This post was on my heart for a while and finally I decided to write it while watching a Harry Potter marathon on television. Give it a read, and tell me what you think.
When I started this blog, I was sure that I’d be one of many– one of hundreds of blogs exploring books written by people of different ethnicity and nationalities. I wasn’t. Moreover, I was one of few blogs that seemed to have an interest in reading much diverse literature at all. In 2016, I see that changing for the better. Its amazing to see challenges that inspire bloggers and others to read books by people of color, and I’m excited to see what books people choose. Even though I focus on multicultural literature, I’ve even seen challenges including different sexual orientations and abilities as well, which is even better.
But it’s bigger than the challenges. The need for wider interest in multicultural literature is crucial for so many reasons. This blog post on HuffPo, for example, gives a good set of reasons advocating for the increase of Latin@ books in classrooms. Having multicultural characters helps engage children of color in reading because they can relate to some of the characters. As a woman of color, I can personally testify to this. For their white counterparts, reading books with characters of color help shape a more realistic worldview.
Furthermore, if reading literature has been proven to improve our ability to empathize, it follows that reading literature set in, or including people of different cultures would improve our ability to empathize with people unlike ourselves.
So what is the best way to read literature with which we don’t directly identify? Here are some meditations I’d like to throw into the ring for consideration. Note that there’s lots of overlap between these items, because they’re all intertwined, in my opinion.
- Understand your own culture within the context of the book: If nothing else, the best part of reading diverse literature is increased self-awareness. Coming from a Caribbean family, for example, causes me to more closely evaluate African culture, which has stark similarities. It also allows you to confront your own biases, which takes us to the second point….
- Empathize/sympathize and learn, even if you can’t understand or agree: For me, this is the most important, if not the most challenging, part of reading multicultural literature. Reading a book where a character undergoes female genital mutilation, or is held in detention after illegally crossing a border challenges me in ways I’d never have imagined. Many times, I read things that I’ll never understand or experience, but that doesn’t remove the intrinsic value in the book itself.
- Keep the ethnocentrism to a minimum: This is a complex one for me, so pardon me while I fish for the words. There’s a difference between learning and observing another culture critically, and immersing oneself in that culture. Even I’ve found myself missing the point while reading because I got hung up on judging aspects of a culture I’d only just begun learning about through the lens of my own culture. That’s not to say reading diverse literature requires accepting everything at face value—but when reading, look to immerse instead of judge when appropriate.
- Diverse settings and characters are no substitute for diverse authors: This argument has emerged in so many ways. Valentino’s 2015 Paris Fashion Week show was criticized for being heavily influenced by Africa, without having many actual minorities on the runway. The same thing goes for literature: while there are many amazing stories told by people outside of the culture, sometimes its best to let them speak for themselves. Sometimes, being a cultural visitor is a vital element to the story. But it’s not enough to riddle your bookshelf with books about strangers in a strange land. Your view of other cultures will be narrow if you don’t also have books written by people of those cultures.
So that’s just my two cents. Feel free to expound upon these, or comment with other ones you’d like to add! What are some of your favorite books by people of color?