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Leisure Time and Reading in a Shrinking—Yet Colorful—World

February 25, 2010

Today, I am delighted to welcome Silvio Sirias, author of several books (most recently Meet Me Under the Ceiba) and owner of a lovely website to my blog. When I posted about consciously seeking out POC authors last month, many of you were concerned about how POC authors themselves might react to such deliberately diverse reading. Since none of us are authors, though, that bit of the discussion was merely speculative. So I e-mailed Silvio out of the blue and asked if he might write about the issue a bit, so that we’d all have another viewpoint. His responses were so gracious, and this post is such a lovely piece of writing, that I can’t wait to read his novel.  I’m sure you all will give him a warm welcome.  Over to Silvio! -Eva

Develop an interest in life as you see it: the people, things, literature, music—the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.

Henry Miller

Desocupado lector, . . . .

These are the first words in Don Quixote de la Mancha. They open the Prologue and have been usually translated as “Idle reader.” I believe, however, that the translation that would best capture Miguel de Cervantes’s meaning is: “Reader at leisure, . . . .” Such an interpretation highlights the Spaniard’s genius at maneuvering within the slippery interstices of definitions, a practice that renders him a master in the art of literary ambiguity.

Yet, regardless of the translation, Cervantes’s salutation, as innocuous it may seem on the surface, indicates that the author of the first modern novel was acutely aware that the act of reading, above all other “leisurely” pursuits, involves an infinity of choices—all of them beginning with the books we elect to read.

A worthwhile novel can change the way we see the world.  The stories that touch our souls can transform us—and almost always into better persons.  I believe this with all of my heart.  And because of this alteration to our beings, which also impacts the way we understand and deal with others, reading is a political act.

*  *  *  *

I’ve written this piece at the behest of Eva, at A Striped Armchair, who, in her posting “Reading in Colour,” (https://astripedarmchair.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/reading-in-colour/) made a heartfelt call for her fellow readers to be mindful of broadening their cultural and ethnic horizons when selecting novels to read.  In her essay, Eva shares that she decided that half of her future readings would be of works by writers of color—that is, authors outside of the realm of white, western-European ancestry.  What’s more, she urged other readers in the blogosphere to join her.

Eva’s piece discusses the delicate topic of race relations, as well as the concept of white privilege.  These notions elicit heated discussions wherever they arise, and Eva’s words generated over ninety passionate responses (not including Eva’s sublimely diplomatic commentary).  Her readers’ viewpoints, although varied, fit into three general categories: 1. those who cheer and support Eva’s stance; 2. those who find her sentiments admirable, but see no need to become selective about an author’s ethnicity as they are drawn to a novel by its quality; and, 3. those who feel that Eva is advocating reverse discrimination.

Regardless of which category the responses falls into, they illustrate that, indeed, reading is a political act.  As the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa once noted in an essay, “La literatura es fuego” (Literature is fire): referring the ability of the written word—even when the aim is artistic—to create impassioned responses and calls to action.

But the question of reading and an author’s ethnicity has long been polemical.  Henry Louis Gates, the noted Harvard literature professor—who became front page news in the United States last July when he was arrested while trying to enter his Cambridge, Massachusetts home—has long been an apostle for greater openness toward and inclusion of texts by African-American writers (and by extension all writers of color) in the literary canon.  In an essay published in The New York Times Book Review, Gates writes: “Every black American text must confess to a complex ancestry, one high and low (that is, literary and vernacular) but also one white and black.  There can be no doubt that white texts inform and influence black texts (and vice versa), so that a thoroughly integrated canon of American literature is not only politically sound, it is intellectually sound as well.”

Taking into account Gates’s position—that of a scholar who has devoted an entire lifetime to contemplating the very issue Eva’s essay brought up—one can see that the problem is extremely complex.  What’s more, since discussing the matter falls within the awkward, guilt-ridden, and angering terrain of race relations, the strong reactions becomes easy to understand.  In fact, many African-American scholars who believe that the literature of blacks in the United States merits a separate viewing lens consider Gates’s inclusive stance indefensibly weak.

When debating this problem, then, to arrive at a consensus that pleases every reader is, tragically, impossible.  Eva’s call for greater inclusion of writers of color on the reading lists of booklovers shed some light into the great ethnic chasm that separates people throughout the globe.  And, ultimately, the choice to diversify one’s readings may seem a lonely enterprise: in the end each individual is left to follow the dictates of her or his conscience regarding whether the diversification of literature is worthwhile—personally as well as to society.

*  *  *  *

Coincidentally, at the same time the passionate exchanges were taking place at A Striped Armchair, I was a guest at Farm Lane Books Blog (http://www.farmlanebooks.co.uk/?p=4065) as part of a virtual book tour to promote my second novel, Meet Me under the Ceiba.  A reader of Eva’s entry visited the site and asked if I, as a writer of color, would be offended if someone chose to read my work solely because of my ethnicity.

I responded that I wouldn’t be offended in the least—and that response still stands.

My answer, in fact, would’ve gone on to state that my ethnicity and my bi-cultural identity as a Nicaraguan-American reside at the heart of my fiction.  Upon a brief examination of purchasing habits on Amazon, it’s obvious that most readers who purchase Meet Me under the Ceiba, as well as my first novel, Bernardo and the Virgin, are drawn to my fiction precisely because they are interested in reading about Nicaragua—about its people and its history.  The passion that fuels my writing resides at the core of my color, of my family’s heritage.  (My viewpoint, however, may well be in the minority when compared to other Latino and Latina writers in the United States who would prefer to be considered “American” authors.)

Still, first and foremost, as a writer who has devoted decades to learning the craft, I’m aware, as Cervantes was, that a reader who chooses to spend her or his precious leisure time with one of my novels hopes—and deserves!—to be rewarded with a luminous experience; that is, a reading that will help him or her see the world in a different light.  Writers who strive to be taken seriously owe their readers that much, at least.

*  *  *  *

I tell my writing students that to become a good writer one first needs to be a voracious reader.  Most writers worthy of our interest have expansive horizons as readers, having traveled far and wide—at least with regard to nationality and ethnicity—to seek the best in the trade.  Reading the works of innovative authors, regardless of race, creed, or national origins, is the most effective way for writers to learn.  And if we observe the literary world carefully, white authors are often the ones to first call our attention to noteworthy writers of color.

I, for one, do care about the background of every author I read—including his or her ethnicity.  That’s because my leisure time is so scarce that I research a novel and its creator prior to deciding whether or not to take the plunge into the depths of their creation.  Moreover, I always say a quick prayer before opening the cover in the hope that at the end of the reading my life will be somewhat transformed.

I don’t keep count of the books I read.  But as I prepare to invest my precious leisure time, before I take the leap I look to those who’ve explored the outer fringes before me, like Eva, to serve as my guides.

And as an author from the periphery, I’m deeply indebted to the brave souls who have ventured the world in armchairs.  They are agents of inclusion: to paraphrase Henry Miller, they are bold readers who have been able to forget their selves, to move outside of their comfort zones in the pursuit of those rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting writers who are out there, at present, producing works worthy of our time.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2010 12:33 pm

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  2. February 25, 2010 1:09 pm

    Thanks Eva for inviting Silvio to write on this interesting topic! Thanks Silvio for sharing your thoughts on this interesting topic! It was interesting to read how your background and experiences inspire you in your writing. I really enjoyed reading this beautiful expression of your thoughts.

  3. February 25, 2010 1:59 pm

    This is such an amazing post, Silvio! This was especially moving:

    “And as an author from the periphery, I’m deeply indebted to the brave souls who have ventured the world in armchairs. They are agents of inclusion: to paraphrase Henry Miller, they are bold readers who have been able to forget their selves, to move outside of their comfort zones in the pursuit of those rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting writers who are out there, at present, producing works worthy of our time.”

    Thank you so much Silvio for sharing this and thank you Eva for posting it!

    Reading the works of innovative authors, regardless of race, creed, or national origins, is the most effective way for writers to learn.” Amen!

  4. February 25, 2010 1:59 pm

    All I can say is WOW and Thank You!

  5. February 25, 2010 3:25 pm

    Thank you so much for this very thoughtful addition to this debate. It was very interesting to hear from an author.

  6. February 25, 2010 4:17 pm

    Wonderful post, Silvio. Eva, you are a gracious host to invite someone to speak about this topic at your blog. It is when we step out of our comfort zones, even in fear of offending or saying something that may be misconstrued, when we speak directly from our hearts, that we take the first step towards creating a society built on the principles of peace. So I thank you both dearly, as well as all who have left comments.

    Just today I finished reading Silvio’s first novel Bernardo and the Virgin-it is an exquisitely written fictionalized account of the appearance of the virgin Mary to a humble peasant in a dusty, small village of Nicaragua. You will be touched by the author’s compassionate handling of this story. I wholeheartedly recommend you make an impulse purchase right now and order it from wherever you purchase your books-you will not be disappointed!!

    As for reading in color, I am an American born and raised Latina. Throughout my education, I had very few opportunities to explore the vast universe of Latino literature. It is now, well into my adulthood that I have made this discovery, and as time is short, I have dedicated myself to reading everything I can from Latino authors. Because why not? as of now, the literature I have read has been from a predominantly white, Western European or Russian perspective. I would say 95% of literature I have read falls into this perspective, and yes I love almost all of it. But that leaves only 5% of literature that I’ve experienced to be divided among Asian, Black, Aboriginal, and Latino perspectives.

    Unfortunately, the educational system I was part of and the habits of the publishing industry have forced me to actively seek out works based on the cultural perspective of their authors.

    When you take an honest look at your bookshelves, what percentage of books are from multi-cultural perspectives; books which introduce you to different countries, cultures, foods and customs all while telling a fascinating, captivating story?

    Please forgive the length of this comment-it’s a passionate subject!

  7. February 25, 2010 4:47 pm

    Thanks to both of you for this. I really enjoyed reading it, and it’s great to have this perspective.

  8. February 25, 2010 5:46 pm

    What a great post! Thank you, Eva and Silvio.

  9. February 25, 2010 5:46 pm

    Thank you. I can definitely say that I am grateful I chose to spend my valuable leisure time reading this post.

  10. February 25, 2010 8:06 pm

    Eva, thank you for continuing to address this subject and for considering it from multiple viewpoints.

    Silvio, thank you for the well thought-out and personal view on this subject. This was a pleasure to read!

  11. February 26, 2010 6:38 am

    I’m with the others in thanking you, Eva, for inviting Silvio to your blog. I really appreciated reading an author’s perspective.

  12. February 26, 2010 9:24 am

    Count me in among the voices thanking Eva for having Silvio on her blog! This is an author I have not heard of whom I will add to my ever-expanding TBR. Lovely post, I hope to make a similar commitment in 2011 to reading 50% in color. Of course, I’m also reading PoC books in 2010, but not quite on the scale of 50%.

  13. She permalink
    February 26, 2010 9:45 am

    What a great post! I think whether you believe you should deliberately read authors of color or not, this is a great opinion to take in. It’s so awesome to see what an author has to say about a topic that has been bobbing around the blogosphere for a while. Thanks for posting this Eva and thanks to Silvio for sharing his thoughts!

  14. February 26, 2010 10:32 am

    What a beautiful post. In echo of other comments, thank you Eva for inviting Silvio to write this post, and thank you Silvio for your thoughtful and heartfelt words. I too, like Lu said above, was particularly moved by the last paragraph.

    Ever since you (Eva) first posted on this I have been wanting to write my in post on the subject. This has renewed my inspiration to do so!

  15. February 28, 2010 12:56 am

    Wow, it was an honor to have read that.

  16. February 28, 2010 1:01 am

    As I stated on the blog post that led me here, I never realized how much of my reading was from Latino authors until someone mentioned it. Even the things I loved about their writing were themes and issues that Latinos deal with all the time and that is really the only reason that I have for explaining it.

    I never went about my reading looking for authors to focus on, they just found me or I found them. I do think I have a good balance though, but unlike that of most of my friends, my list of favorite authors is definitely more diverse.

  17. June 1, 2010 4:01 pm

    no word but thank you for the post!! It is a completely privellege to read that.

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