“But I don’t choose books by gender,” a Facebook friend wrote on her wall. And maybe she doesn’t, but many people do. Consciously or unconsciously. Or else why do male writers get nominated for, and win, more awards? Why do men still get reviewed more? Why do women writers still get asked questions male authors don’t, and get described in interviews in ways men writers never do? Why do we have Women’s fiction and Chick Lit but not Men’s Fiction and Dude Lit? (And please, let’s not talk about this guy any more. I can’t.)
I thought of VIDA and CWILA and their yearly counts, which often spring an offshoot discussion about the lack of writers of colour in reviews and magazines. And I remembered that the brilliant Madeleine Thien recently spoke about the underrepresentation of writers of colour in literary awards. And then, I thought I should dedicate 2014 to only reading writers of colour. And immediately dismissed it as a silly idea and went to bed.
But I kept thinking about it. When I woke up that night to feed my baby, I thought of books by writers of colour I can’t wait to read and got excited. In 2011, when I only read short story collections, I discovered many incredible writers I’d never heard of because I was always on the hunt for new collections, and I read more, simply because I made a public pledge to do so. It wasn’t a burden, but a blessing. I imagined this would be a similar experience; by imposing ‘restrictions’ on my reading list I would be reading more widely, not narrowly, the same way that writing under constraints may sometimes result in better writing. And I knew I’d have many great writers to choose from. Last year, Roxane Gay of The Rumpus had conveniently compiled a long list of writers of colour (a list in which I’m proud to be mentioned) in response to the argument that there are simply not enough writers of colour. That list would be a good place to start.
But the idea made me nervous. Unlike reading books of short stories, this choice felt political. And coming from Israel, politics tend to scare the shit out of me. I shouldn’t be choosing books by authors’ ethnicity, should I? It’s so arbitrary, so random. But then again, what’s wrong with that? People choose to read books because they’re on the Giller list, or on Canada Reads, or on the staff picks at their local bookstore. People choose books based on covers and blurbs and titles and gut feelings. So why not this?
But I was still hesitant. Ethnicity is a complicated thing, and identities can be layered and shifting and blurry. Where do I draw the line? What about writers of mixed heritage? Or writers of colour who write about white people, or choose (stubbornly!) not to write about their heritage? (I loved this article which speaks about the expectation from writers of colour to write about their heritage and their heritage only, or to write novels that—as a dear friend of mine, an Indian-Canadian writer, has put it—“have mango trees.”) And what about other minorities? LGBT writers? Writers from other cultures who aren’t ‘of colour’? And really, should we be even talking about race? It makes people so uncomfortable.
I often speak about how in writing The Best Place on Earth I was trying to rectify the experience I had as a child growing up in Israel and reading books that didn’t include characters like me. There was never a Yemeni girl in the books I read and loved and so I ended up feeling invisible, wishing I was white, wishing I was Ashkenazi. I never heard of a Yemeni writer growing up. My father, who had been a closet poet in his younger years, wrote a poem about it once in which he said, “A poet’s craft is an artist’s realm / not for you, son of Yemen.” Thirty years later, I grew up still feeling like I couldn’t possibly be writing Yemeni stories. Who’d want to publish them? Read them? In recent years, I discovered that there were actually a couple (two!) Yemeni Israeli writers out there—Dan Banaya Seri, Mordechai Tabib—who published books, stories, poetry, but I’d never heard about them, despite being an avid reader who read everything in sight, because their books weren’t taught in my school, weren’t reviewed in the papers, weren’t on the bestseller list, the recommended reading at the local bookstore. Like me, they were invisible.
In her speech at the literASIAN writers festival in Vancouver, Madeleine Thien said that the mainstream canon “decide the work that will be visible and the work that will remain invisible.” In the comment section in an article about her talk, published in The Georgia Straight, Thien clarified her position by saying this,
“My own personal feeling is that it’s not about race but about reading. That is, that our way of reading is narrowing down. Literary credit goes to those who work within a recognizable/identifiable branch of the canon, and who speak to something that has (perhaps) been already said. Sometimes, critics and jurors simply feel more comfortable when they recognize allusions, literary predecessors, historical context, etc. That’s human.
My experience has been that jurors expect writers of colour to write either folkloric or documentary type books. These books are not accorded the same kind of literary value. And if the writers are doing something different, or drawing from a different canon, the jurors don’t seem recognize it (or feel comfortable judging its value).
… Anyone can read deeply, and anyone can read narrowly.”
Then, in the days between writing this and posting it, Pasha Malla wrote about his own experience trying to balance the gender disparities in his reading choices, which led to a new discussion, one that questioned individualized solutions. Can revising our reading list and creating quotas truly make a difference? Perhaps not, but shouldn’t we at least try? Shouldn’t we start somewhere, albeit as small as our own bookshelves? And shouldn’t we—excuse my triteness— ‘be the change we want to see in the world’?
I’m choosing to spend the year reading only books by writers of colour, because I want to read more deeply. Because as a writer of colour who wants to be read I realize I should do my part, and become a reader, an audience. Because I’m interested in the world around me, and the stories these writers have to tell. Because last year saw a flurry of banned books in the US, many of them written by minority writers and deal with ethnicity. Because when I was suffering from a major writing block, trying and failing to fit my writing into what I thought the Canadian literature mainstream expected of me, my mentor Camilla Gibb suggested that I read books by writers from other cultures, and I discovered Edwidge Danticat, and Chimamanda Adichie Nguzi, and Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Junot Diaz, and Yiyun Li, and I was instantly cured. Because reading their stories made me feel like there was room for my writing in this world.
And because I think it’s going to be fun. Not so much a political statement but a personal one. I think it’s going to be a great year for reading. I can’t wait for it to start.
So there it is. My New Year’s resolution. What’s yours?