Reading in Colour
I was planning on doing a review post today. But there’s this issue, that I’ve been trying to write about all month, and I just can’t seem to find the right way to approach it. I’ve gone through four drafts, and none of them have satisfied me. But, here I am, trying again.
I live in a white-washed society. And as a white person, I benefit from that.
You know, I’ve heard about privilege, the -isms, and all of that since I began college. I’m sure many of you have as well. If not, you need to go read this article: “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy Mackintosh. Go on; I’ll wait. It shouldn’t take you long to read, and I think it’ll really help our discussion here. Because I do want a discussion.
A couple weeks ago, this whole privilege thing, and how easy it is to be oblivious to it when you’re the beneficiary, really struck home for me. I was hanging out with my best friend here. He’s a great guy, and he’s also a straight white guy from an upper middle class Christian family who’s pretty tall and not overweight, so he’s got just about every privilege there is. ;) I was trying to explain to him why I am a committed feminist, and why feminism still matters in our world today. I don’t want to make this a post about feminism, so don’t comment on this bit, but when I said: “I want to look at our Senate and see 50 women senators. I want over 200 women sitting in our House of Representatives. Because until then, I don’t feel like my government is made of my people,” (Or something to that effect.) he replied “Well then, run for office.” And I wanted to scream, because I was trying to get through to him that he doesn’t have to run for office, he can live his life however he chooses, comfortable in the knowledge that our government has a ton of people who are the same gender as him. Basically, I wanted to smack him over the head with his knapsack.
Back to race. Just in case you didn’t go read that article, or if you haven’t read it in awhile, here’s the part I’d like to focus on:
In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth. Disapproving of the system won’t be enough to change them. …To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions.
Yep, I jumped over a bit of it. But you get the gist, right? So let’s talk about one of those unseen dimensions, the one that’s relevent to book blogging. Let’s talk about how many white authors we read vs. how many authors of colour. Do you know? Have you paid any attention at all to what ethnicity the authors you read are? Because if not, and if you live in one of these white-washed societies, I’d be willing to bet you’re reading almost all white authors.
Almost six months ago, back in August, I suddenly realised that 80% of the fiction I read was by white people. I didn’t put it that way at the time, though…no, I said that 20% of the fiction I read was by people of colour. The latter makes it sound better, doesn’t it? But I made a decision: for the rest of the year, I wanted to read an equal amount of white/POC fiction and make sure that 25% of my nonfiction was written by authors of colour. Then I had a panic attack…what had I just committed myself to?! Would I have to read books that I didn’t really love just to hit my ratio? I only knew a handful of non-white American authors, so where should I even begin trying to look for them?! I was afraid it was going to be awful.
Then I went into full-on research mode (and y’all know how I love putting book lists together)…and at the end of the year, counting since I had made that promise, I had read equal amounts of white and non-white authors from the US and from the rest of the world. On the nonfiction side, one-third of my reads were by POC authors, which surpassed my expectations (and let me tell you, when I first began researching, it seemed like only white nonfiction writers were published). Yep, I had to try harder, especially at the beginning. I had to be more conscious of the books I was choosing to read (although now it’s become a habit). And I definitely didn’t love every POC book I read. But then, I don’t love every white author I try either. And here’s the thing…after several months of changing my reading, I’ve barely scratched the surface of all of the wonderful POC literature out there.
In fact, I fully intend to read this way for the rest of my life. And yes, I do plan to keep track, and to hold myself to that firm ratio. At least, until it becomes second nature (a few years ago, I did the same thing when I noticed I had read almost all male authors that year…now, at least half the books I read are by women, and I don’t have to pay attention to it). I’m willing to sacrifice a little of my reading spontaneity and whims (although really, not that much) in order to make sure that I’m aware of more viewpoints. It’s important to me in principle, and just as importantly, it has improved my reading tremendously! It’s funny what being aware of something does though…because in the last few months, the white washing of the publishing industry seems so much more obvious. Oh, and the white washing of the book blogosphere.
There, I said it. Because that’s really what all of this is working up to, and why I’ve yet to find a tactful way to talk about this. I want to see more discussions of books by people of colour here in the blogosphere. I just conducted a highly unscientific ‘poll,’ by scrolling through my Google Reader and counting the first twenty reviews that popped up. Only two of those reviews were books by people of colour. Two! It reminds me of one of those privileges Mackintosh lists:
22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
And you might be thinking, “Well, it’s not my fault that my favourite authors happen to be white. It’s not like I purposely avoid non-white authors…I just don’t hear of many books by them that I want to read.” Because that’s how I felt at this time last year. And it’s a huge problem that POC authors have more trouble getting published than white ones. But don’t let that problem become a smokescreen, a reason for to say “Well, if there were POC books published in my favourite genre, I’d read them. But there aren’t, and I’m not a publisher, so whatcha going to do?” Because seriously guys, I promise you that there are books out there, written by POC authors, that you will love. You just haven’t heard of them, because, well, our society is white-washed.
I’m not saying that we should all stop reading and reviewing books by white people. What I am saying is that we should all start reading and reviewing books by non-white people. Because the more POC books we read and review, the more aware we’ll be of all of those wonderful authors out there that no one’s talking about. And if you say, “Oh well, I don’t believe in positive discrimination. I believe everyone should be treated equally,” then I’d encourage you to go read that knapsack article one more time.
Here’s the thing. I feel awkward even bringing this up…I don’t like drama and controversy in blogland. I prefer to talk about books, and the ones that are amazing, and the ones that really sucked, and the authors I’d invite to a fantasy spin-the-bottle game (ok, maybe that last one has never actually come up). But if there’s one thing the last few months have taught me, it’s that reading is an inherently political act. Even if you’re not consciously paying attention to the ethnicity of the authors you’re reading, that’s still a choice. A choice to support the “invisible systems”, which reward people for being white and penalise them for being any other colour. And even though it feels somewhat odd for me, as a white girl, to initiate this discussion, as if I’m stepping on other people’s toes, I remember another privilege Mackintosh pointed out:
30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me credibility for either position more than a person of color will have.
I’m not trying to make you defensive. But here’s what I’m asking. Examine your reading choices, from an ethnic point of view. Are you comfortable with what you see? If not, change something. Commit, preferably publicly, to reading X number of POC books. Or X percentage. Or be sure to review the ones that you do read. Or do a post about it to spread awareness. Or start requesting that your library buy specific POC books (my library allows patrons four requests a month, and I’ve been using them on POC and GLBT books to try to round out their collection). Or ask your favourite bookstore why their endcap displays feature so many white authors. Just do something!
I’m home sick almost all of the time, and since I’m too sick to work and thus have no income, I can’t buy the books by POC authors that I’ve liked it. But changing my reading, making purchasing suggestions to my library, reviewing non-white authors on my blog…these are the small steps I can take to show that I’m not ok with my society’s marginalisation of non-white people. And I think that’s a statement all of my readers would agree with.
Now, on to the fun part! I’m going to recommend a few books, in different genres and flavours, so that if you want to read a POC author and don’t know where to start, you’ll have at least a few ideas. :) But seriously, feel free to comment and/or e-mail me if you’d like me to give you a personal recommendation (keeping in mind I’m nowhere near an expert…I don’t want people to think I’m cocky or something). Or check out some of my reading lists for challenges (all accessible via the Current Challenges page)…I make a conscious effort when I’m putting them together to add in ethnic diversity wherever possible. And to stop pimping my own blog for a moment, Color Online is a great YA resource (as well as more general community discussions), there’s the I Read in Color Webring hosted by BrownGirl Bookspeak, White Readers Meet Black Authors, and I’m sure many other resources out there that I haven’t discovered yet (although feel free to share any you think are helpful!). Now seriously, let’s talk about the books! Oh, and honestly, most of my US POC reading last year was African American authors, so there’s going to be a dearth of Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American recommendations on this list. I’m sorry about that; this year, I’m focused on evening that out a bit more. Oh, and I haven’t linked to my reviews of these books (because that would take forever), but you can always look something up in my review directories if you’re curious. All of the books I’m suggesting here are ones that I’ve read and loved!
If you’re a fan of graphic novels, try anything by Shaun Tan, Incognegro by Mat Johnson & Warren Pleece, Bayou, Volume One by Jeremy Love, or Skim by Mariko & Jillian Tamaki.
If you can’t get enough thrillers, reach for Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie. If you’re more the mystery type of person, try more village cozy style of Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartery or the more hard-boiled A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn.
Or maybe you’re more interested in neo-gothic stuff? I loved White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi.
If you’re a fan of classic literature, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and Naguib Mahfouz‘s Cairo trilogy are must reads. Or for those modern classics, be sure to include Toni Morrison and James Baldwin on your TBR list. They’re famous for a reason!
More of a historical fiction person? Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, The Farming of the Bones by Edwidge Danticat, The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea, or The Book of Night Women by Marlon James might just fit the bill.
Itching for something contemporary, with a lyrical flavour to it? Why not try Song for Night by Chris Abani, Hardboiled & Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto or Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel?
Or maybe you just want a modern, strong woman as a book’s main character? Give a look to A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam or The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson.
Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King proves that magical realism works outside of Latin Amerca!
I know that I have a thing for books set in the American South. Sugar by Bernice McFadden is one of the best I’ve ever read!
If you’re a fan of YA, you have to read Jacqueline Woodson. Lucy the Giant by Sherri Smith and A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott are both marvelous as well.
Perhaps you enjoy coming-of-age stories that feel more like adult literature? You can’t go wrong with Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid or Bless Me Ultimate by Rudolpho Anaya.
Looking for a challenge? A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth will make you feel like an endurance runner while My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk will push you to try out mental gymnastics.
If you’re a short story fan, be sure to give Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang a shot.
Don’t worry-I’ve got some suggestions for non-fiction readers as well. :)
Do you love travelogues? Serve the People by Jen Lin Liu is a marvelous one.
Atul Gawande writes some of the most amazing essays I’ve ever read: you can’t go wrong with either of his collections: Complicated or Better.
Notes from the Hyena’s Belly by Nega Mezlekia is the kind of memoir that makes me love the genre.
And if you enjoy reading books about books as much as me, try out A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel.
I’m going to stop there, but I hope that I’ve inspired you to try out some new authors! And after over 2,000 words, I’m turning the floor over to you. What do you think about ethnically-aware reading? Do you have any favourite POC authors you think everyone should read? Do you think there’s plenty of diversity in book blogging, and I’m just not looking in the right places? Whatever your reaction to this post, I hope you share it.