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Gabrielle Union on Roxane Gay, ‘Waiting to Exhale,’ and the Book That Makes Her Feel Seen

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Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.

You Got Anything Stronger?: Stories

Gabrielle Union isn’t afraid of using her voice, from calling out racism and calling for more representation in Hollywood to revealing deeply personal stories that have resonated with countless women. Her essay collection out today, You Got Anything Stronger? (Dey Street Books) follows her NYT-bestselling We’re Going to Need More Wine. She’s also written two children’s books inspired by her toddler daughter, Kaavia James Union Wade (1.8 million IG followers): Welcome to the Party and Shady Baby, co-written with her husband, former NBA star Dwyane Wade.

The Omaha-born, L.A.-based Union has been an actor for more than two decades. Her TV break was Saved by the Bell: New Class, her first movie was She’s All That, and cheerleading comedy Bring It On has become a cult flick. She’s also a producer—her I’ll Have Another production company just inked a deal with Amazon Studios for queer teen comedy To Be Real, directed by Billy Porter—and an entrepreneur (Black haircare line Flawless by Gabrielle Union; Proudly, a baby product line for children of color; and Bitsy’s organic snack line).

Union once wanted to be a lawyer, earned a sociology degree from UCLA, interned at a modeling agency, makes a vision board every year, walked down the aisle to a performance by John Legend, a guest at her wedding to Wade, has a photographic memory, learned to Double Dutch, likes candied bacon, Words with Friends, Pat McGrath lipstick in Vendetta, and tequila, and her all-time favorite movie is the original Hairspray. She soon starts production on A24’s The Inspection after wrapping Kenya Barris’s remake of Cheaper By the Dozen for Disney+ and Netflix romantic comedy The Perfect Find. That last one can also describe her book picks below.

The book that:

…helped me through a breakup:

Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan. Whew. That book changed how I looked at relationships: what I thought they should look like, and what they actually look like, and learning how to find my peace within the patriarchy and toxic masculinity.

… kept me up way too late:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. It’s an epic love story that I could not put it down until I knew how it ended. And oh, what an ending. Down to the last sentence on the last page.

…I recommend over and over again:

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture by Roxane Gay. I’d like to say for obvious reasons, but we live in the swamp that is toxic masculinity and rape culture abounds and so we have to stay vigilant about fighting it.

…shaped my worldview:

The Autobiography of Malcom X as told to Alex Haley. It was assigned in my African American Studies class at UCLA. The professor advised us to reread it every year because there’s some new part about the book that we would be able to relate to each time we read it, and that has absolutely shaped my worldview.

…made me rethink a long-held belief:

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It explains the great migration, which thankfully explained my family that I definitely had a lot of assumptions about. I kind of made up my mind about who they were and why, but then I read The Warmth of Other Suns, and it blew up everything I knew about Black people, why they are, where they are geographically, and explained my parents and my family in a way I could have never understood previously.

…I read in one sitting, it was that good:

Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris. I was blown away by this world and by really being able to dive deeper into Black queer communities that I never had access to in literature in that way or that I didn’t realize I had access to in that way.

…I’d pass on to [daughter] Kaavia:

Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody. It’s the book that my mom gave me when I think I was in the 4th grade, and it changed how I moved through the world as a young Black girl. It’s an incredibly important and poignant read and should be required reading for every young Black girl.

…I’d gift to a new graduate:

And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou because you’re gonna get knocked on your ass over and over again, and you’re gonna need inspiration to get your ass back up.

…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:

Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor. It explores class within the Black community in a way that I found intriguing and juicy.

…I first bought:

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I wanted to learn more about periods, and everyone called it the period book, and I needed information because no one was as clear as Judy Blume was on the pages of that book.

…has the best title:

Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree. It conjures up every image of the baddest chicks you’ve ever seen in your life.

…has a sex scene that will make you blush:

Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans a.k.a. “Superhead.” She told ALL the tea. Spared no details. The whole time I was like “Wow!” “Wow.” “Oh god.” “Wow!” “Oh!”

…should be on every college syllabus:

Race Matters by Cornell West. I read it my first year of college, and it still holds true to this day. I still reference it. Still very relevant.

…I brought on a momentous trip Dwyane and I took to Africa:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which explores the connection we have as African Americans to Africa in such a profound, beautiful way and really connects you to the land and to each other as Black people.

…I consider literary comfort food:

Sister, Sister by Eric Jerome Dickey. So juicy, so fun, so gripping. I loved it. And after this, I then of course read everything he wrote.

…makes me feel seen:

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Makes me feel seen because when I was young and the assimilation was complete, I thought you had to center whiteness in order to be anything… to be seen, to be heard, to advance in life, to be successful, to be anything. I really saw myself in the character.

…fills me with hope:

In a strange way, The Color Purple by Alice Walker. It fills me with hope knowing that you can suffer unimaginable horrors and still come out on top and intact prioritizing your peace.

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