Category Archives: Books

Diversity Is Not Enough

“We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism.” (“Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing”)

In many ways it comes down to white privilege (that phrase can be difficult to digest—this is the best explanation of white privilege I’ve found). The white establishment (i.e., people like me) doesn’t understand what people of color face.

People like me are blind to all the small things that are stacked up against people of color. Each one on its own seems small, but together it creates institutional racism. The result is things like the Noah movie using an all white cast as “stand-ins for all people” because “race doesn’t matter.”

If you don’t see anything wrong with that, that’s white privilege.

If you watched the Noah movie and didn’t think it odd that everyone was white, that’s white privilege.

Or any movie.

As G. Willow Wilson commented, “Where are all the black people in Middle Earth? The answer is ‘In Laketown,’ apparently.” Extras in the Laketown scenes in the second Hobbit movie were the first non-white human characters in the Lord of the Rings movies.

If you think it’s political correct garbage to want racial diversity in a fantasy movie, that’s white privilege.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

It reminds me of the book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas where the 9-year-old Bruno is oblivious to the German Holocaust, even though he lives outside the gates of Auschwitz. He befriends a Jewish boy, Shmuel, but is completely unaware of the ostracism and hatred his friend endures.

Bruno is not antisemitic. He’s not even aware of the German propaganda about Jews, and when he hears it he doesn’t believe it. But he’s blind to all the barriers Shmuel faces as a Jew in 1940s Germany.

It’s not an ideal comparison. But it feels familiar. When people don’t understand the need for diversity or insist that we’re beyond racism, it reminds me of Bruno.

Complicating the Single Narrative

At last week’s Festival of Faith and Writing I was pleasantly surprised that the conversation wasn’t limited to the Christian faith. I don’t know about the extent of the diversity, but I did hear from one Muslim writer and one Hindu writer.

Why is that important? Because, as Muslim comic book writer G. Willow Wilson said at the Festival of Faith and Writing, “If a belief system is worth anything it should offer value to those who don’t believe it.”

Our society is so polarized right now I think it’s more important than ever to hear from voices that are different from our own. It’s too easy to become overly homogenous and clueless of anything that’s different. It allows all sorts of negative things to blossom.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of the single story in her 2009 TED talk, when we allow a single narrative to tell the entire story of something we don’t understand. It happens all the time when the continent of Africa is turned into a single country. It’s what we do to Islam when we assume all Muslims are conservative or even terrorists.

Wilson also said that she’d never been to a mosque that separated men and women until she came to the U.S. The most liberal mosque she’d ever been in was Iran.

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it is that they are incomplete,” Adichie said. It’s not that there aren’t conservative Muslims (and even extremist Muslims), but that’s only a tiny sliver of the truth. Just as the Westboro Baptist Church does not represent all of Christianity.

Swati Avasthi, a Hindu writer who spoke at the Festival of Faith and Writing, said that in order to disrupt this single story notion, we need to make it more complex. We need to explore the wider narratives and understand things more fully.

Two great examples are Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang and Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins. Both stories explore deeply divided issues—the Boxer rebellion in 1900 China and persecuted refugees in Burma today, respectively—from two conflicting perspectives. The result is a more deeply nuanced narrative. It’s not a simple, one-sided story.

I think we need to pursue those multiple narratives, the more complicated threads that start to give us fuller picture, a more honest glimpse of the truth.

Don’t be content with a token bit of diversity. Don’t assume one story about Nigeria will tell you all you need to know. Don’t be so jaded as to think a single refugee story gives you insight into the experience of all refugees.

“Let’s tell stories that humanize, rather than demonize,” said Eliza Griswold, who has done a lot of work in Afghanistan and seen firsthand the result of our single narrative. She disrupts that narrative herself with this book of poetry by Afghan women.

Today is Reading Day

The kids were both home from school today and so I declared it reading day. No TV. No whining all day. But lots of reading.

How’s that work?

At random points during the day I’d shout, “Reading break!” And we’d gather on the couch to read some books. I promised we’d hit the bookstore or the library, but that will probably come tomorrow.

We got through six books:

  • On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne – A fun and cleverly written picture book about the life of Albert Einstein that introduces a lot of science concepts in a simple way.
  • It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate – A picture book about the outsider art of Bill Traylor, who didn’t start creating art until his 80s.
  • Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert by Gary D. Schmidt – A picture book telling the story of this mixed-race Peruvian saint.
  • Bird by Zetta Elliot – A longer picture book that tells the story of a younger brother dealing with his older brother slipping away to drugs and street life.
  • Olivia Kidney by Ellen Potter (we’ve been reading this one out loud for a week or two, but weren’t quite halfway through) – A chapter book that starts out with an Alice in Wonderland-ish flair for the random and bizarre, but eventually comes around and everything connects.
  • Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel by Nikki Grimes – A quick early chapter book about a spitfire of a girl in a new town welcoming another new and not so eager student to school.

And then started a seventh: The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Clearly (going old school).

Our Favorites?

Milo: Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel and Bird

Lexi: Olivia Kidney

Me: On a Beam of Light, It Jes’ Happened and Martin de Porres were all pretty good

Searching Out Diversity

I keep coming back to the conversation about diversity in literature. I think it’s important. I heard it several times during the Festival in Faith and Writing and today I came across an article about how to get more diversity in your YA fiction.

That piece has some good advice. You have to actually search out diversity, recommend it and support it. It doesn’t happen automatically: Search, share, support.

Lately I’ve been trying to search out more diversity. If I don’t, my shelves are mostly full of white folks. It’s the same with my music collection. I don’t like most hip-hop, and the alt-rock and punk genres are pretty homogenous. So I’ve been working at it.

You also have to recommend it, and it’s something I need to be doing more. Though I should be clear this isn’t about simply recommending stuff because of the diversity, but because it’s good. So here are a couple recommendations, something I’ll try to do more consistently:

Books

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow WilsonAlif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
The hacker youth culture of a Cory Doctorow novel meets an Arab security state and slips into a fantasy world worthy of J.R.R. Tolkien. The mix of realism and fantasy was pretty great. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of fantasy, but I really enjoyed the glimpse into the Muslim world.

Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul CurtisBud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
This is a YA classic but somehow I’ve never read it. An orphaned boy goes in search of his long-lost father in Depression-era Michigan. An early scene of Bud being abused by foster parents made me physically angry, but the story moves to tenderness as Bud encounters more warm-hearted people on his journey.

Music

Music seems like it should be easier to find diversity. But I’ve always been a rock fan, and aside from a few big names, rock isn’t very diverse. I’m not a fan of hip-hop, so that leaves my musical horizons pretty limited.

Thanks to Spotify, I’ve been researching more diverse voices.

“You Can’t Be Told” by Valerie June
This foot-stomping single is a bit different from the rest of her album, but I love her rootsy voice, regardless of anything else.

“Sister Rosetta (Capture the Spirit)” by Noisettes
This one has a swing-dance style that’s just fun. The band has some more recent stuff, unfortunately it’s only available in the U.K.

The Difference Diversity Makes

That whole ‘diversity in literature’ conversation keeps coming up and I think it might help some people to understand why it’s so important.

If you’re never confronted with it, if you’re always finding people who look like you in your entertainment, then it’s a question you might never think about. It helps to step outside of ourselves and see a different perspective.

I came across exactly that perspective in Deza Malone, a character in Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Mighty Miss Malone:

When I was in Gary and would read novels I used to put myself right in the middle of the story. I knew it was a great book when it felt like the author was writing about me. Some of the time I’d get snapped out of the book when I read things that I couldn’t pretend were about me, even if I had the imagination of Mr. William Shakespeare.

Words like “her pale, luminescent skin” or “her flowing mane of golden hair” or “her lovely, cornflower-blue eyes” or “the maiden fair.” I would stop and think, No, Deza, none of these books are about you. Continue reading The Difference Diversity Makes

Festival of Faith & Writing 2014

This past week I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. It’s a gathering of writers and readers interested in faith.

I first heard about this event when I was in college, but it’s never been practical to attend. It’s also held every other year, so I would tend to forget about it or only remember during off years.

This year I’d been looking for an event to attend and this seemed perfect. I’ve never been to a conference in my professional career that wasn’t in some way promotional. I was always doing work. It was never a retreat or a chance to recharge, it always involved promoting something.

This time around I was there as a writer and a reader, looking to hear from other authors and not do anything promotional.

Which makes for a glorious event. Continue reading Festival of Faith & Writing 2014

Children’s Novels That Teach Culture & History

While generally I have a weak spot for sci-fi reading, I’ve also noticed  I enjoy books that help you understand a specific culture or history. I think that’s one of the greatest joys of reading—better understanding part of life. Young adult and teen novels seem to be the best at this, since they’re usually more focused.

These sorts of stories may be a weak route to diversity, but they at least offer some. I’d also counter that understanding differing perspectives is the whole point of more diversity in our books, so that’s a big win.

So what are some good reads in that genre? I’m probably just getting started and missing the obvious ones, but since I do read a lot I realized I have quite a few to suggest. Continue reading Children’s Novels That Teach Culture & History

Where’s the Diversity in Literature?

Illustration by Christopher MyersI read a lot. And in all that reading it’s apparent that diversity is lacking. I like to tell myself that’s because of my own tastes or my own white privilege.

But it’s not just me.

It’s a problem that pervades the publishing industry. Earlier this month I tweeted a story about how 93% of the characters in children’s literature are white. The New York Times has run a pair of opinion pieces on the issue, Where Are All the People of Color in Children’s Books by Walter Dean Myers and The Apartheid of Children’s Literature by Christopher Myers, that gives some context and reality to the dry stats:

“In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature,” writes Walter Dean Myers, “the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.”

Continue reading Where’s the Diversity in Literature?