Monday, June 13, 2011

Reading and Diversity: A Pledge

Langston Hughes
When I compose Friday Fiction lists, or just talking about my favourite books in general I'm ashamed by how many of the authors I've read how many are white, straight British (and Western European) or American men and by how few are women, how few are of colour, how few identify as LGBT. I'm ashamed because I'm talking the talk but not walking the walk. 
Yukio Mishima
Since 2006 I've read 262 books and of those books 69 have been by white women, 18 by men of colour, only 4 by women of colour, 19 by queer authors and 28 by Canadians (not to put Canadians in the same oppression field as the others but I feel strongly about supporting the Canadian publishing industry and local authors). Yikes. Looking at the numbers broken down like that and knowing that there is a lot of overlap within (I read Bastard Out of Carolina twice and Dorothy Allison also falls under queer author category, same goes for Canadian and Lesbian Anne Purdue's amazing collection of short stories I'm a Registered Nurse, Not a Whore) there are really no excuses. 
Jane and Paul Bowles
Sure, there are more novels out there by white Euro-American straight men. And the majority of 'great' literature is considered to have been penned by them. The Modern Library's list of 100 Best Novels has 8 women on it, only two of them breaking the top 58 (Virginia Woolf is the first with To the Lighthouse at 15, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is 17 -- lonely indeed). Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is at 19 the first novel on the list by a person of colour and is followed at 39 by Go Tell it on the Mountain and two V. S. Naipauls at 72 and 83 (there are no women of colour on the list at all; sorry Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston...). Slightly better numbers for the queers authors: Woolf and her daliances with Vita Sackville-West, Baldwin, Kerouac, Waugh and his three gay affairs with servants, Paul Bowles, Somerset Maugham and E. M. Forster. 
The publishing industry is hard and with the advent of e-books it's only getting harder for authors to be published. Throw institutionalized racism, sexism and homophobia into the mix and we're eking out into Sisyphus territory. 
Jhumpa Lahiri
I once read an essay by Two-Spirited Anishinabe artist Nancy Cooper entitled Two-Spirited Women Artists and Social Change in which she quoted the incredible Menominee lesbian poet and activist Chrystos on her "three-strike theory" and publishing: 
This means you can be queer and get published, but you must pretend to be straight. Or you can be brown and get published, but you must be pretend to be straight. Or you can be queer, but you can't be a woman.
While this statement might seem to oversimplify and make it out that it's easier for straight POC or white GLBT to get published and ultimately accepted in society, I think it's pretty spot on in that the dominant society can only tolerate so much diversity from one person.
Sherman Alexie
But books by those not of the dominant culture, by authors who have three strikes as Chrystos describes are out there. I have read some of them and each of them has enriched my reading life. Nothing will ever compare to the first time I read Ralph Ellison or when I read Three Day Road; I reread Amy Hempel's Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried every couple weeks and am moved to tears everytime; I will never truly accept that Jane Bowles never wrote more than a few short stories and a novella; Every time I look at my book closet and see Oscar Wao I plead with the universe for Junot Diaz to write faster; I wish I could consume Bastard Out of Carolina; Their Eyes Were Watching God is perfection. 
Amy Hempel
Without diminishing or shunning my love or admiration for those white straight male authors, for Steinbeck and Russell Hoban and Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy, I have decided to make the summer (until I go back to school full-time and have to forgo reading for fun *sob*) all about reading authors of colour, reading LGBT authors, reading authors with disabilities -- not because I want to meet some imposed PC criteria but because I often let myself focus solely on the more popular, more visible white, straight and often male authors (the competitive side of me is mildly obsessed with getting through the Modern Library top 100 list). I'd love to do embark on this effort with others if anyone is interested in a sort of non-book club; no hard and fast rules -- it's about a concerted effort not about mandate. 
Zora Neale Hurston 
The thing is that by neglecting to read authors other than white straight dudes, in addition to not practicing what I preach in terms of social justice and activism, I'm really missing out. 


  1. EXACTLY. There are many wonderful white straight male authors, it's just important to recognize that we are more likely to revere their work because of its greater accessibility (due that ol' history of privilege and oppression and stuff).
    We should all remember to seek out works by authors and artists whose voices are not as readily showcased, but just as worthy of being heard.

    (Found your blog a while ago through the magic of the Internets and I occasionally check in - nice post!)

  2. Thanks for commenting, Nikki!

    "There are many wonderful white straight male authors, it's just important to recognize that we are more likely to revere their work because of its greater accessibility" This really sums up perfectly what I was trying to say, thank you for putting it so aptly!

    And, hurray for the magic of the Internets -- I really like your blog as well!