Recently on Twitter, I participated in #PWPoePrompts for Pitch Wars, where I answered prompts once a day for a month. One of the prompts asked about our favorite diverse read.
The answer was easy for me: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. It’s a stellar alternative history to the Civil War involving zombies, and it’s written by a black woman. It’s been on my mind for the past few months because of its excellent use of voice and an Act II twist that I couldn’t stop thinking about.
I loved reading other’s answers as well. That was, until I came across one woman’s post. Her picks were:
Memoirs of a Geisha / Arthur Golden
The Help/ Kathryn Stockett
Nope nope nope. Those do not count as diverse reads. And in fact, trying to count these as diverse reads hurts everyone. Why?
Because anybody who picks up Memoirs of a Geisha and thinks they’re learning something about Japanese culture is doing themselves a disservice. It was written by a white dude who literally stole and twisted the story of a real geisha. If that isn’t bad enough, in the movie they cast a Chinese actress to play a Japanese woman. If you’re interested in real geisha culture, consider buying the memoir of the woman Golden interviewed.
The Help was written by a white woman. The protagonist is a white woman living in the ‘60s who serves as the savior of downtrodden black domestic workers by writing down their stories for them. The book fails to mention the rampant activism led by black women at this very moment in history. Domestic workers at the time started bus boycotts, raised money for the civil rights movement, and formed unions for domestic workers.
These books are old—published in 1997 and 2009, respectively. But they just won’t die. People will keep thinking these are the best examples of diverse fiction ten years from now (*sigh*). They’re advancing stereotypes that, if not harmful or racist, are certainly not giving the entire picture.
If you haven’t read books about POCs by POCs, I have to believe you just aren’t looking that hard?
Nami Mun, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, N. K. Jemison, Louise Erdrich, Mary H. K. Choi, Valeria Luiselli, Jesmyn Ward, Celeste Ng, Carmen Maria Machado. . .
Different kinds of diverse
Diversity isn’t just about race or sexuality. It’s every experience that hasn’t had enough coverage in literature OR which hasn’t been written about by people with that particular experience.
Here are a few of the eclectic categories of Own Voices that I would fall into:
- growing up in a working-class household
- sibling of someone with cognitive disabilities
- mentally ill parents
- depression and anxiety
Can you name many books dealing with these topics BY people who’ve dealt with them? Me neither. That’s why I think I have an important voice. Growing up with someone with a cognitive disability in particular has been underrepresented in fiction. I wouldn’t want to read a book about this written by someone who volunteered at a special needs camp for a summer. There are so many lessons it took me YEARS to figure out.
I’m focusing on race here because it’s what people get hung up on the most.
Who am I to say what counts as a diverse read?
I didn’t write this post because I thought I was an expert on the topic by any means.
I wanted to step in because I feel like POCs and others from marginalized groups are asked to explain this sh*t all the time.
Can I write the n-word in dialogue because I have a racist character?
Can I have a black protagonist because I had a black friend in high school?
Should I put POCs in my book to fit this new diversity trend?
Don’t ask people why their stories matter, forcing them to relive painful memories, and then either fight them about it or burst into tears, making them comfort you for being uncomfortable with their existence.
Think about the darkest, hardest struggle of your life. Now imagine someone trying to pry all the gritty details out of that experience in order to write a story that isn’t theirs in the first place. Doesn’t sound fun, does it?
It’s always been hard for me to talk about having a sibling who will never speak or get a job like me. When people find out, they ask, what was that like? I always freeze, because that one innocent question always feels too hard to answer.
White people, white men especially, act like it is POCs’ jobs to be their personal search engine and answer their invasive and racist questions.
Google it next time. The internet would be happy to deal with your questions.
If you can’t think of one book written by a POC that you liked. . . there’s a problem there. Plain and simple. POC authors shouldn’t have to explain why it’s important to read books about marginalized books written BY people from marginalized groups. It’s self-evident.
Can you write about experiences that aren’t your own?
Sure. But it won’t count as a “diverse read.”
The main character’s journey doesn’t have to be centered solely on a marginalized experience. Because of a beautiful thing called intersectionality, a person can be gay but also be focused on his basketball career instead of coming out. I think that a straight ally with enough research and sensitivity readers could write a story like this with a gay protagonist.
But would a book written by a gay person be more authentic? I think so.
There’s a weight that comes with writing about life experiences. For a story like this, it would also be helpful if it was written by someone who has played basketball. But if you mess up a sports analogy, it’s annoying. If you mess up someone’s life experience, it’s damaging.
Angie Thomas does an excellent job of acknowledging other movements adjacent to the Black Lives Matter movement in her beautiful The Hate U Give. Starr’s best friend is Chinese, and they talk about the discrimination she has faced as an Asian American. Thomas didn’t try to write a story about something she didn’t experience, but she still acknowledges others’ struggles with empathy and humanity.
I think that’s an approach we should all take.