The photo above shows a few of my (many) most-loved books from the last year, which was a very good reading year for me. I’ve already blogged about my Top Ten book list and a few of the stats that analyzed my reading habits for the year, but I wanted to draw a sharper focus on a few of these books for one particular reason: I wouldn’t have found these books if I hadn’t gone looking for them.
Let me explain.
I’ve been an avid reader since I could read. I’ve been tracking my reading habits online for 13 years. And I know a few things about myself and the books I read:
- I read a lot more fiction than non-fiction
- I read a lot more books by women than by men
- Historical fiction is my favourite genre
- I read more books by American and British authors than I do writers from my home country of Canada.
But one thing I hadn’t even bothered to think about until last year was the simple fact that almost all the writers I read are white people.
I had a chat on my podcast early last year with two women who are part of an intersectional feminist book club, which got me thinking about intersectionality and diversifying my reading list. So I decided that in 2018, I would make a conscious effort to seek out books by writers of colour.
I followed more black, Asian, Latinx and indigenous writers on Twitter, and when I saw a mention or review of a book by a non-white writer that sounded like something I’d like to read, I sought it out and read it.
The result, not surprisingly, was that I read a lot of really great books I might not have discovered otherwise.
Of course, there’s no need to worry about white people: because “white” is so much a default in our literary culture, my fellow white folks are doing just fine on my bookshelves. Of the 100 books I read last year, 69 were by white writers; 31 were by writers who (to the best of my knowledge) identify as people of colour. And as a result, I discovered some wonderful books that simply wouldn’t have come to my attention if I hadn’t been looking for them.
I love fantasy, but I’m very picky about it. Seeking out writers of colour led me to S.A. Chakraborty’s marvellous City of Brass. I’m a big fan of a historical saga that plays out over generations, but would I have stumbled across Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing by chance? A contemporary family drama rife with tension and secrets? There was Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us just waiting to be discovered. How about a good modern-day twist on Pride and Prejudice? There are thousands of them out there, but few with a fresher taken than Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha At Last — unless it’s Ibi Zoboi’s Pride. And if I hadn’t been looking for books about the refugee crisis from the perspective of communities who’ve lived through it, would I have discovered two wonderful refugee stories, each with a weird and lovely twist of magical realism: Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West?
And those are just a few of my discoveries.
The obvious takeaway: there are books you’ll never discover if you’re not specifically looking outside your usual shelves. And to me, this is the only possible response to people who critique any kind of “affirmative action” or “diversity programs” by saying, “Well, I don’t look at colour/gender/disability/etc … I just hire/read/invite the BEST PEOPLE, regardless of identity.”
We’d all like to believe we do that. That we hire the best people, read the best books, invite the best people to present at our conferences and events. But the thing is: the best people are everywhere. And almost all of us have preset defaults as to where we look.
I’d like to think I read “the best books.” But in fact, my perception of “best” is heavily skewed towards fiction by white women writing originally in English. That’s what I’m used to, so that’s what I see and what I read. It’s like a I have a set of bookshelves that has been built for me — by a combination of the culture I live in and my own innate preferences — conveniently located at eye-level, like the bookstore shelves where they place the best-sellers face-out so you see them as soon as you walk through the door.
The fact is, there are enough good books on that White Women’s Fiction bookshelf to keep me reading for the rest of my life, without ever needing to move away from it. It takes effort for me to walk into other sections, search through unfamiliar spines, bend down to those shelves that are near the floor when you’ve got creaky middle-aged knees like mine. But there are great books waiting there.
I’m not in the position to hire people, or to invite people to speak at conferences. If I were, I’d like to believe I could apply this same effort to intentionally diversify my world, that I do to my bookshelves. I like what that openness has brought me.
If you only look at the few shelves you have at eye-level, you’ll never see the rest of the treasures waiting in the stacks.