#WeNeedDiverseBooks: The Unbearable Whiteness of Literature

The Twitter and Tumblr campaign of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, an initiative aimed at highlighting just how lacking in diversity the literary world is, especially books for young adults and children, kicked off on May 1st. Coming as it does on the heels of criticism of the BEA (Book Expo America) and BookCon’s nearly all-white line-up, and alongside Junot Diaz’s incisive essay on The New Yorker’s blog, MFA vs. POC, I’d say it’s time we had a talk on why, exactly, we need diverse books.

What Diaz points out was that the MFA degree, for him, was “too white.” What does that mean? “Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all.”

If these workshops are the incubators for the future writers of America, then we’ve got a problem. And it’s no wonder so many writers, readers, activists and academics all took to various social media platforms to spread the #weneeddiversebooks message. Twitter erupted with readers sharing personal stories of the diverse literature that’s helped shape their understanding of the world, while Tumblr was filled with photos of smiling readers holding signs up elaborating their need and desire for more diverse characters and stories.

I counted myself one of many eager to tell my social circles what Black and Brown literature has meant to me. Though I was lucky enough to be exposed to books like Nectar in a Sieve and Native Son early on in high school, as a young Latina in The Bronx, I still noticed my literature classes, even my AP classes, were absolutely dominated by the usual white male writers that every high school student in the US is forced to read (hello, Salinger, Fitzgerald, Twain, et al.) Living in, and attending school in a fairly mixed area, it shouldn’t have taken me until college to read any books by Latino writers, let alone have more than one or two writers of color thrown into the mix. My first semester of college, I took an intro to literature course that actually and literally changed my life. Taught by a then-grad student focused on postcolonial and transnational literature, this course made me want to specialize in postcolonial literature for my undergraduate major. I went on to take classes like “Writing New South Africa,” “Women in Post-Independence Narratives,” and “Latino/a and Latin American Poetry.”

We need diverse books because it shouldn’t have taken me, a Puerto Rican woman in New York City, until college to discover writers like Piri Thomas, Nicholasa Mohr and Gloria Anzaldua, along with a host of other Latino writers. We need diverse books because it shouldn’t be easier for white children to imagine talking animals are more like them than Black and Brown children. Of course, #WeNeedDiverseBooks isn’t just about racial diversity. The campaign also aims to call attention to the lack of diversity in terms of differently-abled, bodied and gendered characters and stories that include them. And the issue isn’t just which stories get told, but who gets to tell them.

The comments section of The New Yorker was quick to point out that if Junot Diaz had been talking about any group other than white folk, it’d be hate speech. The same commenter who characterized Junot’s essay as “hate speech” was quick to also add: “Get over it, already. If you don’t like this country, go back.” Another commenter called out Toni Morrison (whose photo is featured in the essay) and The New Yorker as “racist in their intellectual correctness” and bemoaned how fed-up he was, as a white person, with being “racist by birth” and “held responsible for problems [he] did not create.”

What these people, and many like them, fail to grasp is Diaz’s point exactly, and one that he reiterates again and again in his writing and in his speeches: the absolute inescapability of whiteness (maleness, cisgendered-ness, able bodied-ness, etc.) in the literary world and how it serves to eclipse every other narrative there is. This latest trend of articles about the lack of diversity in literature is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a problem of the publishing world, and not a dearth of writers of color. A problem of the same old boring syllabi and lesson plans, encouraged by school boards who still believe in the concept of the “Great American Novel.” Everywhere I look I see talented and prolific writers passed over in favor of these same, tired narratives. #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #WeNeedDiverseWriters because seeing ourselves in the narrative is crucial to having an understanding of the importance of our variously racialized and gendered histories, and just how deeply they are a part of that narrative, whether they’re widely acknowledged or not.

Originally published on Warscapes

 

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