Sunday Salon: Reading “the Other”

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had something on my mind. It’s been there, in the back of my head, something I’ve been musing about, but a couple of recent events put it in the forefront. First, I’ve just completed a course of Global Perspectives in Missions and Ministry at the seminary where I take my master’s in theology classes. One of the themes of that class was the importance of listening to people of other cultures, really getting to know and understand them and working together as a team to solve problems. So I’ve been thinking about listening, particularly about listening to people who are from other cultures and backgrounds.

Then, Litlove posted this piece that discussed how men often don’t want to be seen reading books that look like they’re for women. And that got me thinking about how marketers design covers and about how society leads us to read certain books and ignore others. Good idea for a Sunday Salon, I thought.

And then the scandal regarding the whitewashing of the cover of Magic Under Glass broke. (For those of you who don’t know, Bloomsbury published a YA fantasy novel about a young woman of color but put a young white woman on the cover. See this Salon.com article for details. Bloomsbury has since pulled the book from distribution and is having a new edition produced with a different cover.) That scandal brought out some great discussion in the blogosphere about race, reading, and how we choose the books we read. I came across great posts by Aarti, Amy, Eva, Rachel, Rebecca and Vasilly, just to name a few. And I was provoked—in a good way.

First, a bit of background about me. I am a white, straight, middle-class woman from a rural working-class background. I grew up on a farm in Southwest Virginia and did not fly in an airplane until I was in my mid-20s and did not visit another country until I was in my mid-30s (unless you count Niagara Falls, Canada, which I don’t, because I could actually see the U.S. the whole time I was there). For me, books were the only way I could learn about other parts of the world, about people who weren’t like me. And my extensive reading has apparently paid off. Years ago, a friend who has lived all over the world called me one of her more worldly friends. (I say this not to pat myself on the back but to illustrate the powerful influence of reading.)

It’s a wonderful and amazing thing to find ourselves in books, and there are times when what I really want is a companion on the page that I can relate to. But for me, reading has always been about enlarging my world. Sometimes I read books by and about people who have nothing in common in me. Sometimes I read books where I expect that to be the case and soon discover that this person who seemed so alien at first is in fact a companion on the page. It’s a beautiful thing to realize.

Most of the time, the voices I seek out are voices from the past. I love old books, always have. C. S. Lewis explained the value of old books better than I ever could when he said,

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books.

I love this idea. Every period has its own blind spots, and when we read books by people from other times, we become better able to see our own blind spots. That’s why, as much as I love historical fiction, I generally prefer books written in the period, if I can find them.

Might not the same hold true for books by people from other races, nations, and cultures? I think so. And I think it also illustrates why it’s so important to read books by people of color and not just about them. Now I like to think that I read authors of many different races and nations. I’ve read Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Marjane Satrapi, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri and many of the other usual suspects. In most cases, I’ve read and enjoyed one representative work and then moved on. And when I look at my overall reading, it’s overwhelming white, American, and European. Last year, I read only nine books (out of 118) by people of color, and none of the books in my massive TBR pile are by people of color. Not a single one (until yesterday, that is). So I have to ask myself, Am I missing opportunities to “correct the characteristic mistakes” of my own race and culture?

Yesterday I went to Books-a-Million, just to see if I could find some promising books by people of color, so I could add them to my TBR mix. The store had one of those irresistible “buy two, get one free” deals going, and I decided that if I could find three books by people of color, I would allow myself to break my usual book-purchasing rules and buy them. The store had two display cases full of books eligible for this deal and a few other books scattered around the store. I found only four by people of color.

To put this in perspective, the United States is 75 percent white. My guess is that there were roughly 50 books eligible for that deal, which means a deal that was representative of national demographics would have about 12 books by people of color. Now, my city is only 60 percent white, so a local bookstore with an offer representing local demographics might want to include 20 books.

Before you start railing against quotas, please understand that I am not advocating reading or publishing books by people of color just because of the author’s race. I’m merely offering this anecdote to show one way in which publishers and/or book-sellers might be subtely and entirely unintentionally pushing readers toward white authors. This also explains the importance of being intentional and actively seeking out the best writers of color we can find, buying their books, recommending them to friends, and helping redress the imbalance.

So that’s a lot of talk. And talk is good—talk is vital. It’s talk in the blogosphere that got Bloomsbury to change the cover of Magic Under Glass. But talk just isn’t enough. I decided I needed to do something. I thought about what would help me find authors traditionally underrepresented in libraries and bookshops—that would be recommendations from readers. I thought about where I get my reading ideas—that would be blogs. And I decided that I would love to have a way to collect all those reviews of books by POC authors in one place. I didn’t want a challenge because challenges stress me out. And I didn’t want to add lots of specialty blogs to my reader. What I wanted was a clearinghouse—a one-stop shop. So I built one. And now I’m sharing it with you and inviting you to help me furnish it.

Diversify Your Reading is a blog that will catalog reviews of books by underrepresented authors. Bloggers can contribute links to their reviews in the comments sections of relevant posts (organized by nationality, ethnic group, sexuality, and more), and the site editors (currently me, Jenny, Eva, and Nymeth—although we’d love more help) will add those reviews to the posts as time allows. Thanks to RSS feeds and options to subscribe to comments by e-mail, interested readers can have review links sent to them as they are added to the comments. As I’m scheduling this post, the site only includes reviews from Eva, Nymeth, Jenny, and me. So my blogging friends, please take a look at your past posts and see what you can add. I’d love to be able to announce next week that every category has at least one review. So go help me make it so.

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57 Responses to Sunday Salon: Reading “the Other”

  1. Nymeth says:

    Excellent post, Teresa. I love what you said about how publishers and book sellers subtly push us towards white authors. For me, trying to read more books by POC is not about filling quotas or making reading decisions based solely on the author’s ethnicity or skin colour. It’s about helping compensate for an imbalance that is only there because the Powers That Made have already made decisions based on the author’s colour, whether they realise it or not. I’ve come to realise that reading neutrally is actually not neutral at all – it’s accepting those decisions rather than making our own.

    I hope you get lots of extra help so we can all make this site the amazing resource it has the potential to be.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Nymeth. I’m not interested in quotas or reading books I wouldn’t like just to say I “read in color.” I just want to be more conscious. As you say, neutral reading means just going along with decisions that others have made for us. I want the choice to be mine, and I love reading authors from all kinds of backgrounds.

  2. Annabel says:

    What a thought-provoking post Teresa. I am all for diversifying my reading further, and look forward to exploring your new website. When I checked, about 85% of the books I read last year were by British and American authors, and most of the rest were European. In the UK, we now have a richer than ever choice of books in translation to choose from, and an increasingly strong list of Eurasian writers too in particular. It will be great to get some recommendations.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Annabel. We’re seeing more works in translation in the US too, and that’s heartening. I’ve especially noticed more books by Middle Eastern authors on the big display tables in fronts of bookstores, which is fabulous. But black authors (other than Toni Morrison and perhaps a couple of others) seem to be marketed as niche books.

  3. Fascinating post. I read quite a lot of Indian fiction and, now that it’s becoming more available in translation, Arabic fiction but the majority of my reads definitely come from Canada, the UK, and Europe. And, frankly, I’m not terribly bothered by that. I just happen to be most interested in these countries and cultures. It’s the settings more than anything that make me decide whether or not to read a book, and that choice has nothing to do with the author’s race. I have always been fascinated with India, the Middle East, and Europe so I choose books set in these places. At this point in my reading life, I have little interest in South America, most of Asia, or, frankly, America. I’ve never thought to consider the author’s race, because I can’t see how it matters. If I’m interested in a book, in the place and the experiences it describes, I read the book. I really don’t feel that non-white authors are under-represented in my favourite bookstores and certainly not in my libraries: it’s just as easy for me to find a copy of Joy Kogowa’s Obasan as it is to find a copy of that other Canadian classic, Anne of Green Gables . And it’s certainly easier for me to find volumes by Asian or African authors than it is to find ones that represent my own cultural heritage (Czech).

    • Teresa says:

      Claire, That’s a fair point about readers’ interests. We choose our books for all sorts of reasons, and interest is important. Certainly someone who isn’t interested in, say, India won’t end up reading many Indian authors. And yes, non-white authors aren’t the only one under-represented. You’re right on about that.

      But I *do* think the author matters as much as the setting. That’s where I the parallel to historical fiction vs old books is revealing. If I’m interested in Victorian England but only read books by modern authors, then I’m not getting a full picture no matter how terrific those books are. Same deal with books by people of color. I’m not saying to choose books by POC over books by white authors; I’m just suggesting that we should be conscious.

  4. Kelly says:

    Thought-provoking post. I don’t always pay attention to the demographics of the authors of the books I read, and I need to do more of that.

  5. Diversify Your Reading sounds like a wonderful idea, and it really reminds me that I need to read more diverse authors more… let me send you some reviews your way.

  6. Steph says:

    Great idea,Teresa, and I think the Diversify Your Reading site will wind up being a great resource for everyone. I have a few titles I can add from my last year of reading, and hopefully will have more to come.

  7. cbjames says:

    I think one does have to make an effort to include other perspectives. I took a class in Young Adult literature when I was working on my teaching credential 20 years ago. As part of the class we had to read ten Young Adult books and write a paper on them. We could read any books we wanted.

    I went to the children’s room of the old San Francisco Public library, wondered around the shelves a picked out 30 or so books that looked interesting to me. I set them all down on a table to narrow my choices down to the ten I would write about. Almost all of them, 27 or 28, were about white boys. I had chosen books that looked like me.

    Almost all of them went back on the shelves and I started looking for a more diverse selection.

    One problem with the U.S. is that so little is available in translation. That’s one reason why the yearly Noble Prize Winner is so often someone few people in America have heard of.

    • Teresa says:

      cbjames: Exactly. If I had just browsed the sale display yesterday picking up books that caught my eye, I might not have had any by authors of color.

      And I think you’re right about lack of translations being part of the issue. I saw a fabulous article this week that touched on U.S. attitudes toward European writing, mentioning reactions to the Nobel in particular: http://www.thesmartset.com/article/article01201001.aspx

  8. Lenore says:

    I added some links over at your new blog and look forward to reading more diverse books and adding more links :)

  9. Aarti says:

    Great post, Teresa! I am glad that this whole debacle has made people think and consider what they’re reading. I am trying to read off my shelves more this year, so I don’t know how much diversity will be in my reading, but I am promising myself that any books I choose from Amazon Vine will be “out of the norm” books for me- either by genre or by author. It’s a small step, but it is a comfortable one for me to make right now.

    • Teresa says:

      Aarti: I’m in the same position you are. I had planned to read almost entirely from my shelves (except Classics Circuit, LT Early Reviews, and maybe a couple of new books by favorite authors). I haven’t decided what I want to do about it, except for buying the handful of books I did yesterday.

  10. kiss a cloud says:

    What a great idea, Teresa. I’ll be checking out the site right away. I normally gravitate towards POC books because I’m POC and am more interested in what I’m familiar with, but as I am now living in Canada am consciously reading white. Also, filling in the gaps as most of the “great” books weren’t available to me in the town I used to live in. It’s very admirable of you to be starting a project like this, thanks.

    • Teresa says:

      kiss a cloud: I’m glad to hear your perspective on this. If you never had a chance to read the classics, that seems like a great thing to do. I’ve been immersed in dead white men and women for much of my reading life, so I’m branching out in the other direction :-)

  11. Jenny says:

    Thanks for saying all this. I’m trying to read more books by and about people of color this year – my resolution is that every time I go to the library to get books, I get at least one book by a person of color.

  12. Lu says:

    I’m really looking forward to becoming a part of this site and doing something about it. This is such a great resource and I really want to thank you for starting it. I have already made it a commitment in my personal reading to incorporate more books by POC and it will be even better to have a place in the community to go to share what I have read, all in one place.

  13. Kristen M. says:

    Your new site is a great idea because while I would certainly be open to diversifying, I would prefer it to be within genres and topics I enjoy reading about. And yet it’s difficult to find these books sometimes. And I really appreciate that you found a route that is not a challenge. ;)

    • Teresa says:

      Kristen: There are lots of great challenges out there for diversifying, but I really didn’t want to do that. For one thing, I’m lazy about looking at others’ reviews on a Mr. Linky.

  14. Pingback: TSS: Some serious thoughts « Regular Rumination

  15. Sasha says:

    Great idea, great project. I’ll be joining in soon, have been looking around that blog.

    One of those vague ambitions I had with putting up my own blog was to feature the books I loved, those written by Philippine authors. [Contrary to the oft-repeated, “The Philippines is not a reading country,”–we do read, and it’s not a question of “good” or “bad” books. I just really want more people to be aware of local authors, fictionists and poets. It breaks my heart to know how Philippine Literature is pretty much ignored by Filipinos.]

    Good to know you guys have hosted a bigger avenue for diverse reading! Thank you. :]

  16. Pam says:

    Did you say South West Virginia? I grew up in South West VA the same as you, never doing anything!

    I now live in California and have lived in London. I don’t even go back to visit anymore.

    • Teresa says:

      Pam: I do still live in Virginia, but about as far from SW Virginia and you could get (and I wasn’t nearly as far southwest as you to begin with). I get back a couple of times a year because most of my family is there, but I’m glad to live in DC area.

  17. Hi, Teresa
    I’m sure that Margaret, of BooksPlease (Ramblings of a Bookworm) won’t mind me giving this link to her review of “Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie”, http://www.booksplease.org/2008/03/28/half-of-a-yellow-sun-by-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie/
    I was very aware, while I was reading this enthralling book, that I was seeing events through the eyes of a woman from a totally different culture. Although I felt that I, personally, could have done with a bit more about the background to the culture and the Nigeria/Biafra war, it also made my reading experience feel totally authentic. From the viewpoint of the author, this wouldn’t have been necessary, and I wouldn’t expect a British author to give any explanation of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.

    I’m currently reading a delightful book (which I WON in a draw held by Dovegreyreader)it’s “Unimagined” by Imran Ahmed, who came to England from Pakistan, aged one year old. It’s funny and touching, and very refreshing to see life from the viewpoint of a British Muslim. Follow this link to learn more about him. http://www.unimagined.org/

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for those links, Christine. I have found sometimes that reading books by authors from altogether different backgrounds really reveals my own ignorance–or my own assumptions about others.

      And the Syrad book sounds fascinating. Victoriana from an Iranian author–definitely unique.

  18. PS. Teresa, I know we’re talking about books by writers from non-white ethnic backgrounds, but I hope you don’t mind me giving a link about a book I’ve just reviewed on my website: The Milliner and the Phrenologist by Kay Syrad – it’s set in Victorian England, and I’ve learned about a whole new world – albeit, a white one. It’s beautifully written, and definitely different! http://www.christinecoleman.net/strangest-book-year/

  19. litlove says:

    What a marvellous idea, Teresa, and it’s going to be a fantastic resource. I can certainly send European authors your way, and have a post on Assia Djebar, an Algerian writer I’m particularly fond of. It’ll be fun to see what other people come up with.

  20. Cori says:

    I read your post when I first got up this morning and I’ve been thinking about it all day. I went through the books I read last year and there were only two by POC — both Iranian Americans. I couldn’t believe how un-diverse my reading habits were. I’ve always enjoyed POC books, but I never have made an effort or seek them out. Now that your post has me thinking about it, I hope to be intentional about reading more POC, starting with Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” since it’s staring at me from my TBR pile. I’ll make sure to post any reviews to your new clearinghouse blog.

    Well done! :)

    • Teresa says:

      Cori: Eva’s post had the same effect on me. I thought my reading was much more diverse than it was until I looked at it closely. I have the Lahiri in my TBR pile now too. I loved The Namesake, and I hear her stories are even better!

  21. I never thought to look through my 2009 reading list to see what ratio was POC. I might have to do that later. Last year, I read as fancy took me, and this year I’m reading the stuff I was supposed to read last year when fancy took me… lol, the ARCs I never read. I don’t read a book because it’s a black or Asian or Native American, etc. book, but because I like the story. Thing is, I tend to like what’s NOT familiar to me already, which often leads me to POC books. I think it’s wonderful to be able to view the world through another’s eyes and gain a new perspective. I think our understanding is improved by these new facets of clarity.

    • Teresa says:

      KoolAidMom: I agree. Books from people who aren’t like me (at who aren’t like me on the surface) are so very enlightening. And yes, I wouldn’t read a book just because the author is a POC but because the topic interests me.

  22. Gavin says:

    Teresa – This is absolutely brilliant. Is there anything I can do to help?

  23. Maire says:

    I loved this post.

    Great idea for the website. Eva’s post was what originally got me thinking, but this has cemented it for me. I WILL read more books by people of color this year. And I think that Diversify Your Reading site will really help!

  24. rebeccareid says:

    Seriously awesome Teresa! I just started browsing through the site. I’d love to participate, add links, whatever. This is great. (Have I said that enough, yet?!)

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks Rebecca! Coming from you, with all you’ve done on the Classics Circuit, that’s a tremendous compliment. I’ll send you an e-mail on how to help.

  25. Pingback: Diversify Your Reading « Page247

  26. bookssnob says:

    What a great post, and a brilliant idea. I will be checking out the blog as all of my book reviews are of books written by white people – I don’t even need to check as I know I rarely, if ever, read a book by someone who isn’t white. This is largely because I don’t read much modern fiction at all, and if we think whitewashing is bad now, try finding a book by a POC written in the 19th century!

    I choose books based on my interests, which are the 19th century, early to mid 20thc and usually about the lives of middle class women. These preferences totally exclude all POC authors, and I am aware of this. I am going to try and include more authors of different ethnicities into my regular reading but I don’t really know where to start, so your new blog will really help me out. I think it’s important that more readers of my persuasion make an effort to break the mould of their reading preferences and branch out into reading more non white authors, otherwise the whitewashing of the publishing industry will never change. I don’t ever want to choose a book JUST BECAUSE the author isn’t white, because then we get into the positive discrimination argument which I personally strongly disagree with, but I want to make more of an effort to actually pick up books by non white authors, read the blurbs on the back, and give them a go rather than automatically assuming they won’t interest me. Next time I go to the library I am going to leave the European Classics section and check out what else there is on offer!

    • Teresa says:

      Rachel, I hear you on the difficulty of finding 19th-century authors of color. I love that period too, and it is pretty much lilly-white. It is nice to see more publishers putting out classics from Asia and other regions in translation, so that might be an avenue to explore.

      There’s also some marvelous historical fiction by POC. One of my favorites of last year was Love in the Time of Cholera by Latin American author Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. You might take a look at that. Or for something in the modern day, there’s Jhumpa Lahiri: I loved her novel The Namesake, but I hear her short stories are extraordinary.

  27. susan says:

    Teresa and all others thank you for creating and contributing to Diversify Your Reading.

    Please accept my invitation to check out Color Online. We focus on women writers of color and we are an inclusive community. We want both genders, all races and varying ages to join us.

    If you haven’t already, you might be interested in Readers Against WhiteWashing.

    So many readers feel compelled to say they would never choose a writer based on color only but no one has ever said it was odd for someone poc to read only white authors. Never in any discussion has anyone ever suggested a poc reader wouldn’t be able to relate to a read simply because the writer is white. We need to address why some of us assume race alone would prevent us from relating to a story. Why if race is a non-issue is our reading more diverse? Part of the problem is the failure of the industry to publish more by poc writers. Imagine being poc and an editor literally says “What do you have about oppression, poverty, race-based, typical immigrant experience or exotic”?

    I don’t believe there is positive discrimination. As a reader, I read what interests me, too. I won’t read an author solely on race either. I’m interested in all people and some people I have to purposely seek out because the industry and market has deemed poc a niche audience.

    I really appreciate Teresa for asking how can you truly know and learn if you always look through the same lens?

    I read for connection. I don’t find that discriminatory in any way. I read POC because despite what is dominant in the market place in the real world we, POC are everywhere.

    • Teresa says:

      Susan: Thank *you* for all the good work you’ve been doing. I just learned of your blog and the RAWW effort last week, and there’s lots of good stuff there.

      And you’re so right that there are many points of connection to be made between readers and writers.
      I’ve found so much that I can relate to in books by authors of color, and I’ve learned new things too. (Just as I do when I read white authors.)

      I’m sure that if we all make the effort seek out those books deemed “niche” and read those back covers, we’ll eventually find something of interest, probably lots of things. And when we read those books, we’ll find more connections than we ever expected. And hopefully, as we continue reading, purchasing as we can afford to, and recommending, publishers and booksellers will get the picture that POC doesn’t have to be a niche.

  28. Jenny says:

    The argument that only X percent of one’s own country is POC, and therefore the book publishing industry has no obligation to publish more than that percentage of books by POC, doesn’t cut much ice with me. In America, for instance, studies show that 50% of adults are unable to read an 8th-grade level book. (Jonathan Kozol, Illiterate America). Should 50% of our publishing therefore be targeted below that range? I don’t think a strictly demographics-based argument can or should make much headway.

    82% of the world’s population is non-white. I read to be someone else for a while, to make connections: why would I want connections with only the 18% of the world that is ethnically like me? Worse yet, only the smaller percentage that also speaks my language? Or the even smaller percentage that the publishing industry thinks I “should” like as a woman, which would probably not include many of the books I adore? Opening our eyes and increasing the number of things we’re interested in and can make connections with (only connect!) can only improve us as human beings. In my obviously not very humble opinion.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny: I don’t mention demographics in order to suggest that publishers or booksellers should limit themselves to publishing this many POC authors and no more. I mention demographics merely to suggest that the book marketing machine is actually pushing us toward whiter reading than many of us find in the world around us, much less the wider world. I find that to be a useful point to consider, but like any argument, it can only be pushed so far.

      • Jenny says:

        Sorry, Teresa! I didn’t mean to argue with your point at all. I’ve seen comments suggesting that since the US or England has only X percentage minorities, the book publishing industry is quite reasonable only to publish X percentage books by POC and market them to a lesser degree. This, side by side with the argument that “I read what I’m interested in.” How do you know what you’re interested in unless you try all different kinds of things? And we can’t do that unless it’s published. I was kind of hijacking the comments to rant. My apologies.

  29. Teresa says:

    Thanks for clarifying, Jenny. When I saw your comment, I realized that it would be possible for someone to draw that conclusion from my thoughts about demographics, when that wasn’t my point at all!

    I quite agree with you that the goal should be lots of different voices about lots of different topics, both published and marketed to a variety of audiences. That, alongside an attitude of openness to new things of the part of readers, will go a long way, I think.

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