In 2014, I decided that for the entire year, I would not read books written by white authors. My goal was to address the reading practices I developed growing up in Australia, where white authors have dominated the literary world. My high school reading list was filled with the “classics” — Shakespeare, Austen, the Brontes, Euripides — and well-known modern writers such as Margaret Atwood and T.S. Eliot. After school, my pleasures came from bestseller lists, which also were filled with Anglo names: John Grisham, Peter Carey, Hilary Mantel. Then I read Questions of Travel by Sri Lanka-born Michelle de Kretser. It moved me so deeply that I decided to evaluate the literature I was reading. I quit my standard diet to expose myself to new perspectives.
But it was much harder than I expected to discover books by nonwhite authors. The resources most readers use to find good literature left me with all the usual suspects. White authors reign in book reviews, bestseller lists, literary awards and Amazon.com recommendations. In a survey of New York Times articles published in 2011, author and cultural commentator Roxane Gay discovered that nearly 90 percent of the reviewed books were authored by white writers. Among Amazon editors’ top 20 picks of 2014, just three authors were minorities.
I stopped browsing bookstore shelves and crowdsourced my search online, writing about my project in a Guardian article and asking for suggestions. I found like-minded people with diverse reading lists on Goodreads and Twitter. Ultimately, the books I read were written by authors from various cultural backgrounds, across a broad range of genres: science fiction, fantasy, young adult and “chick-lit.” Some, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s modern opus “Americanah,” I might have read anyway. But I doubt I would have seen most others without making a conscious decision to find them.
Research shows that my anecdotal difficulties result from a systemic problem in the literary and publishing world. From MFA programs to publishing houses to critics’ circles, the industry is suffering from a lack of diversity. The problem exists in children’s literature, too, where just 14 percent of books published in 2014 were by or about people of color, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Authors of color encounter agents who dismiss or don’t understand cultural references in their books. Publishing houses whitewash book covers and blame market demands; as author Christopher Myers has pointed out, publishers insist that young white readers won’t buy books with black characters on the covers, “despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.” Stores segregate books with nonwhite characters into “ethnic” sections. And the consequences are clear: One review found that just three out of the 124 authors who appeared on the New York Times bestsellers list in 2012 were people of color. On Amazon last week, just two of the top 20 bestsellers were written by minorities. Among bestsellers in literature and fiction, there was just one nonwhite author.
The most frustrating part of my year of reading diversely was not being able to access e-books for works published in other countries. In the United States, five of the books on my 2014 reading list are not available through Amazon’s Kindle store. Krishna Udayasankar’s fantasy series, the Aryavarta Chronicles, can be purchased as an e-book through Amazon.in, but it is unavailable on Kindle outside India. While this could be partly a result of licensing rules, it also reflects what books the publishing world chooses to translate and make available outside the country of origin: Less than 1 percent of literary fiction and poetry books published in the United States are translations, and more than 60 percent of those are from Europe and Canada.
Of course, brick-and-mortar bookstores are even more limited. Even in Australia, it took a lot of searching to get my hands on the Tribe series by Aboriginal author Ambelin Kwaymullina — dystopian young-adult science fiction featuring a young female lead of indigenous heritage. Everywhere I checked, no one had heard of it. The United States is no better. Calls to Washington’s two largest independent bookstores — Kramerbooks and Politics and Prose — were fruitless. A Barnes & Noble employee this month said Kwaymullina’s “The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf”was in stock — 1,100 miles away in Minnesota. In the end, I had to ask a friend to order the books through a specialist educational bookseller.
Technology has opened up our literary options, giving readers access to more international books and more diverse authors than could be stuffed into any local bookstore. But if online retailers and the publishing industry continue to rely on old habits — seeking out the same kinds of books and promoting the same kinds of authors — readers will be denied the richly varied experiences that literature offers. Particularly in the era of globalization, when we must increasingly interact with and understand cultures other than our own, the status quo is simply unacceptable.
Reading diverse authors for a year introduced me to some new things, such as the Aboriginal art in Anita Heiss’s “chick-lit” novels “Manhattan Dreaming” and “Paris Dreaming” (about two art curators, who happen to be Australian indigenous women, posted to new jobs in the United States and France). In those books, as well as in “All That Glitters” by Hispanic author Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, I enjoyed reading about brown girls dealing with dating dramas and #firstworldproblems — and it made me feel much less guilty about my own.
But beyond zooming in on those authors’ culturally specific experiences, my reading list also showed that writers everywhere are concerned with the same universal themes. Generally, the most well-known books by writers of color in the English-speaking world focus on “othered” experiences. While white authors are valued for having “normal” experiences, black authors, for instance, are most valued when writing about slavery or poverty. This limits their talent and leads to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story,” in which the work of minority authors is used merely to highlight differences and reinforce stereotypes.
Reading more diverse literature has the power to convey the universality of human experience and show that we really have more in common with one another than expected. One of the best books I read last year was Indonesian author Dewi Lestari’s sci-fi epic “Supernova: The Knight, the Princess and the Falling Star,” a story presented through the eyes of two Indonesian men who meet while studying in Washington. The story is brilliant, and it proves that the West does not have a monopoly on technology, philosophy and love. Lestari’s novel could be set in any country with characters from any background; her ideas about modern lives and relationships truly transcend nationality. But unfortunately, while very popular in Indonesia, “Supernova” was largely absent from Western book reviews and literary circles.
The problem of representation and diversity stretches beyond book publishing. All forms of art and culture — visual arts, music, performance — need to reflect the increasingly diverse society in which they exist or risk irrelevance. We’ve seen some recognition of that recently in television and in film. Shonda Rhimes, the creator of “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” notes that these trends aren’t about “diversifying” entertainment but rather “normalizing” it. Including nonwhite characters as leads with complex motivations, and showing homosexual relationships matter-of-factly, are more honest reflections of reality than what we’ve traditionally seen in prime time.
Campaigns like We Need Diverse Books, which launched last year, can create significant change. The nonprofit organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts publishes an annual gender study of book reviews in several major publications. This year’s report noted progress by several outlets, including the New York Times, where 47 percent of authors reviewed last year were women, compared with 38 percent in 2010.
I realize now that in declaring I would spend a year reading books written by nonwhite authors, I became part of a movement calling for a pretty modest transformation: better representation of who we are in books that are published, reviewed and read. We no longer live in a time when marginalized people are voiceless. Instead, we have the opportunity to ensure that those voices are amplified. People of all cultures and backgrounds have valuable experiences and universal ideas to share, and we all stand to gain when those voices are heard.
Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.
“Americanah,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Throne of the Crescent Moon,” Saladin Ahmed
“Another Country,” James Baldwin
“Kindred,” Octavia E. Butler
“Foreign Soil,” Maxine Beneba Clarke
“Open City,” Teju Cole
“Saree,” Su Dharmapala
“Tiddas,” Anita Heiss
“Manhattan Dreaming,” Anita Heiss
“Paris Dreaming,” Anita Heiss
“The Book of Unknown Americans,” Cristina Henríquez
“Butterfly Song,” Terri Janke
“The Disappearance of Ember Crow,” Ambelin Kwaymullina
“The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf,” Ambelin Kwaymullina
“The Lowland,” Jhumpa Lahiri
“Supernova,” Dewi Lestari
“The Astrologer’s Daughter,” Rebecca Lim
“Twilight in Jakarta,” Mochtar Lubis
“Mullumbimby,” Melissa Lucashenko
“Who Fears Death,” Nnedi Okorafor
“Here Come the Dogs,” Omar Musa
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