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.