My Year in Reading: Diversity

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 Bosphorusfrom 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!).

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21 Responses to My Year in Reading: Diversity

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    This is a really interesting post: thank you! I especially appreciate your thoughtful remarks on “authenticity,” which I too have found a troubling standard — not just for race / ethnicity / culture but for gender as well. A lot of assumptions go into declaring someone “authentic” that not only seem to shut down the importance or even the possibility of the sympathetic imagination but also start to seem uncomfortably like ideas of “purity.” Jhumpa Lahiri has remarked, too, (as have others) on ways that writers can feel corralled into speaking as or for a particular identity. I thought Amminata Forna’s essay in The Guardian was very thought-provoking about the difficulties of all this:

    Having said that, I like your idea of reading that is more challenging — even as I think you are right to acknowledge that your leisure reading need not be all about “social justice.” As you say, in the classroom we have a different relationship, to our books and to our students.

    I always enjoy your round-ups of things you’ve read. It has seemed as if 2015 was a pretty good reading year for you! Here’s hoping 2016 is another. Happy Holidays!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Rohan! And thank you for linking the Forna piece, which is great. I mentioned that one to my students when we were talking about shelving/publishing categories.

      I think that choosing readings for a course always makes me think about diversity, including how many kinds of “diverse” reading there are–I think about the gender, race, ethnicity, nationality of authors; about the kinds of books/stories (form, genre, mode); about their subject matter and themes. There’s no way you can include everything you might want to in any course, so I know I am making important choices about what to foreground, that are going to shape the conversations we have. What are my aims, and what kind(s) of diversity are most important to present? How does that change when I have a majority-female, racially diverse classroom? These questions only seem harder the more I think about them.

      I am wondering now what’s out there exploring the meaning and value of “authenticity,” in both academic and non-academic criticism. It seems to be a term that’s largely taken for granted (although to be fair to Mikkelsen, whose essay I started with, she’s clear that there is no ONE authentic representation, and she does make gestures towards a definition).

  2. Sunita says:

    This is such a great, thought-provoking post. I didn’t read as diversely as you did, I don’t think (even accounting for my having read fewer books), and a lot of my “diverse” reads would count for me as comfort reads (de Bodard, Lin). The settings they employ and the types of characters they create remind me so much of the non-Western parts of my background and upbringing. Does that count as reading diversely? In some ways I’d have to say no, which just reinforces your point.

    The subjects I taught this semester really sent me to the comfort reads and escapist parts of my personal library. It was exhausting because almost every class discussion wound up integrating real-world events with the scholarly research. It was also terrific, because I want my teaching to help them make sense of the world around them, but we all could have managed with a little less pointed relevance.

    I had mixed feelings about the Watkins essay but I loved Marlon James’s comments. And thanks for the reminder of the Parks volume; time to get it off the TBR and into my brain.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      “Diverse” reading is going to mean different things to different readers, isn’t it? And that term is so troublesome. It requires us to read a *variety* of things, I would think. So why do we use it to talk about only some kinds of authors/characters? (This is a rhetorical question, I guess, but it shouldn’t be). Is it Keira who mentions male authors when considering the diversity of her reading, because she reads mostly women? That seems counter-intuitive when you think about things like VIDA counts, but can make perfect sense for an individual reader. I don’t think we have very good language for considering these issues in our reading–and the terms we use are often white-American-centric.

      I liked that Marlon James addressed the *middle-class/suburban-ness* of the reading audience he thinks authors have to pander to, as well as whiteness and gender. Class very rarely gets acknowledged in these discussions. Is that because a lot of books about working-class life are by white men, I wonder? (It seems that’s true for the ones I hear about, at least). I may not live in the suburbs, but I’m pretty much that soccer mom audience he’s talking about, so I do want to search out books that don’t pander to me and my ideas of literariness, some of the time.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Oh, and I meant to say–ONE CRAZY SUMMER, especially, proved very relevant to current events, though it’s set in 1968. That led to some good discussion of how although the “historical” (hey, for middle-grade readers, it is!) parts of the book would be unfamiliar for child readers–and most of my students didn’t get things like the reference to Cassius Clay vs. Muhammad Ali or know who Ali is (!?! I felt so old and told them how he lived in my neighborhood when I was a kid)–many would still have a lot of context that would help them understand the issues raised in the book.

        For us, in a Canadian classroom, those real world issues were at a certain distance. That was a deliberate choice I made, with a lot of thought–because I chose two American books for our “diverse” reading, no one in the classroom had the burden of being the “insider” who had to explain something/give the stamp of authenticity for others. I think that worked well. We also read a locally-set book that dealt with poverty, among other things, and it was interesting to see how much more “real” and live those issues felt to some of them as a result of the familiar setting. I think it had the biggest emotional impact even though it didn’t connect with headlines in the same way as ONE CRAZY SUMMER.

      • Sunita says:

        I think that James’s comments were more about publishers’ gatekeeping strategies than readers. It’s telling that he refers more than once to the archetypal reader. Of course he knew what he was saying and that he’d get blowback for it, but the way any successful litfic or general fic book spawns copycat releases is telling (GONE GIRL anyone?). And I can’t really disagree with his comments about New Yorker fiction, however high-quality it may be.

        We all have stereotypes of literariness, but only some of them shape what gets acquired and published, which I think is his main point.

        I am totally not surprised that your students don’t know about Cassius Clay. Mine think Radiohead is old people music, and they’re not entirely wrong. 🙂

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Yes, that’s a good point. The publishers have an archetypal (and perhaps inadequate–I think they can underestimate us) reader in their heads.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        This discussion made me think back on my childhood reading. When I lived in Israel, I read children’s books that had been translated into Hebrew from multiple languages (mostly European ones like English, German, French, Swedish, Greek, but also Arabic) as well as original (non-translated) books in Hebrew.

        After moving to the US, my reading became much more English language focused and now I only very rarely read translated books. This change made the scope of the world I read about feel narrower, even as my vocabulary widened (because English has a larger vocabulary than Hebrew). Still, when I think about diverse reading, I think about reading authors writing in languages other than English, as well as English-speaking authors from diverse cultural backgrounds.

        It’s embarrassing to admit how rarely I do this. Other than Stieg Larsson’s series, I think the last translated book I read was Can Xue’s short story collection, Dialogues in Paradise, which I read and loved well over a decade ago. I don’t make an effort to seek out translated books, but it makes me a little sad, because I know I’m missing out.

        • Janine Ballard says:

          I just remembered Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem which I read this summer. Still, I don’t read nearly enough translated fiction.

  3. KeiraSoleore says:

    I do take exception to Marlon James’s: “…he could have been published more often if he had written ‘middle-style prose and private ennui’.”
    And also: “…publishers too often sought fiction that ‘panders to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia.'”
    And finally this: “…this bias towards the archetypal female reader was ‘probably’ a factor in his famous 78 rejections for his first novel…”
    So like all men, he’s referring to books by women writers and books women read in that derogatory fashion, even while he’s complaining that the publishing industry is unwilling to support the kind of books he wants to write. So a minority can complain about his “othering” while “othering” another minority. How depressing.

    Love that Forna piece. I read it when it was first published and was glad to read it again.

    Yep, that was me talking about diversity as including male authors, audiobooks, non-western locations, different religions, even vastly different ideas…not just POC authors/characters. Diversity is personal and is impacted by an individual’s background. So what is diverse for me might be different from what is diverse for you. And that highlights the diversity between you and I.

    I know I’m banging on this drum again, but since you bring up authenticity and insider/outsider points of view, I couldn’t resist. There was a discussion on Twitter where a big name author was genuinely asking how should a Regency white character refer to a mixed-race woman? Would he think of her merely as exotic or what other words would he use to describe her to himself? I think this was an excellent question where an author is questioning her white-centric knowledge and is inviting engagement from others on what is the best approach. She was reviled and made fun of by POC authors and readers for even attempting the word ‘exotic.’ Instead of helping her with suggestions, they were too busy putting her down for being inauthentic and derogatory. She wasn’t being derogatory. She was asking for alternatives because her go-to word felt wrong to her. A lesser person would’ve shut up, used ‘exotic’ anyways, or changed the character to be white to avoid the issue.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      You know, I don’t know if James is just talking about writing by women–he could just as easily be talking about Jonathan Franzen. And since women are the biggest consumers of all kinds of fiction, I think that’s maybe why he talks about women in particular. But when I looked at his Facebook page where he originally made these comments (I think it’s linked from the Guardian piece I linked) it’s clear some women writers did take it that way, and objected that it’s so hard, or was for a long time, for women to write what *they* want and get published. So I don’t disagree with you either. But I think his point about “cultural ventriloquism” and how stories about diverse characters/settings can be more palatable to a white audience coming from a white writer–that’s pretty accurate.

      Twitter discussions of these topics are really lacking in nuance. But the story you tell points up an issue in romance, where we have the close third person (or now increasingly third person) narration. So how would a writer of a historical NOT use terms that are now offensive, if that is what her characters would use? Is it better not to include people of color, if that would mean either reflecting racist attitudes of the past? I wouldn’t say so, and I would say that a book can show how a character’s views are problematic. But I think romance sometimes cannot handle these questions easily and honestly, frankly, because of expectations that the characters be “heroic” and close identification with their points of view. A lot of people don’t want to admit that, in my opinion.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        Addressing historical racism is very tricky to do. In portraying a character’s racist–to modern eyes but true to the accepted broad culture of his times–views the author runs the risk of being labeled racist herself. The anti-Semitism in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy is case in point. Is it that she’s imposing her racism on her character or is the racism innate to her character? Many people believe it’s the former. Many vow to stop reading Heyer after they read this. When you see things like this happen, it’s no wonder some writers shy away from addressing it at all.

        I understand perfectly well why this happens, but I wish people wouldn’t demand authenticity and be so defensive at the same time. People demand openness of others and yet are close-minded about certain things that are too close to home. When you demand openness, you have to be willing to read uncomfortable things that may have been accurate in their times even if they were wrong then and are wrong now. The fact that those majority opinions existed in a fact. Why cavil about it? And why conflate the author with her character(s)?

        • Janine Ballard says:

          I have to think that the anti-Semitism wasn’t just Sophy’s but also Heyer’s, mainly because Goldhanger the specificity of details with which Goldhanger was portrayed fit the Jewish stereotype common in 20th century Europe (and unfortunately still around in some places today) to a T.

          From his lack of cleanliness and greasy hair, to his predatory nature (both financial and sexual), to his nose which in the original edition Heyer labels “Semitic,” from his dark curls to his loan shark role to the fact that he had no redeeming qualities, his portrayal makes it clear that Heyer wasn’t very thoughtful when she approached his characterization.

          Had Heyer wanted to show that it was Sophy who was the anti-Semite (Doubtful IMO, since what purpose would that have served in the story? We’re supposed to cheer for Sophy when she stands up go Goldhanger) she could easily have fleshed out the character of Goldhanger or made us feel sympathy for him. She could have delved into his POV to show us the disparity between Sophy’s thoughts of him and who he actually was. But I don’t see anything like that in the book.

          Lastly, it’s not necessarily that people vow to stop reading Heyer after reading the book. In my case, I actually went on to read one or two other Heyers before my feelings about this book caught up to me. I would actually like to read more Heyer, but I’m afraid to, because this book was such a hurtful experience for me.

        • KeiraSoleore says:

          Thank you for this comment, Janine. It really helps to see the same character/story/author from a Jewish person’s point of view, and goes to show how my non-Jewishness blinded me to certain stereotypes in Goldhanger’s character that truly show not just Sophy’s anti-Semitism but Heyer’s as well. Thank you!

  4. Sunita says:

    @Janine: I don’t read nearly enough in translation either. I’m reading a novel translated from Spanish right now, an excellent translation, and I’m reminded of how much great literature there is out there that we don’t see because English dominates the market so much. Like you, I used to read a lot more in other languages, but it’s so easy to just keep reading the stuff that’s talked about the most.

    On Heyer, I agree with you that it’s Heyer’s narrative voice, not a quality of Sophy’s character. In addition to the reasons you’ve given, it doesn’t really suit her personality, and in that scene she’s quite dispassionate with him. She’s not falling back on stereotypes to make sense of him, in fact she sees through his threats in a way that has nothing to do with his religion or ethnicity. In APRIL LADY, which was published a few years after SOPHY, Heyer has another Jewish moneylender character, but there’s much less of the anti-Semitic language in that book. Which makes me wonder if she received complaints or at least advice in the interim.

    • Janine Ballard says:

      Great points about Heyer’s narrative voice. I read somewhere that Heyer had the word “Semitic” (in reference to Goldhanger’s nose) edited out of later editions of THE GRAND SOPHY, which I first came across in the 1950 edition (It was just my bad luck to borrow that from the library), so I too wondered if she got feedback that caused her to change her mind.

    • KeiraSoleore says:

      That’s an interesting point that perhaps Heyer did get feedback and did act on it.

  5. Liz Mc2 says:

    I read a couple of translated books this year, both mysteries. (One Italian and HOTEL BOSPHORUS–SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES was written in English). I’d like to read more, though. My favorite indie bookstore stocks lots of Europa editions and they often tempt me. I should take more chances on them. (I do have the second of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in my stash).

  6. KeiraSoleore says:

    I read two Icelandic novels in translation this year. Like you all I don’t read enough–hope I try more in 2016. These are the ones I read: Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir translated by Brian FitzGibbon and Reykjavík Nights by Arnaldur Indriðason, translated by Victoria Cribb.

  7. KeiraSoleore says:

    I thought this article, though tangential to our conversation here, on whitewashing history to fit today’s sensibilities is interesting. It’s by Mary Beard, a classics scholar and don at Oxford.

    • Sunita says:

      Thanks for that link. The discussion in the comments is excellent. I have to disagree that removing a statue equals “whitewashing history” or pretending Rhodes’ relationship to Oriel didn’t exist. His name is all over all kinds of things and no one is talking about rewriting Oriel history to exclude all mentions of him. Beard, of all people given her area of expertise, knows the symbolic value of statues. There’s a reason statues are put on pedestals. Unless the statue has unusually high artistic merit, it’s clearly there to celebrate Rhodes, not simply to acknowledge his existence, let alone to grapple with the problems inherent in accepting the fruits of his financial and political power. Removing that statue isn’t going to change history, it’s going to stop students from postcolonial countries from “an image of Rhodes … staring down on them,” which even Beard admits is “a bit in your face.”

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