Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Selection of Thoughts on Diverse Books


1. I love the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and the We Need Diverse Books organization, but I cannot wait for a time when neither one is necessary.
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?

7 comments:

  1. I strongly agree with #1! I think as long as there is still a need to actively include people from all different backgrounds in books, diversity will not be achieved. It's a point of conflict for me because I do want so badly to see a greater variety of characters in novels but also feel that by openly pursuing books with greater diversity, it's only deepening the division. Because it should be normal. It shouldn't be something that you have to seek out.

    Shonda Rhimes had a really great quote when asked about the diversity she has on her shows, one that I think is really interesting and should be the perspective we adopt: http://www.breitbart.com/big-hollywood/2015/04/14/shonda-rhimes-says-shes-done-discussing-diversity-on-tv-this-is-not-the-jim-crow-south/

    Anyway, I thought this was a really wonderful post Emily! Made me think a lot :)

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  2. Great post. I think diversity is needed, but you're right, it will be great when there is a time when these discussions and movements are no longer needed. Also, I think authors can write about people who are not like them, and readers can read about people not like them. This is a big way to spread diversity in reading (and other mediums) as well as create understanding and empathy, like you stated.

    -lauren

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  3. Great post Emily! I work both as a supply teacher in the schools but also as a supply daycare worker on days I don't get called in for the school boards.What they day cares are being asked to do is to have at least 3 books on the shelves with 3 different cultures being represented. Our dolls and toys have to represent different cultures as well. I think it is important to provide children with different cultural representations but it would be nice to not have these stipulations in the future so that books are just culturally diverse without being forced.

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  4. I completely agree with this post 110% Emily. I think it's so great that people are petitioning to make books that feature characters that children of all ethnicity and backgrounds can relate to. I think it's great that, now, a child can pick up a book with a diverse character and realize they're not alone, you know?

    While it's a shame that this even has to be petitioned - diversity is something that, in a perfect world, should be included naturally - we've definitely come so, so far in the past few years.

    Wonderful post Emily! ♥

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  5. I really liked this post! You put a lot of my thoughts into words -- but it definitely has always bothered me that we feel the need to push and celebrate diversity, when it should just be... there. And I passionately agree that people of one ethnicity can accurately write about someone of another, or someone with a disability they don't have, or whatever the case it. Great post!

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  6. I love this post! One of the biggest things I see regarding diversity is your second point about relating to characters. I think many people who don't see how important diversity is, seem to think that it's not possible to relate to someone who is different than us - but isn't that one of the reasons we read? As you said, readers can definitely relate to people who aren't similar to them, but they should also be able to see themselves reflected in what they read. People should not have to search so hard for a book that isn't about a white, straight character - those books should be easily available.

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