One of my reading goals this year was to read more books by authors of color, a minimum of two per month. I hit that most months and definitely as an average over the year. I read all the kinds of books I normally do, some great, some mediocre, a few awful. I plan to keep this goal for next year.
As my reading year drew to a close, I was discussing Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer with my Children’s Lit students (a diverse group themselves). As a result of this reading and discussion, I have a lot of thoughts about “diverse reading.” In my post-term, pre-Christmas daze, I’m not in a state to do this post justice, but if I wait it will never get written, so here goes. (And I apologize for referring to academic articles that aren’t freely available).
For class we read Nina Mikkelsen’s “Insiders, Outsiders, and the Question of Authenticity: Who Shall Write for African American Children?” (I think a more accurate subtitle would be “Who Should Tell African American Stories?”). It’s from 1998, but depressingly timely: the main questions about diverse children’s literature still seem to be “who gets to write diverse characters?” and “is it authentic?” I understand why that’s the case–for instance, because publishing is still overwhelmingly white–but I think that the term “authenticity” is taken too much for granted in these discussions. Why is authenticity important? And what does it mean, anyway? Is a fantasy world based on a culture other than medieval Europe “authentic” or appropriation? Does it depend on who wrote it? Who decides what is authentic? What if cultural insiders disagree about authenticity? Is it authentic if one insider says so? And so on. There are good answers to all these questions, but too often they aren’t addressed with any depth in discussions of diversity, at least online.
I don’t think I interrogated “authenticity” enough in class, either, but we did get a lot of mileage out of discussing insider and outsider perspectives, because Alexie and Williams-Garcia depict characters who are both insiders and outsiders to their own culture–these books may be for young readers but they are sophisticated in their presentations of race and identity. We talked about whether a white writer could employ the dark humor or the frank criticism of alcoholism on the reservation that Alexie does. And how Arnold, his protagonist, gains a different (outsider) perspective on these problems by going to the white high school, where he is also both insider and outsider. And we talked about the late-60s clash between regional and generational African American identities in One Crazy Summer, where labels shift (are you Negro, colored, or black?) and there’s tension between being a proper representative of your race and a participant in revolution.
I was puzzled by a reference in Mikkelsen’s article, so I tracked it back to a source she cited and was glad I did; Reed Way Dasenbrock’s “Intelligibility and Meaningfulness in Multicultural Literature in English” changed some of the ways I thought about my own goals for “diverse” reading. [I note here, because if you google him you’ll find this as fast as I did, that last spring a number of faculty members at the university where he is currently an administrator complained that he was guilty of bullying, racism and sexism. I won’t pretend this doesn’t make me somewhat uncomfortable citing him on multicultural literature, but the points in his article haven’t changed and I still like them.] Dasenbrock argues that a book can be in some ways “unintelligible” to a reader outside its culture, but that doesn’t make it less meaningful to that reader:
The difficulty experienced by a less informed reader, far from preventing that reader from experiencing the work justly, is what creates meaning for that reader. A full or even adequate understanding of another culture is never to be gained by translating it entirely into one’s own terms. It is different and that difference must be respected. In multicultural literature in English today, that difference is primarily established by barriers to intelligibility being strategically and selectively raised for the less informed reader, forcing the reader to do work that then becomes part of the book’s meaning. It is not as if the author could have made things easy but refused. Making things easy would have denied the reader the experience needed to come to an understanding of the culture.
For me, this passage clicked in with a number of things I’d read about how literature is aimed at a white, Western (perhaps even more specifically American) audience. Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s “African Books for Western Eyes” argues that while “Contemporary African voices are finally telling African stories . . . we are telling only the stories that foreigners allow us to tell.” More recently Claire Vaye Watkins has written “On Pandering” to white men and Marlon James on pandering to white women.
I have also begun dipping in to Tim Parks’ collection of critical essays Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books, which has a lot to say about the pitfalls of a globalized literary market, including this critique of “The Dull New Global Novel“:
What are the consequences for literature? From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension. . . .
If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as “literary” and “imaginative,” analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those “working for world peace.”
My two most recent diverse reads were “international,” and weren’t dull by any means. Both were mysteries: F. H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles, from the Philippines, and Esmahan Aykol’s Hotel Bosphorus, from Turkey (my waffling over whether this one “counts” is too much for this already lengthy post, but it highlights some problems with “person of color” as a category). Reviews of Batacan’s book have discussed its “hybridity,” the fact that it is both a very Filipino book in setting and sensibility and an American one in its noir form and style. Aykol’s book, which features the owner of a mystery bookstore as its amateur sleuth, is also both culturally distinct and familiar in form. (Its heroine is a German living in Istanbul, its author a Turk who lives part of the time in Berlin, and its depictions of both German and Turkish culture shift from insider to outsider and back in intriguing ways).
These were good books, interesting books, and I’m glad I read them. But reading Dasenbrock’s article made me conscious of how much they did not put obstacles to understanding in my way, how the familiar mystery form–which in both cases, also familiarly, revolved around abuse of children–highlighted similarity, rather than difference, between cultures. That’s not a bad thing. I’m not suggesting that I only want to think about the otherness of characters of color or from other countries.
But I do think I’m more likely to pick up “diverse” reads that fall into my comfort zone in some way, that I don’t have to struggle to make meaning of. So next year, I’d like to challenge myself more with those choices. Just what that means is hard to define. Is it style? Subject matter? Would it mean choosing more literary fiction? I’m not sure, but I’ll try to be conscious of it as I go.
As I pondered all of this, I found myself returning to the library unread some books by authors of color that would have challenged me. Instead, I picked up some British-set mysteries, smack in my comfort zone. I felt a bit guilty doing this, but I was busy and tired and craving the familiar.
So I’ve also been thinking about the fact that leisure reading is not my whole life. I don’t feel obligated to make social justice my reading priority, though I certainly wouldn’t criticize anyone who does decide not to read white men for a year or whatever. What matters far more to me, and can perhaps have a bigger impact than my private reading, is what I do in the classroom. The number of students I teach in any given term is bigger (much bigger, really) than the readership of this blog, and they have to read what I choose. I am always trying to be more conscious there of what I choose and why, and what questions I am foregrounding for our consideration.
In 2016, I’ll aim to read some books by people of color that are sometimes unintelligible to me, because I think it’s a good thing to do and I find it enjoyable. But I won’t worry if the bulk of my reading is more comfortable and familiar, because reading for fun and blogging and tweeting about it is not all I do (if only!).