Monday, February 8, 2010

Diversify Your Reading!

A challenge:

Think about the books you've read lately. Where countries were the authors from? Did you read anything in translation? How many of the authors were people of color? Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender? Disabled or non-neurotypical?

By now we've all heard of the recent debacles involving Bloomsbury Children's Books and their Epic Racial Double-Fail, so I won't recount the whole sad story here. Book blogs and political blogs alike lit up like Christmas trees. The latter group was on familiar ground - privilege, representation, invisibility, and so forth were all concepts they dissected in the regular course of business. But as for book bloggers - maybe it was just me, but reading around, I noted an undercurrent of surprise that such a thing could still happen in this day and age.

I include myself. I was shocked too. First there was the act itself - putting white girls on the covers of books about girls of color - and then it was the education that came with it. The first Bloomsbury controversy, involving Justine Larbalestier's Liar, coincided with my introduction to the progressive blogosphere after having been raised a white, affluent conservative Republican for 20+ years. All of a sudden, I was hearing voices I'd never heard before and encountering viewpoints that, despite all my reading and love of international literature, I would never have thought of!

What I learned was not only how deeply such behavior hurts historically marginalized groups, but how pervasive it still is and how it manifests itself in the most seemingly innocuous ways. @deepad:
I grew up with half a tongue.

Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it. . .

The Western publishing industry has the luxury of being able to support the base camps of crappy first novels and cliché-ridden genre fiction hacks and niche-marketed speciality [sic] books that creates the momentum for the breakout book, the genius author. If you grow up in a country where every child has held a crayon in nursery school, you are at an advantage.
Kate Harding tackles the "but businesses have to make money" issue deftly in an article on Salon, pointing out, as did Justine Larbalestier, the author of "Liar," that books with characters of color are so seldom giving the full support of publishing houses that it is impossible to judge how they would fare in an even playing field. But I'm concerned about something beyond business. As someone who was once a little, black girl who haunted libraries and book someone who loves the two little black girls who are my nieces, I am concerned about the ongoing message Bloomsbury is sending that black girls and women are unsightly, unwanted and undesirable.
As an aspiring novelist myself (now if only I could think of something to actually write about. . .) I've sometimes worried about the very real marginalization of female writers (link via Feministing). But then I wonder how much I really have to be concerned about.

So having stated my case, I now introduce to you, without further ado, a new website I just found, courtesy of Emily's blog, called Diversify Your Reading. It is not really a blog per se. It's a clearinghouse of blog reviews of books written by underrepresented groups, whether non-white, non-Western, GLBT, disabled, or any combination thereof. Please please please do check it out - it's not a perfect resource (I can't help but to feel that there's something "othering" about such an undertaking) but it's a great start. You'll be doing yourself and the world a favor.

I've already submitted so many reviews they must be sick of me!


Caitlin said...

Nice post & thanks for the link. I am always really mixed about a lot of this because on the one hand I'm a unrepentant lefty politically and on the other hand I don't want books set into sections in the bookstore. I don't want a Women's Fiction section or an African American fiction section - I want a fiction section with all that stuff in it.

I read from a pretty diverse field, but I kinda hate even making that statement as much as I'm really proud of it.

That said I think everybody would be happier if they could take a couple of minutes to try to figure out what it might be like to be somebody else, especially a less common somebody else than the usual old dead white guy. I like the old dead white guys, but there's really more to life.

Lastly, try to avoid the Vanity Fair cover of upcoming Hollywood starlets. Apparently there are no people of color worth talking about. It reminds me why I take regular media breaks, you know?

E. L. Fay said...

Yep, I don't like the idea either, of bookstores having a general fiction section and then a section devoted to, say, African-American fiction. It's othering and it lumps a diverse group of individuals together based on one single physical characteristic.

I'm proud of my diverse (if male-dominated) reading too but I'm willing to brag about it if it'll get the word out about great books few people have heard of. I agree: dead white guys are cool, but so are a lot of other people.

Teresa said...

Thanks for helping get the word out about Diversify Your Reading. And a double thanks for all your contributions to the site. (We're not at all sick of you!)

I hear you on the whole "othering" thing. I'm not a fan of separating out African-American or women's fiction in the bookstore either. Still, even in bookstores where there isn't a separate section (like my local Barnes and Noble), the general fiction section seems overwhelmingly white and U.S. or U.K. based, and that's a shame. My hope is that the Diversify site can just make readers more aware authors of color and international authors so they'll make the necessary effort to seek them out.

Emily said...

Haha, you really went to town over there! :-)

I agree with your concerns about othering, but I also feel like a computer-based resource like a blog is SO much better-suited to spotlighting different categories of authors, because posts can be cross-referenced using tags, categories, and other indexing tools. It's not like in a physical bookstore, where if you have one copy of a book it has to be EITHER in the queer section, or the African-American section, or the General Fiction section (not to mention: the Sci-fi or the Mystery section?). With tags you can easily have a single review belong to all of those categories. It doesn't get rid of the entire othering problem (classifying authors based on skin tone, for example), but at least it means being in one place doesn't preclude being in another.

Richard said...

I just sent some links over to Diversify Your Reading, E.L. Fay, so thanks to you and Emily and that blog's organizers for applying the "peer pressure." I think the purpose of that blog is hard to find fault with in terms of them wanting to set up a clearinghouse for posts about works that might not have gotten sufficient attention, but I hear what you're saying about some of your concerns. Don't really care for that tired old "you're with us or against us" talk I've seen pop up in some of the discussions in the blog world of late.

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