Sunday, April 26, 2015
A Selection of Thoughts on Diverse Books
It is amazing that more diverse books are being published and winning awards, and it is amazing that people are talking about the importance of stories with minority protagonists. Right now, that is what we need to do—celebrate diverse books so publishers and authors know they can break out of the unrealistic all-white/cisgender/straight/able-all-the-time box. But the ultimate victory will come when we no longer have to praise a book for featuring a Vietnamese-American character, or an autistic character, or a transgender character—because diversity will be the norm.
2. We absolutely need diverse books—but not because minority children "can't relate" to white children.
This idea seems laughably ridiculous to me. Readers, especially children, should be able to find characters of their culture, who share their traditions, practices, and culture-specific experiences. But this does not mean people cannot also relate to characters of other races and cultures. Connecting with a character depends more on underlying, universal emotions—feelings that transcend race, ethnicity, and culture—than specific experiences. No character's life will precisely mirror any reader's life, but readers can connect regardless.
3. You can write and review books about minority groups of which you are not a member.
I have recently heard some whining about reviewers who praise books about minority characters—specifically disabled characters—but are not part of the minority group in question. According to some people, we are not allowed to call books featuring a disabled character "well-written" unless we know exactly how it feels to deal with the disorder in question.
I passionately disagree with this viewpoint.
A person outside a minority group can actually make a fantastic judge of quality. Fiction is all about empathy, and a good author should be able to make a reader feel a sliver of, say, a disabled character's turmoil or an ethnic minority's struggle to fit in, regardless of whether the author or the reader has personal experience with the disability or culture in question. I am awed when an author can tell a fully fleshed-out story about a minority category with which he or she does not identify and can give me a glimpse into the life of a minority character. If a writer can accomplish this goal, I will absolutely mention his or her brilliant writing in my review.
For the author side of the equation, I don't write fiction, so I will direct you to an insightful post by Jessica Martinez about writing outside of her ethnicity, gender, and culture. (She wrote from the point of view of an Arab Muslim boy in her book The Vow and did an amazing job authentically capturing his voice.)
4. However, reviewers should be careful when reviewing diverse books.
Author Malinda Lo recently wrote a series of essays on the Diversity in YA Tumblr about perceptions of diversity in book reviews. You can read them here. I won't re-type all of her ideas, but the gist of the series is that reviews of diverse books often speak directly to a privileged, white audience. It is common, she points out, to see comments saying that a book's untranslated Spanish may seem inaccessible to readers, or that a story's portrayal of black ghetto culture will be eye-opening, despite the fact that many of the book's potential readers are fluent in Spanish or live in impoverished areas.
I had barely noticed—let alone thought about—this trend before coming across Lo's essays, but her observations and commentary had me agreeing with almost every sentence. If a book's portrayal of diversity confuses you or opens your eyes, you have every right to say so in your review. But reviewers should not assume that everyone will have the same reaction; chances are, readers who are more familiar with the culture in question will have a vastly different experience.
Let's talk: What do you think about the issues I discussed in this post? Are there any other points I should add to this list?