12 Iconic Southern Women Authors You Should Be Reading
Is it your turn to choose a new book for book club? Do you have a vacation coming up and need to find something new to read? It's always a good time to pick up a book by a great Southern writer, so we've compiled a list of iconic Southern women authors to inspire your reading this season. These writers are helping to shape the contemporary Southern canon, and we're always excited to dive into their work, much of which is set in the South. While this list represents a small-but-mighty selection of contemporary writers you should be reading, it's sure to send you off into new and interesting reading directions. Start browsing, and you just might find you never want to stop.
Yaa Gyasi proves that you don't have to write for decades before you earn icon status. Gyasi's acclaimed debut novel, Homegoing, was published in 2016 and quickly picked up accolades: It won the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the American Book Award. Those honors were soon followed by more. She was named one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 in 2016, and her most recent novel, Transcendent Kingdom, made the shortlist for the Women's Prize for Fiction. Gyasi, who was born in Ghana, grew up in Huntsville, Alabama.
Georgia has a big roster of iconic Southern writers, and Tayari Jones is one of them. She was born in Atlanta and still lives there, as she is now on the faculty at Emory University. Her novels include Leaving Atlanta (2002), The Untelling (2005), Silver Sparrow (2011), and An American Marriage (2018), which was widely acclaimed and earned her the 2019 Women's Prize for Fiction. Among her other honors include the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and a 2021 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Fiction.
Sue Monk Kidd
Born and raised in Sylvester, Georgia, Sue Monk Kidd initially worked as a registered nurse before switching careers to focus on writing, eventually becoming an internationally best-selling author. Her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, became a New York Times bestseller and was later adapted into a film. Her most recent novel, <em>The Book of Longing</em>s, was released in April 2020 and reached number five on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction list. Her books also include The Invention of Wings (2014) and The Mermaid Chair (2005), among others.
Well-known for her novels, including 1998's The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver has become one of the best-loved writers based in the South. She has connections to Maryland (she was born there) and Kentucky (she grew up there), but she now lives in southwest Virginia, where she continues to write compelling novels. Her other works include the bestsellers Prodigal Summer (2000), Flight Behavior (2012), and Unsheltered (2018), and collections of poetry and essays too.
Bobbie Ann Mason
Not nearly as widely known as she deserves to be, Bobbie Ann Mason should be on your reading list this year. She grew up in Mayfield, Kentucky, amidst the workings of a dairy farm, which inspired many of her Kentucky-set short stories. There's never been a better time to revisit or introduce yourself to Mason's work: Start with Patchwork: A Bobbie Ann Mason Reader (2018), which compiles her ficiton so far, and then read her 1999 memoir, Clear Springs (which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) and her recent novel Dear Ann (2021).
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is a writer of many talents. She's a New York Times best-selling author, an award-winning poet, a successful essay and nonfiction writer, and a professor of English at the University of Mississippi. Barnes & Noble awarded her most recent book, World of Wonders, the 2020 book of the year. Also named a finalist in the Kirkus Prize Finalist for Nonfiction, it's a remarkable illustrated essay collection that belongs on your to-read list. Nezhukumatathil's poetry collections include Oceanic, Lucky Fish, At the Drive-In Volcano, and Miracle Fruit.
Georgia-raised retired-zoologist Delia Owens blew us all away with her debut novel Where the Crawdads Sing. After the initial book release in 2018, fellow Southerner Reese Witherspoon aided its success by selecting it for her book club. This, combined with the rapid spread of word of mouth, helped Owens's novel rise to the top of bestseller lists worldwide. Millions of copies have been sold so far, and Witherspoon's production company has now turned it into a movie.
Eveyone pays attention when there's a new Ann Patchett book on the shelves. Born in Los Angeles, Patchett was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, where she still lives and currently co-owns the independent bookstore Parnassus Books. Patchett's work has gained many fans; her novel Bel Canto won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her other novels include The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician's Assistant, Run, State of Wonder, Commonwealth, and The Dutch House, while her nonfiction works include These Precious Days, Truth and Beauty, and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
From teen rapper to award-winning novelist, producer, and activist, Angie Thomas has earned a place high on the list of Southern authors you should be reading. Drawing from her experiences growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Angie Thomas began writing at a young age. Her debut novel, The Hate U Give, started as a senior project in college and when she completed it, the book debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Not long after that, it was adapted into a film. Her other books include On the Come Up (2020) and Concrete Rose (2022).
One of the most acclaimed poets writing today, Natasha Trethewey is an icon of American letters. She was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, and served as the poet laureate of the state before being appointed United States Poet Laureate in 2012 and 2013. Her work has garnered many accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, which was awarded in recognition of her 2006 collection Native Guard. Her most recent works are a collection of poetry, Monument (2018), and a memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir (2020).
Anne Tyler is known for her novels, many of which are set in Maryland. Though she's lived in Baltimore for decades, Tyler was born in Minnesota and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her published works include more than 20 novels, which include the Booker Prize-shortlisted A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons (1988). Her most recent novels include Clock Dance (2019) and French Braid (2022).
In addition to being a MacArthur Genius and acclaimed novelist, activist, and professor of English at Tulane University, Jesmyn Ward made her mark in literary history by twice winning the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. She won first in 2011 with her novel Salvage the Bones and then again in 2017 with Sing, Unburied, Sing. Ward lives in Mississippi and continues to write stories about family, memory, and the landscape of the South.