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September 16, 2013

Books of a Different Color

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Quick. Name five female authors. Difficult? Probably not (J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and Stephanie Meyer gets you three already). What about five African-American authors? Also not too tough. Now what about African-American women? Hispanics or Latinos? How about homosexual men or Asian-American women? Getting harder, isn’t it?

Now name five white male authors.

If you hadn’t guessed yet, this week I want to talk about diversity in literature. A few days ago I saw a post on Tor.com (an excellent sci-fi/fantasy blog fun by the fine people at Tor/Forge Books). At a science fiction convention held last year, an enterprising rabble-rouser took a photograph of the current and past chairs of the convention (all white, almost all male) and posted it to Twitter with the hashtag “#DiversityinSFF.” Ouch. As burns go, it was a pretty sick one.

Sci-fi and fantasy are known for being particularly homogenous genres, but the problem certainly isn’t limited to just one genre or country or publisher. If anything, classical literature has it worse. How much of the “canon” was written by white men about white men? Hint: It’s a lot. And how many of America’s great writers were total misogynists? I can think of several, one whose name starts with “H” and rhymes with “Shmemingway.”

This isn’t meant to be an attack on any of your favorite authors. Plenty of fantastic literature has been and continues to be written by men, and I do not mean to belittle their talent. Authors also reflect the time period in which they lived. Feminism wasn’t really a thing in Shakespeare’s day, so we can expect to find fewer independent women in his work. That’s just the way it is. We do not have control over that. But, and this is a very important but, by continuing to revere, read and teach just these works cuts out a huge swath of other experiences. Women, minorities and people of different sexual orientations have their own stories to tell and without including them in our libraries, classrooms, and bookshelves we miss out on a vast amount of variety and richness. It limits our experience of what literature is and can be. And on the other side, lack of diversity means that minorities get the cold shoulder as readers. As a middle-class white male I can find plenty of protagonists like me to root for. A lower-class Asian-American girl? Probably not so much. The stories we cherish as a society reflect our values, and kids who can’t find themselves in our stories will start to feel like they don’t belong.

But wait! It’s not all bad. There are female authors. There are minority authors. Both of these groups have written many fantastic books that have received the acclaim they deserve. And the number is increasing. Progress is being made. But we’re not there yet. The gap is smaller, but it is still there. The scales are not balanced. And they aren’t going to get any more balanced on their own. This is where you come in. If you have a story to share that’s unique to you, share it. If you’re curious about a culture that’s different from your own, read about it. Buy books that take you out of your comfort zone. Support authors that speak from a place you do not know.

Here are a few to get you started. Happy reading, and may your horizons be broad ones.

Classics:

•  FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley, a different story than most of the adaptations based on it, and written by a woman.

•  THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker about the life of a colored woman in Georgia during the 1930’s.

•  INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison (not the one about the man who actually turns invisible --- that’s different) and BLACK BOY by Richard Wright. Both are written by African-American authors and tackle race relations in the U.S. during the ‘40s and ‘50s. Can get a little intense.

•  THINGS FALL APART by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. One of the best and most popular examples of African literature.

•  WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte, a novel written by a woman in the 1800s that’s become a classic of British literature. And they say miracles never happen.

Recent Additions:

•  THE KITE RUNNER by Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini. The famous one.

•  PERSEPOLIS, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi about her childhood during the Iranian Revolution.

•  MAUS, a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman made up of interviews with Spiegelman’s father about his experience in Europe during the Holocaust and subsequent emigration to America.

•  THE JOY LUCK CLUB by Amy Tan about four Chinese mothers and their relationships with their Chinese-American daughters.

Authors Old and New:

•  Gertrude Stein --- A lesbian, lived in Paris, a big part of the Modernist movement.

•  Flannery O’Connor --- Female writer from Georgia, fantastic short stories.

•  Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes --- Harlem Renaissance poets who both addressed race relations in their work. Gorgeous writing.

•  Jane Austen --- Do you even have to ask?

•  Junot Diaz - Prominent Dominican-American writer who focuses on the immigrant experience. His most recent novel is THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER.

•  Octavia Butler --- African-American science fiction writer, addresses a huge number of social issues in incredibly creative ways. Read LILTH’S BROOD and her short story “Bloodchild” (but not if you’re squeamish).

Check out the Tor post and original Twitter photo here.