Multihyphenate mega-talent Michaela Coel first came to fame in 2015, when she adapted her one-woman show into the darkly comic E4 series Chewing Gum. Inspired by her misfit years growing up on an east London estate, the show’s colorful characters and cultures resonated with a generation of Black women and girls who rarely saw themselves on screen.
Following the series’ stratospheric success, Coel was invited to give the keynote MacTaggart lecture at 2018’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, the first Black woman and youngest person to ever do so. Her ground-breaking speech, which Vulture referred to as “a hand grenade into the British television industry,” called out a lifetime of racist, misogynist and disempowering experiences, and openly discussed the unsupportive aftermath of her sexual assault.
In 2020, Coel turned her harrowing story into the soaring HBO-BBC series I May Destroy You, which she created, produced, directed and starred in. A meticulous writer, the script’s bold arcs of autofiction went through 191 drafts before being released to the world – and only after Coel turned down a million-dollar deal when Netflix wouldn’t grant her ownership of the show.
Coel’s first book, 2021’s Misfits: A Personal Manifesto, expands on the MacTaggart speech, acting as a call to arms for outsiders to embrace radical honesty and challenge the stifling homogeny of the entertainment industry.
Asked to name the ten most impactful books of her life by NY-based bookstore One Grand, Coel’s picks explore the beautiful complexity of the human condition. From Yuval Noah Harari’s sweeping exploration of societal future to Patrik Svensson’s evocative meditation-memoir on eels, check out her favorites below.
Society Within by Courttia Newland
“The first book I read that was adjacent to the world in which I lived. It’s about a girl on a west London housing estate, who is a conduit to the lives of all the other people in her orbit. Until reading this, I didn’t realize that books in which I could recognize people from my own life, could be written.” -MC
“I was drawn to the book because of the subtitle: A History of Tomorrow. It had been a year since I left church and I was having what I now understand was an existential crisis and spinning out of my mind: what the fuck is going on, where am I, what is happening? I didn’t understand anything because I’d so whole-heartedly adopted the Bible’s account of reality. Reading Homo Deus helped me understand that nobody really knows what’s going on. Hariri’s theory of where we might be heading made me feel OK about uncertainty.” -MC
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
“Because it helped me give less of a fuck.” -MC
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
“Originally published in China in 2006, but now translated into English, this took me about eight months to read because I had to keep going back. It’s a book that I struggle to explain – it flashes back and forth in time over a million years and across solar systems – but it totally helped me escape this planet. It’s not offering a utopian vision – the future it imagines is fucking terrifying – but it’s so rooted in science that it’s all very plausible. If I can read this book and get it, while also being completely gripped, anyone can.” -MC
The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin
“The second in Liu’s trilogy (see above), that takes off in new and wonderful ways.” -MC
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
“The story of a mouse in a lab undergoing an experiment to make it more intelligent is juxtaposed with a parallel story in which Charlie Gordon, a cleaner in a bakery with learning difficulties, undergoes the same experiment. It may mean different things to different people; for me it was about what you lose when you trade naivete for intelligence – being smart isn’t everything.” -MC
“Reading this reminded me of people who approach life like a video game, without consequence. I love it so much that I included a homage to Kurt Vonnegut in I May Destroy You, in episode two when Arabella is at the clinic and meets a woman who is covered in blood, having been assaulted. The woman says, ‘Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts,’ which is written on Kurt Vonnegut’s gravestone.” -MC
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
“I’m usually drawn to novels, but this beautifully-written collection of short stories was recommended by the same person who recommended Three-Body Problem, and they weren’t wrong.” -MC
Poor by Caleb Femi
“I’ve never read about life on a housing estate written with such beauty. Femi is a poet, and this is a combination of short stories and poems and photography, and – a little like Society Within – it’s about life for people in working-class London who are Black, so again it’s a book in which I saw myself.” -MC
The Book of Eels by Patrik Svensson