Diversifying the voices in our heads

Inspired by Shut Up, Shealeas post on Diversity 101

I’ve always loved fiction that takes me other places, whether other times, cultures, or realities, so looking to include diversity seems a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you want fresh voices?

Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way, and actively promoting diverse reading is required to help broaden our understanding of the human experience. It’s incumbent on those of us with white CIS hetero Protestant privilege to be good allies.

Shealea of Shut Up, Shealea posted an amazing primer on diverse reading, giving a call to action as well as definitions and suggested readings.

The larger call for diversity is a call for equal accessibility and opportunity for stories about marginalized lives *and* a publishing industry that reflects the diversity of the world that we live in.

Shealea, Shut Up, Shealea

Since I’m not in the publishing industry, anything I can do is indirect. I’d read awhile ago that self-publishing was one of the ways to help promote voices that aren’t getting taken up by traditional publishers. As long as we’re a capitalist system, the main way to create diversity is to make it a market demand. Buying, borrowing, and talking about those books is important.

If you’re an author considering self-publishing, promoting diversity can also mean affirmatively seeking out diversity in those doing the editing, cover art, layout, e-book formatting, etc. Now sometimes that’s tough—people have to self-identify first, as you don’t want to ask “Excuse me, are you nonwhite, non-Western, disabled, neurodiverse, or LGBTQA+?”

One of the people who helped me think about the question of representation in literature is Ian Hancock, a Romani linguist and activist. He pointed out was that the Romani, still frequently referred to as gypsies (considered pejorative by most Roma), lost the same percentage of their population as the Jews, but the Porajmos, as Hancock and other activists refer to the Romani share of the Holocaust, is not spoken of as often. Part of that is because the absolute number of Jews is much higher.

Hancock and others also point to the differences between the populations. The Roma have been systematically oppressed for generations, and are poor and largely illiterate, as opposed to the Jews, who have also been systematically oppressed, but are largely literate. As a result, there is no mindset for record-keeping, nor, as Hancock has put it, a Romani elite.

For him, it was necessary to have a percentage of Romani who became well educated to have representatives whose speech would be respected by the dominant Western white cultures. It’s kind of like the concept popularized by W.E.B. DuBois: The Talented Tenth.

Although there are controversies about some of Hancock’s opinions, the salient point is this: Literacy matters. Stories matter. Representation within the literary sphere matters. The Romani experience of the Holocaust illustrates that. The sheer number of deaths suffered by the Romani was not enough to raise awareness of the Porajmos; authors were needed to bring that forward. There is no diary by a young Romani girl; there is no parallel to Night by Eli Wiesenthal.

Literacy matters. Stories matter. Representation within the literary sphere matters.

As literacy grows, the barriers should be lower for those underrepresented voices to express themselves in ways that others can read and empathize with. It shouldn’t be about an elite—it should be available to help pave the way for people of all types to “live their best life,” to use a cliche. That doesn’t happen, though, without conscious thought, because the powers that be are still overrepresented in every aspect of publishing.

So it’s incumbent on all of us to read diversely and to demand diverse voices in our books, and to promote those voices. However, as an ally and reviewer, I’m sometimes in a bind—I’m not an authority on any of the experiences of these communities, but I’m passing my admittedly subjective judgment on books. My goal is to look at the writing as writing when looking at books by members of those communities—not addressing the validity of the experience so much as how well it is communicated to an outsider.

However, it’s trickier when it comes to characters from those communities. Who am I to pass judgment on the authenticity of the characters, particularly if there’s no overt self-identification by the author? Again, I have a goal: to be aware of potential issues and point them out, but defer to the experts in the community. I won’t spot them all as I don’t have that finely honed sensitivity one gets about their own issues, but I feel that when a book starts rubbing me the wrong way about its depiction of a person of color or a LGBTQ character, then I should point it out.

I have a goal: to be aware of potential issues and point them out, but defer to Subjectivity is inherent in how we consume any art, but inclusiveness and diversity are still something to be sought after, even if never quite achieved.

Because, of course, even members of any of these communities will have different perspectives on their experiences which will shape their feelings about the characters in question. Subjectivity is inherent in how we consume any art, but inclusiveness and diversity are still something to be sought after, even if never quite achieved.

Shealea posed two great questions that stopped me because I rarely think of casual or nonreaders in this context, despite their existence in my immediate sphere:

  • How can you encourage other readers (and even non-readers!) to pick up diverse books?
  • Do you think that accessibility plays a large role in a person’s ability to read diversely?

The second issue is probably easier—yes, there is so much noise out there that finding diverse novels takes more effort than simply picking up whatever is on a rack in the drug store.

I want to act, not just talk, but I want to act effectively and appropriately, so talking comes first. What should a concerned ally do?

As to the first question: Is it a matter of providing “gateway” books (like comics or graphic novels)* by underrepresented communities to places where people are more likely to pick up a book? Or has the ubiquity of cell phones crowded out the possibility of someone picking up print places where we used to: doctor’s offices, hospitals, garages, or anyplace else where you’re trapped waiting on someone else?

I want to act, not just talk, but I want to act effectively and appropriately, so talking comes first. What should a concerned ally do?

If you’re ready to read, go to Shut Up, Shealea and find a book to broaden your frame of reference. Or, if you’ve exhausted her list, or need some other places to check out, try some of these sites:

Comments much appreciated!

(Many thanks to S., Fabienne, and HermitCrone for their assistance in helping me think through this post; however, no blame attaches to them for opinions expressed herein.)

* Not meaning any disrespect to comics and graphic novels, but they seem to be less intimidating that walls of words.

Fear and loathing in the Stillness

A Big5+ review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

r/suggestmeabook: I want a gut-wrenching tale of the end of a world that has enslaved its most powerful magicians.

Apocalyptic climate fantasy

Movie rating: R

Pages: 378

Publisher: Orbit

From the publisher: This is the way the world ends. . .for the last time.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

You probably already know all this, but some of us are perpetually late.

The Fifth Season is of those reads where you’re so blown away you can hardly form the words to discuss it immediately after finishing. It’s searing and beautiful and tragic. I’m sure a fictional world has affected me like this before, but I can’t think of one. It’s more like after the first time I saw Schindler’s List, where the horror, strength, and beauty of humanity so potently mixed.

Essun, a mother who has tried so hard to live among the stills (the normies or muggles of this reality), is reeling from unspeakable tragedy. Damala, a young girl whose world has been shattered by her unexpected power, is betrayed by bigotry allayed with fear. Syenite, a young woman who has scrabbled for each jot of dignity, who is ordered to do something all her work should have exempted her from, but her talent is too precious to waste.

The world building is exceptional, mortared stone by stone. The characters are fully realized. The magic functions in a coherent way. The world is true to itself–none of those moments where you are pulled out of the story by internal inconsistency.

And it does what fantasy and science fiction are uniquely suited for: it holds up our societal ills in a way that enhances our view of reality through carefully planned fiction. The Fifth Season illuminates the realities of ignoring our environment as well as the cruelty of an oppression which masks itself as protection, but does it so artfully that you are compelled to keep reading through to the conclusion.

An amazing, emotional read, but not for the faint of heart. Will I read the two remaining books in the trilogy? I am equal parts desire and fear.


#FridayFlashbook: This Is How You Lose the Time War

A bookblogger roundup on a book that’s been around

Many thanks to Gary Mitchelhill of Rapidsnap at Deviant Art for the banner picture!

On Fridays, I’m going to be sharing reviews on a book on my TBR that I keep hearing about. Today, it’s the widely admired epistolary novella published by Saga Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) that shows up frequently on r/fantasy, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War. Today’s roundup includes a thumbs down, which I’d generally prefer to do. Reviews are in alphabetical order—the audiobook review is last.

Before We Go Blog

An analysis supported by quotes. Ryan Howse is often very funny, although you can’t necessarily tell from this particular review.

Some people have said there’s not enough plot in this book, but I disagree. It’s just that the plot is essentially a romantic drama with science fictional conceits mixed in. The last act of the book does start putting the screws to the characters after their relationship has been built up, but it’s not a nail-biting thrill ride because that’s never what this book was about.

Ryan Howse, “Review – This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone,” Before We Go Blog

The Fantasy Inn

A brief, but evocative, rave.

From the moment Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone announced they were co-writing a novella, it immediately became one of my most anticipated SFF releases. I was dying to get this book, blurb unseen – because with these two authors, there was no doubt it would be amazing. And weird.

Sharade, “This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar et Max Gladstone,” The Fantasy Inn

The Thirteenth Shelf

A clever critique in the form of a letter. Review includes “Notable Aspects,” rating, and a TL;DR section.

How I wish, so fervently, to rise like Lazarus from the yawning depths of my shelves, that I may reach you before you sail downstream to the thread of future wherein you chance upon, This Is How You Lose The Time War. Though under the glittering constellations of my own beloved worlds, I still long to be your vanguard of yet unseen worlds, to carry once more the banner of warning upon which I break both time and heart.

Rin, “Book Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone,The Thirteenth Shelf

Tiny Navajo Reads

An audiobook review; narration by Cynthia Farrell and Emily Woo Zeller.

 I honestly didn’t realize it was written by two authors until I started listening to it. I could hear the differences between the two letter writers and when they were read aloud, I could image Red and Blue indulging in their letters to each other, letters that are forbidden, letters that acknowledge there are differences in the other side, even if it doesn’t always seem like it.

Ashley, “Tiny Navajo Listens: This Is How You Lose the Time War,” Tiny Navajo Reads

Someday I’ll get through that TBR and have a chance to review it myself—I’m not sure I’ll like it, as I’m generally not a fan of epistolary fiction, but it seems like I really need to have checked out to be able to call myself a fantasy bookblogger.

Happy Friday!

Humor: check. Violence: check. Lovable: check.

Adventures in reading and writing from Big5Plus, lesson the first

r/suggestmeabook: I want a Swords and Sorcery adventure that will make me laugh—and occasionally choke up.

Rating: R

Pages: 464

Publisher: Orbit

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Yes, I loved this book. The effortless with which Nicholas Eames moves from smartassery to makemewannacry is impressive. He even throws in some wisdom here and there:

Clay suspected the booker had bullied the midwife that pulled him from the womb, but there wasn’t time to speculate now.

Nicholas Eames, Kings of the Wyld

I didn’t expect to love it—which may, in part, explain why I did. There’s nothing like overly high expectations to ruin a book for you. I don’t naturally gravitate to Swords and Sorcery, but enough posters on Reddit (r/fantasy) had mentioned it that I decided to pick it up.

He has an interesting technique that he uses pretty consistently: almost every chapter ends with a teaser (that often sounds like a spoiler), and it’s picked up in the next one. Sometimes the teaser is misleading; sometimes it’s not.

This technique definitely makes it hard to put the book down. Each time I thought, “Well, I’ll stop at the end of this chapter,” dammit, there’d be one of those statements and I just had to find out what the hell it meant.

The characterizations are consistently good. He can sum up minor characters quite well with descriptions, as in the one of Etna Doshi:

She was short, stocky, and walked with the telltale Phantran swagger that was one-quarter useful for staying balanced on a ship’s deck and three-quarters cocky bravado.

Nicholas Eames, Kings of the Wyld

It helped me escape the current existential angst, so it’s a good read in and of itself, as well as one of those that you read to learn about good writing.

Murder by suicide

Review: The Magpie Lord by K.J. Charles

r/suggestmeabook: I want a fast-paced magical Victorian mystery with an unwilling earl and a clever magician spiced with some steamy guy on guy romance.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 204

Publisher: KJC Books

Series: A Charm of Magpies

From the publisher: A lord in danger. A magician in turmoil. A snowball in hell.

Exiled to China for twenty years, Lucien Vaudrey never planned to return to England. But with the mysterious deaths of his father and brother, it seems the new Lord Crane has inherited an earldom. He’s also inherited his family’s enemies. He needs magical assistance, fast. He doesn’t expect it to turn up angry.

This book was so much fun that I’m raring to read the next one. The protagonists are adorable: tall, rebellious Lucien Vaudrey and short, clever Stephen Day. I wouldn’t say this is a cozy mystery because there’s some quite a bit of swearing and some graphic sex in it, but it’s next door to one. 

K.J. Charles manages to make everything feel fresh in the story, even though she’s riding some well-worn tropes—the unwilling heir with the terrible family, a gothic house, possible madness, and hereditary curses. Part of it is the completely frank attitude of her new earl, who has completely lost any concern for Victorian sham, and part of it is the simple joy she seems to take in the love story.

As a CIS, hetero female, I can’t say how the romance will affect those who identify more with the sexuality of the protagonists, but from my point of view, it was completely absorbing, and, dare I say it, hot. It reminds me of the tone of Gentleman Jack; the story has similar sensibilities, but without Anne Lister’s conformity to her class.

Completely irrelevant side note, but did you know magpies are classified as one of the most intelligent animals in the world? They don’t live by me, so I’m fascinated by them, but I guess they could be a nuisance if they did.

At any rate: Run and get a copy of The Magpie Lord now. You’ll thank me later.