Why do #WeNeedDiverseBooks ?

Commonwealth Games plaque in Victoria, BC
Commonwealth Games plaque in Victoria, BC

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag was so refreshing to me. To date, it is the only diversity-themed hashtag I have witnessed that didn’t resort to racist tweets, as far as I saw. Perhaps this is because we as readers do want to explore unknown worlds and encounter characters that we normally wouldn’t have. Perhaps people are getting a moment of realization about how the majority of the characters they read about are the same old. Either way, diversity in literature is a great thing.

Last semester one of my courses had a “Whiteness Studies” module. As my professor said this is still a very controversial subject but one which is important to discuss ( my prof is white, by the way). Essentially what this discusses is how the White “race” (I know, I know, the term “race” is problematic, it’s a social construct but, even so, many people are judged according to this construct) is not even seen as a race yet holds a lot of power in its invisibility. The white race is seen as the universal norm in fact. And yes, the power that “Whiteness” has means that they dominate popular culture. I need to be clear that “Whiteness Studies” does not attempt to attack people, it is basically imperative in thinking critically about the foundation our knowledge lies on, a very Eurocentric one. It discusses how much of a privilege it is to not have to worry about whether your image will be represented in popular culture; you can turn on the television or open a book and you’re guaranteed you will be represented there, in diverse ways too.  So I don’t see Whiteness Studies as racist, the same way I don’t see Feminist Studies as misogynistic.

I’ve already shared some of my experiences as a reader on this blog. I had a bookworm Aunt who lived with us in the UK for a couple of years. She got me a library card at age 5 and I read a LOT.  Despite the many books I read as a child I rarely encountered any characters of colour. In fact, whenever I did I was so excited I would have to tell someone, either my aunt, my mum or one of my sisters. They understood the significance of this.

When I tell some people about my experiences, a few have the tendency to say “Well, when I was a child I didn’t have any problem finding books with characters of colour.” I’m  not saying that they don’t exist but let’s be real here, we often need to hunt for them. If mainstream bookstores have them, they are often in a small section in the corner somewhere. Also, as I grew up in a pre-internet world it wasn’t always easy to do the research to find such books like it is now. I think it’s wrong that we have to hunt for these books when we are so visible in society.

Because I only saw white faces in books is it any wonder that I never considered writing myself? Why is it that whenever I was told to write a story for school my characters were white? As Violette LeDuc said:

“Children remember things without understanding them; they are oceans of goodwill drinking in an ocean of words.”– Violette LeDuc,La Batarde

And I think that quote is so true. As children we see a lot. As adults we analyze what we’ve seen and experienced . A  child growing up and only seeing certain faces on books will definitely internalize that. Well, I did unconsciously and I think that many do.

Reading creates empathy. I think that’s one of the main reasons we should read. Reading Judy Blume as a child I came across a character named Deenie who I will always remember. Deenie had multiple scoliosis, a condition I hadn’t even heard of, but reading that book made me understand it a bit better (although I hasten to add here that this did not make me an expert of MS).  And my heart always breaks when I think of the Dutch Jewish girl Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam.  How about Charlie in “Flowers For Algernon or the gay protagonist in Yukio Mishima’s “Confession of a Mask”? So many diverse characters and I had the honour to walk in their shoes for a while.  Books like that, diverse books, help me to encounter other worlds.

When I meet a character in a book who I can relate to I am thrilled! Which explains my love for Americanah; finally a book about the African immigrant experience in the West! Finally someone is speaking on my experiences with hair, racial fetishism, cultural complexities and the like. Reading this book was such a powerful experience for me.

For a world that is as diverse as ours is it’s completely unacceptable that our literature and entertainment does not reflect this assortment.I do wish to note though that representation and diversity shouldn’t mean misrepresentation. We don’t need tropes, stereotypes and one-dimensional portrayals.  Let’s also celebrate the diversity and heterogeneity within these groups.

 

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3 thoughts on “Why do #WeNeedDiverseBooks ?

  1. I could not agree with you more. I want to feel the experience of others. “Confessions of a Mask,” and “Americanah,” are a couple of the best books I have ever read. Being gay, I remember the first time I saw a “real,” gay person on T.V. (Not one being made to dress or act in a stereotypical manner). I remember being so very excited, saying look! Look! Look! Skin color, on the other hand, can not be hidden. I am truly surprised by what I am learning in “Americanah.” And also deeply saddened by my lack of knowledge. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Your last paragraph really says it all…this is completely unacceptable.

  2. Rowena, This is an excellent post… and so very true. As a child when I read books, I always wondered why none of the little girl characters had Italian last names or hair like mine! I know that for someone who is African-American, Asian etc. the lack of representation is even more extreme. I hope that more writers, no matter what their race/culture, will start including diverse characters in their books. And perhaps one day you will decide to write a book or short stories? You really are an excellent writer… I’m sure you would have interesting stories to tell.

    1. Thank you, Adria! It really is important, so many kids have low self-esteem and a character in a book they can relate to can definitely make a difference! And thank you for your kind comment! I’ve never thought of writing fiction, have always focused on non-fiction but I may give it a go:)

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