Purple and Bless Me, Ultima. If you haven’t read The Color Purple yet, I can only assume you’re avoiding it for some reason. Truly, it’s a fantastic piece of fiction, and feminist to boot. Ultima is perhaps a less accessible read, but I really appreciated a glimpse into the beginning of the magical realism movement.
What are your favorite diverse classics?