Seeing Yourself: The importance of stories

 

Multicultural and diverse representation in literature can be boiled down to a universal concept: we all have stories.

What do I mean when I say diverse?

All diverse experiences should be recognized, including (but not limited to)  “LGBTQIA community, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.”

We are never going to exhaust story-telling as a medium for connecting. It is one of our fundamental instincts; race and language are not barriers with story-telling, they simply enrich the experience of listening to someone’s mind. Story-telling is universal because we understand their necessity and how they feed our emotions and education. It is not an education that is institutionalized or halted outside of a classroom; it’s a cycle that informs the way we live. So why should that be any different than the stories we can hold in our hands? As a writer of color, I have never been validated with printed words. I would always have to re-wire them in a way that allowed me to see myself as the protagonist. In the back of my head, however, I was hyper-aware that these stories never seemed to be written for me.

White authors have always dominated our high school reading lists. Think of the authors and books that are considered “classics”- Shakespeare, the Brontes, Hemingway, Austen. These authors deserve their place in literary history, but they only convey a certain kind of history. Culturally specific experiences are near impossible to find in, not only school, but the best selling lists we are so often exposed to.

As a writer of color, it’s my responsibility to educate others on how our voices carry valuable experiences, just as anyone. The importance of seeing yourself in a story cannot be stressed enough. We are all deserving of a story that reflects what we know as life.

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.”  – Sunili Govinnage

Source:https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/04/24/i-only-read-books-by-minority-authors-for-a-year-it-showed-me-just-how-white-our-reading-world-is/?utm_term=.96b252babe76

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suggested Readings and Poetry

While this list is not exhaustive or exclusive, it is wide ranging in audience. The goal of reaching out to those who can’t see themselves in a story is to gain more diverse perspectives. Literature is largely related to fiction, but we should view it (and the writers of it) as something concrete. People of color’s experiences are part of the human experience, and only when that is realized in our art forms can those identities can be realized in the West.

 

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

White Teeth, Zaddie Smith

After Dark, Haruki Murakami

Love Poems, Pablo Neruda

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz

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

Manhattan Dreaming, Anita Heiss

 

Children Literature

Source: http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/papers/literature.html

Representation in children literature is what I believe to be the most important. In their formative years, it is integral to build their identity and the art they consume effects that identity.  Kids tend to garner low self-esteem when they open a book and cannot identify with the characters in front of them. No kid should have to evaluate what little they know of life through someone foreign in concept, or worse, through stereotypes.

Below are excerpts taken from an article that shows the significant effects multicultural literature has on children. The entire research project can be read on the site provided above.

Pioneer researcher, Florez-Tighe (1983), was one of the first educators to advocate the use of multicultural literature in school curriculum.

Taylor (1997), a more modern researcher,  conducted a study of twenty-four African- American and Hispanic American fifth grade students from the Southwest. The children were given twenty-four picture books and were instructed to give their opinions of each book.

Twenty children “did not give high approval ratings to the melting pot books” and identified largely with the culturally conscious ones (Jambo Means Hello, by Muriel Feelings, Tar Beach, by Faith Ringgold, and She Come Bringing me that Little Baby Girl by Eloise Greenfield, were their favorites.)

Taylor’s (1997) results suggest that to increase an African- American child’s interest in reading, and improve their reading proficiency, culturally conscious books can be a valuable asset.

 

The systemic problem

Stats:

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.

Source: http://therumpus.net/2012/06/where-things-stand/

Among Amazon editors’ top 20 picks of 2014, just three authors were minorities.

Source: https://www.amazon.com/b?node=10207069011

14 percent of books published in 2014 were by or about people of color, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

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.

Source: http://www.rochester.edu/college/translation/threepercent/index.php?s=about

All of this stems from a systemic problem in the literary and publishing world. While it’s disturbing to know that the people who decide what stories can come to life are limiting voices and different experiences, it’s moreso unsettling to realize their justification for dismissing writers of color. They reject cultural references in books because they won’t be understood and even book covers are “white-washed” in order to satisfy “market demands.”

These practices are reprehensible. People are getting stripped of their voices, or are being covered with erasure strategies to re-write a story that fits the same narrative. As a writer of color, that narrative has always been fed to me and it’s always taken part of me to look the other way. No one should have to turn a blind eye to this, especially not in our current political climate. More than ever is it important to depict accurate representation. Movements like WeNeedDiverseBooks and Writers of Color fight for this representation by advocating for authors of color to write themselves into the narrative of American history. While there are noteworthy books that most people are familiar with, (Tori Morrison’s Bluest Eye or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple) that are written by people of color, they highlight matters such as racism or slavery. They are not valued for writing about normal experiences and thus limits their talent and leads to what the author of Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “single story, in which the work of minority authors is used merely to highlight differences and reinforce stereotypes.” The West doesn’t have a monopoly on love and loss, or any universal theme that ties a story together.