Friday, May 30, 2014

We Need Diverse Books

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This week has been pretty pivotal in terms of news events for me as a writer and an avid reader. With the unfortunate passing of the author Maya Angelou and with the Kickstarter campaign for Reading Rainbow to relaunch this much loved PBS kid's show on the web and provide it for free to schools in need, it's been both somber and inspiring. While I regrettably have read a limited amount of Angelou's work, her magnitude and influence affects me and reminds me, as the death of any author does, how connected we are to these people and their words. Both of these events have caused me to ruminate further on something I've been thinking a lot about recently - diversity and literature.

In my younger years, I had a lot of prejudice against books. I wouldn't read something if it didn't have cool cover art (and grew frustrated when cool cover art misled me to horrid books). I didn't like reading things that didn't have certain elements that I found interesting - I would read any young adult ghost adventure story, but something about a spelling bee would be uninteresting because it sounded too normal or ordinary. Worst of all, I hesitated to read things that might be about a topic or culture I wasn't familiar with - I avoided Ghost at the Tokaido Inn because I knew nothing about Japan and I was afraid that I wouldn't get it. I didn't overtly recognize all of this, of course, until years later, when I'd finally grown out of it. But it's amazing to me that, as much as I loved reading and as much as I loved learning, there were certain borders I was afraid of crossing.

Fortunately for me, I managed to cross them. I somehow ended up reading Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, a book generally marketed for boys, read it multiple times, and loved it (it's still one of my favorites). I read the Dear America books and the Royal Diaries series attached to them, branching out from protagonists that did not look like me, even though I feared that their stories would not be relatable (I enjoyed seeing how wrong I was). I started having interest in books that took place in parts of the world I had never been and found myself drifting towards characters I was nothing like (aided by the fact that I was also reading more nonfiction and learning about how complex our crazy old world is). 

So why in the world did it take me so long to diversify my reading habits? Some of it had to do with my surroundings - growing up in an area where much of the population looks like you and most of the literature marketed in stores is about people who look and act like you and most of the stories you read in school are about the same influenced this. I read nearly every Betty Ren Wright book in existence because she wrote about Midwestern girls who stumbled across ghosts and had to reconcile their fear, and while I will love Betty Ren Wright until my dying day, reading only books like this might have stunted my reading habits for a few years. There's also the caveat that I developed certain levels of insecurity in my later childhood years (between seven and nine years) and reading books about characters I could easily identify with helped me feel better about my own self-construct. However, the more books I read about people I felt like I should relate to because we lived in similar circumstances, we looked the same, we lived in the same part of the world and yet couldn't relate to them at all worried me. I felt like there was something wrong with me if I couldn't relate to these female protagonists in middle school because they wanted boyfriends and I wanted to find pirate treasure/join a quest with Aragorn and the rest of the Fellowship/solve crimes with Sherlock Holmes (note: these were all legitimate daydreams of mine in middle school. What the hell, these are still legitimate daydreams of mine). I hit a brick wall in reading and found myself rereading the same books over and over because they understood me (Inkheart, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Tuck Everlasting, Jane Eyre, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Little House on the Prairie and every Laura Ingalls Wilder book in existence, the Redwall books, Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl, Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light, an assortment of Sharon Creech books). It's not a bad selection by any means (well, I did read Twilight far too many times) but there was so much out there and I was kind of stunted in some ways. I had an interest in the Holocaust but I could only read so many books about that before I felt too sad to continue. Somehow, though, my reading interests began to expand. Partly this was due to school - taking Honors English and AP English classes forced me to read things I wouldn't have read otherwise (thank you, English teachers of Lakeville South High School, for making me read Shakespeare. I am eternally grateful). But there were other influences - I'd moved to Minnesota, leaved near a large city which made me more interested in urban life than I'd been before. I was getting recommendations for books from more people, and I was finally at the age where books mentioned in shows like Wishbone (another PBS wonder) were finally at my reading level (let me tell you, when I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame and found out how it really ended, I cannot express to you how upset I was) (okay, so I had an Illustrated Classics version - essentially a fancy Sparknotes version of the text that I'd read before - but STILL. Quasimodo deserved better, Victor Hugo, and I'm upset that you ended it with a far more harsher realism than Disney). Also, I was recognizing my own limitations of reading. When I saw friends reading fantasy novels and realized I'd only ever avoided them because I didn't like the cover art, I made myself reconsider my life choices. And trust me, once you start realizing that you have things in common with alien races and fantasy creatures, you start to see the light and realize that, duh, you totally have things in common with people of other culture, nationalities, and experiences.

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One of the first books that really, really made me realize how much I had in common with people I prejudicely thought I had nothing in common with was The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton, which I read in 7th grade. Though this book focused on male characters, gangs, and death (topics I tried to avoid), I loved the book. Something about the prose, the quoting of Robert Frost (a poet I grew up loving thanks to my father), elements like Grease and West Side Story, and a slick, dangerous, exciting plot line that I could empathize with regardless of my privileged, started to make me realize how much I'd been misunderstanding writing and storytelling in general. Stories could tell so much more than I'd initially granted them and only focusing on a small piece of the literary world was a serious mistake.

The next big jump in my understanding of books I think came from the nonfiction book Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I read as summer homework for my AP Language class. Not only was it a book about books and reading, it was one of the first nonfiction books I'd ever really enjoyed and I read at it time when being from the Middle East was especially misunderstood. Reading Azar Nafisi's account helped me work through a lot of misunderstanding and hate that was surrounding me and as one of the first key steps for me becoming a feminist (compound that with the fact we did a project of discussing gender with this book and the film North Country and yeah, I was an instant feminist).

And so, with the passing of Maya Angelou, I feel a certain sadness that in the past I would have thought I never could have understood her work because she didn't share the same experiences as me or because she wrote nonfiction, or because her poetry was a different style than what I had grown up on. I harbored certain prejudices and I am ashamed that they kept me from reading works like hers until much later than I would have liked. But I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings will always haunt me, the first impression it made on me when we read her poetry in my AP Language class utterly unforgettable. Writing from authors like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Salman Rushdie, Studs Terkel, and Tony Kushner fundamentally changed my life and my reading habits and while I might have picked certain favorites over others, they all influenced me.

I don't think that you have to have diverse reading habits in order to support diversity, but I believe it helps. I love going from Jane Austen to Chimamanda Adichie, from Shakespeare to Margaret Atwood, from the books that I loved a child - and still love - to the books I love now, and seeing how much I have in common. I misunderstood writing when I was younger; I took "write what you know" far too literally and forced myself to write only about experiences I could imagine or knew personally, which stunted my writing. I read in much the same way - if I thought imagining a world different than my own was a struggle, I'd avoid it. I didn't believe in my own abilities to understand. Thank God other people and other resources did, or I might never have ended up where I was.

So why is it that it was so easy for me to picture being a governess ala Jane Eyre but living in a town in Nigeria seemed too difficult? I can't really say now, except that certain prejudices were certainly alive and well in my life and at some point in time, I might have been told that some cultural boundaries couldn't be crossed. But now, I understand the characters of Adichie's novels as well - if not better - than I understand Jane Eyre. Realistically, I have very little in common with Jane Eyre. But something caused me to think that I would understand her better than other characters of different cultures, and I shudder to think how much I unknowing followed this.

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We need diverse books for a number of reasons and one of these reasons is to avoid mistakes like mine. If I had known earlier on that the point of writing is to help us understand each other, to work through out differences, to understand another culture without prejudice or fetishization or postive stereotyping/halo effects. Writing can break down boundaries rather than establishing them. And I'm forever grateful for people like Maya Angelou and projects like Reading Rainbow that express this.

I will forever declare Chimamanda Adichie's TED Talk on "The Dangers of a Single Story" one of the most amazing things I've ever seen, and part of that is because I, much like herself, grew up reading stories like she did, never realizing that there could be other tales told. We need diverse books because everyone has a story to tell, because growing up reading about people from diverse backgrounds can only better people's own self-concepts and of the world around them, and because writing is not just for one group of people. We need diverse books because, without them, we'd only be telling a single story. And what fun is that?

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful! I love Adichie's TED talk as well; recently read Half of a Yellow Sun, and look forward to reading Americanah. In the feminism of the 1970s I remember a long discussion in which some women said they couldn't identify with male protagonists in books (and I certainly understood the need for more female protagonists), but I didn't get that at all--I tend to identify with all protagonists (with a few rare exceptions).

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