Survivors are as unique and as varied as their experiences. I myself am a survivor — left scarred from a near-fatal car crash at 2 years old, bullied all through grade school, and raised by a violent alcoholic father and a mother who loved him too much to leave. Yet here I am, bruised but not broken, out here living my best life.
Survivor stories need to be told so people who read them know that beyond their own pain and suffering there is healing — and even triumph. Here are some of my favorites.
The Habit of Surviving: Black Women’s Strategies for Life by Kesho Yvonne Scott
The Habit of Surviving comprises four true stories about black women at war with oppression, classism, racism, and sexism. Scott doesn’t believe that black women are “survivors” per se, but that black women are in the “habit of surviving.”
Get it from Amazon for $4.49+.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Celie is a poor 14-year-old girl who is raped repeatedly by a man she believes to be her father. The children she bears for him are ripped away at birth. When Celie’s mother dies, her rapist sells her to a widower who physically and verbally abuses her. But through it all, Celie retains her humanity — discovering her strength and finding love and happiness.
Peace From Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
We know Iyanla Vanzant from her hit reality TV show, Iyanla: Fix My Life. In this heartrending memoir, Iyanla chronicles the dissolution of her marriage, the cancellation of her television show, the death of her daughter, and her own breakdown and recovery.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
When Maya was 8 years old, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. For his crime, the man served one day in jail; later, Maya’s uncles beat him to death. Maya believed that her voice had killed him, so she fell mute for five years — but it was poetry that pulled her back into the world of the speaking.
Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith
On Aug. 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. In this powerful and poignant poetry collection, Smith assumes the voices of Hurricane Katrina, her casualties, and their survivors.
The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
Elegant and tender, this memoir, about the sudden death of Alexander’s husband, is a lyrical account of love, loss, and persistence for the ages.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
This timeless narrative is an unforgettable recounting of Harriet Jacobs’ life enslaved in North Carolina, and of her escape to freedom.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
For most of Ken Kesey’s classic novel, which takes place in a psychiatric hospital, the large, quiet Native American character Chief is observer and narrator, and he learns a lot by watching McMurphy, the protagonist. The most critical lesson: the importance of freedom by any means necessary.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
This survival story is whimsical and harrowing. Pi is an ordinary boy who discovers his extraordinary side when tasked with saving his own life.
Night by Elie Wiesel
Night is the shocking and deeply touching personal account of Wiesel’s survival as a young man in the Nazi death camps.
Bernice L. McFadden is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere Is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012), Glorious, and The Book of Harlan (winner of a 2017 American Book Award and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction). She is a four-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of three awards from the BCALA.
Her latest novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies, is out Aug. 28.