Authenticity and Diversity in Literature

Posted 28 September, 2014 by Trish in Reading Nook / 44 Comments

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Sunday Salon

Hi sweet readers. This post is a lot heavier than my normal fare. I know it’s long and I’m nervous about hitting that “publish” button over there. If I make mistakes, overstatements, or oversights, please realize that I’m trying to sort these complicated questions out in my head. As always, thank you for your thought provoking comments and contributions to my posts.

Whew.

There has been a lot of chatter within the book blogging community lately about reading diversely and reading books written by people of color (in case you wondered what POC meant).  You know I’ve been participating in Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe Event and there has been the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign–of course last week was also Banned Book Week and diverse books always seem to make that banned book list. We may as well extend this conversation to not only books by POC but also LGBQT authors and books as well.

I pride myself on my diverse reading preferences. While I don’t try to hit any percentages of women writers over men or writers of color over white writers, I enjoy what I enjoy and it usually includes a big variety. While lately there has been a big push on diversity and reading diverse books, there have also been moments that have made me uncomfortably aware of my privileged life as a straight, white, middle class, woman. Well, nevermind on that whole woman thing, but that’s another story. The point I want to make with all of that is I don’t always feel comfortable or qualified to talk about race or diversity. But.

We all choose to read diversely (or to not read diversely) for different reasons. I love learning about cultures and religions and thoughts that are not quite like mine and I’m never surprised to find that we all share a common humanity. I have several books with authors whose names I cannot pronounce and I’m always interested to learn about authors that offer something a little different from the normal publishing fare. How else do we expand our mental horizons? Learn and sympathize and and stretch ourselves? By recognizing our differences we come closer together.

But, I’ve stumbled into a couple of different troubling articles and instances lately that have me wondering about diversity. In particular there was a rather lengthy article in the LA Review of Books called “Why am I Brown? South Asian Fiction Pandering to Western Audiences.”  I read the article a few days ago and was immediately discouraged. Many of the books that author Jabeen Akhbar references are ones that I’ve read and recommended as sources of diversity. So I’ve been doing it all wrong? Because I’ve been reading books by people of color who are writing a more sanitized version of diversity because it’s what the white publishing houses will publish?

Ugh.

When I mentioned this on twitter someone jokingly told me, “you’re doing your best! Your best sucks!”

I was able to put the article in the back of my mind, but I’m currently listening to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and the day after I read the LA Review of Books articles I listened to Gay’s essays on some of the representations of blacks in popular culture–namely in books and movies. She discusses The Help, Django Unchained, Twelve Years a Slave, and Tyler Perry. I haven’t seen Django Unchained, Twelve Years a Slave, or anything by Tyler Perry but I felt like the air had been punched out of me when listening to Gay’s essays–that everything that we’re doing is not enough and that white people are certainly doing it all wrong. I happened to publish my post on Kindred that same day and I then wondered if I even had the right to discuss slavery or a slave’s plight.

And no, this isn’t about me. But I felt so discouraged that Gay didn’t offer any solutions to the so very prevalent white version of black history or that Akhbar doesn’t really give solutions on how we can read more authentically diverse literature either.

But as readers and consumers, how do we know what is authentic? Yes, Kathryn Stockett is a white author writing about black maids–does this make her story about the Civil Rights movement less authentic? (and yes I do recognize how The Help is problematic) To question Akhbar’s article, how do we know which South Asian authors are “pandering to western audiences” and which South Asian authors are writing authentically. And who defines the authenticity? Is an African-American author writing about stories set in Africa less authentic than an African author writing about stories in Africa? For example.

Is it problematic to seek out authors and read books because they are diverse? Actually don’t answer that question because I want to believe with all my heart that the answer is NO–READ DIVERSELY!

And this goes beyond national, racial, and cultural diversity. I watched Bonjour Cass’s twitter stream a few weeks ago as she talked about LGBQT fiction and the lack of coverage. Please please go read all of her recent tweets. What I LOVE about Cass’s tweets about sexuality is that she is opening the discussion. We *should* be talking about these things. As a straight, white, middle class woman I don’t always know how to talk about these things. Why am I so worried about saying the wrong thing? Or offending someone?

Cass says “We need more than just “diverse books.” We need a strong, critical voice to demand more from authors, publishers, and critics/reviewers.”  and “How can we ask for better LGBTQ books when we can’t even openly, honestly discuss the ones we already have?”

So how can we do this better? How can we be more aware? How can we read more diversely? How can we decide what is authentic (and yes, this has really really bothered me but I think it raises really important questions)? I’d also love to know how you find diverse books (or how you determine what is diverse).

I don’t have any answers. Just questions. But I want to talk about it. I hate not knowing how or which words to use. Big thanks to Shannon at River City Reading, Becca at I’m Lost in Books, and Jen at The Relentless Reader for hearing me out on twitter and for encouraging me to write about this topic that I feel so unqualified to talk about.

So?

Bites nails. Hits “schedule post.” Waits…

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44 Responses to “Authenticity and Diversity in Literature”

  1. Kudos for talking about this – I haven’t been following any of this on Twitter (I’m rarely on it at all any more). How disappointing that what we’re getting is (may be) sanitized. I think the only solution is that if we at least read that then publishers might get the idea that we’d also be interested in something more “real.”

  2. I have thought a lot about the points you bring up here (this is a GREAT post btw, get rid of that fear that came with scheduling the post!).

    – How can we decide what is authentic?
    I agree that there’s a problem of who gets to decide that. I think we book bloggers can do a huge service here, though, by putting something of ourselves into our reviews. What is it about each of us that makes us diverse? What have we or someone very close to us dealt with that others might want to read about? And I don’t think this is limited to skin color, sexuality, or gender identity. Maybe someone has dealt with long-term infertility? Maybe someone has lived below the poverty line? And so on. I tend to read LGBTQ books because of my (very) close relationship with someone who is trans (which kind of makes the LGBQ part all wibbly wobbly, in this case!). If I make that perspective more obvious in my review, that might give extra insight (maybe carry more weight?) for someone reading my review. This kind of ties in with another question you asked…

    – How do I find diverse books?
    I definitely read reviews!! On Goodreads, Amazon, wherever. And I specifically look for reviews written by someone who might share that experience in some significant way. When I was first seeking out books with trans themes, I definitely wanted to know what trans people thought about those books.

    I think there’s some trust involved, though… That an author writing about something he/she hasn’t directly experienced has either done very thorough research, interviewed people who have those first-hand experiences, something. And at some point, if trust isn’t an issue, I don’t think it matters who is *more* authentic than another – multiple perspectives are going to give a more authentic look than one single perspective, because when it comes down to it, we’re still all human beings who have a variety of reactions to what happens to us.

    /end my long-windedness ;)

  3. I think “authenticity” is not actually the issue. For example, a black person writing about blacks doesn’t necessary have any better handle on “all” blacks than does anyone else. And do white people writing about serial killers somehow have “authenticity”? I hope not! :–) To me, the more critical issue is that publishing houses are less likely to publish something *by* a person of color and/or with a plot dealing with anyone of color because they think it won’t sell. So to me, the important thing is to support writers of color and books with protagonists of color to show publishing houses that yes, white people DO want to read about something besides other white people.

    • Agreed. The question of authenticity is unanswerable in my opinion and not remarkably important. Everyone’s experience of life is widely different. As Jill says, we need to publish writers of color, stories about POC, etc.

      This all reminds me of the strange concept that every LGBTQ book must be about LGBTQ issues such as coming out, relationships, etc. I disagree completely and I would love to read an apocalyptic fiction where the protag is a lesbian but her issues are about survival not her sexual orientation or a coming of age novel where the gay protagonist’s struggles are much, much more than coming out. Letting sexuality/race/nationality/gender/etc. be our primary or even sole personal identifier is troubling to me and breeds disconnect rather than community.

  4. I’m so glad you decided to write about this because I think you bring up some great questions. I love your honesty about feeling scared and uncomfortable, because I think it’s something many of us feel when talking about privilege, but I really hope this opens a positive discussion.

    I had fewer questions after reading Gay’s essay on The Help than I did with Akhtar’s essay on South Asian authors. I completely see the problems Gay points out with sending endless praise to a white author’s vision of the African American experience, where I found Akhtar’s points to be a little fuzzier. I’ve only read a few of the books she mentions in the article, but I wondered about other books from South Asian (or any POC) authors I’ve read and where they would fit…and that had me asking the same question – who defines authenticity?

    I agree with Rhapsodyinbooks, and I mentioned this to you on Twitter, in thinking that what we can do is seek out as much diverse literature as possible to encourage its publication. Maybe it’s naive, but I have a hard time believing that everything published by a major house is sanitized for Western readers…I think we need to look past the “usual suspects” and pick up books from authors we might not have heard of in order to get a wide range of perspectives.

  5. I really believe we will never have all the answers and people will never be completely happy. I don’t say that meanly. Guy’s essays frustrated me in that one section because like you said there were no answers but pretty much criticism of every part of everything, it seemed. I have actually thought of that a lot… Maybe that was the purpose – just opening our minds to that thought. The only person who can really decide if something is authentic is someone who is a part of that group, and even then everyone who is a part of that group will never agree. All we can do is try to understand the groups different from ourselves (like a previous poster said, not just race but other groups as well) and recognize that we can’t necessarily take everything at face value. For instance, I am half Asian and half Caucasian… (And yes being biracial and Asian IS a group in and of itself and I have had experiences related to that) but my sister who has the exact same parents/ethnicities as me has had very different experiences than I have and thinks that some of how I see the world is skewed and cynical. So basically, I say keep reading diverse authors but always, no matter what, keep your mind open because any one person can really only write what they know from their own worldview and what they have learned.

  6. Great post! I have the same questions and thoughts from time to time!

    I think all diverse books are a step in the right direction, but think we need to eventually get beyond just ‘yay diverse books!’ to ‘ok let’s actively critique these diverse books’. And much of that critique, I think, has to begin within the communities the books seek to represent – that is where we begin to learn. For example, much of the black academic and literary community came out against The Help with specific points and problems. From those critiques, we can grow our understanding and use the critiques as we read other books.

    In some ways, I’m not so sure that authenticity is a real concern. All fiction is fiction, and so will have elements of untruths. The question to apply, I think, is who is served and who is harmed by those untruths. For example, is it doing disservice to history in a way that gives, say, a white reader a pass while ignoring very real harms done to others (i.e. The Help)?

    I recently read Do Muslim Women Need Saving? by Lila Abu-Lughod which discusses these same questions as they relate to Arabic fiction. She talks about how much of what is sold or becomes popular is stereotypical stories about how oppressed Muslim women are, ignoring the rest of their lives and experiences. I think that is more the problem – WHO is writing / editing / publishing the books, who is the target audience and does it include the peoples being written about, and does the canon of books published accurately portray all or at least a wide range of experiences, or only one or two stereotypes?

    Another recommendation – Exotic Appetites by Lisa Heldke. I’m still in the middle of reading it, and it is about food, not books, but she’s talking about authenticity, who decides what is or isn’t authentic, the mixing of cultures and how we as the white other try to be arbitrators of what is and isn’t allowed. As I read, I can’t help but apply it to books too!

  7. Have you seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk about cultural stories and voices? I found it really helpful in thinking about these kinds of things: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

    In thinking about the LARB piece in light of Adichie’s talk, maybe the think to do is to just try to have some diversity within our diversity. If every book I read by Indian people is about immigration or every African book is about war, I’m not getting a full picture. Maybe that’s part of what Akhbar was trying to get at. It’s not that those immigrant stories are inauthentic but that they’re incomplete.

    But it is hard to talk about this stuff, and we have to accept that we’ll flub it sometimes. I was thinking about that after seeing Cass’s tweets last week. My review of Sarah Waters’s book didn’t use the word lesbian. It wasn’t used in the book, and I used the vocabulary the characters used to discuss their relationship, which is my usual approach. It didn’t even occur to me that not using the word lesbian would feel like invisibilizing or silencing. So that’s something I’ll keep in mind next time.

  8. I’m glad you posted this. I’ve got similar but tangential questions swirling in my head this week, but they’re so hard to ask! Maybe I’ll brave it in your wake.

  9. I understand your frustration because I’ve felt it too, like no matter what you do, you’re wrong. How can we know everything? It’s not possible. That’s why we read. We put ourselves in the place of the protagonist and even when it’s awkward we find common ground. That’s the nature of reading. I get frustrated by those kind of articles because we are trying which is better than all the people who just don’t care, isn’t it? All we can do is try. And not everyone can be pleased. That is true.

    I like what Jenny has to say about her and her sister because even within particular groups people don’t agree. I wonder what the writers the Akhbar points out have to say about being called inauthentic. They might take exception to that!

    As for authenticity, I’m assuming Akhbar is talking about a particular genre, probably literary fiction, am I right? I like to read genre fiction, so how are ghosts and monsters authentic? It’s hard to find POC authors in genre fiction so by reading and reviewing those authors, I think it sends the message that white readers will read those stories and make the publishers money. Everyone likes money, right?

    Thanks for bringing this topic up, Trish, this is something I often think about myself.

  10. I am so glad you decided to write about this!

    I stand behind my thought that reading diversely has to start somewhere. And if you are not of the culture, it is very difficult to tell what is and isn’t being sanitized for “white audiences”. My main problem with articles like the one in the L.A. Times is that there is a lot of complaining without a lot of problem-solving. So tell everyone they are doing it wrong, but don’t offer any alternatives? Why don’t you just tell everyone to go stick their heads back in the sand and pretend diversity doesn’t exist? Because I guarantee you a lot of readers of that article will feel the need to do that, which breaks my heart.

    No one I know of a different culture/ethnicity from me has ever said to me “that book about (insert culture/ethnicity here) is not authentic ENOUGH. Maybe they will point out inconsistencies or falsities labeled as fact, but I have never once been told I wasn’t trying hard enough.

    Is it our fault that the authors are “watering down” their stories, as it were? NO! We didn’t ask for that. Maybe the author of that article should talk to those authors instead of pointing her anger at the readers just trying to diversify their reading.

  11. And actually – one other thought / point that I think bears mentioning. I think a lot of times it’s hard not to read these types of posts (like the LA Review of Books article) as criticism of *us*. But it’s not – it’s criticism of the books and the publishing industry. We read to expand our understanding and our horizons and to learn more. Voices from within the communities have much more knowledge and understanding already to provide that critique which informs our own and helps us to grow. I might love a book that someone then comes and critiques as problematic – that doesn’t mean that *I* am a big bad (racist or homophobic or etc), it means that I was uneducated in that particular point and now I know more and the next book I read I will have more information to use in my review and understanding of it. If that makes sense? I think our understanding of racism, for example, as something someone IS at opposed to something that we all sometimes DO – often subconsciously – makes us more upset at the critiques instead of more willing to engage and learn and use that knowledge going forward. A bit ramble-y here, but I hope I’m making sense!!

  12. This is a very thought-provoking post! It’s wonderful that you have started this discussion. I completely agree with rhaposdyinbooks that authenticity is less of an issue than the fact that publishers are asking non-Western writers to write more for a Western audience. Then again, perhaps that’s exactly what some of these writers want? After all, some must be “diversifying” their market by writing for a Western audience, no? That’s the problem with the idea of diversification–we seem only able to look at it through our own (white, Western) lens. Also, I very respectfully ask: Why should we expect Gay and Akhbar to present answers when they point out these issues? We don’t have the answers, either, and it seems a bit like pushing back in a way that says, “If you can’t present answers, don’t complain.”

  13. This is a great post Trish, and I think we have a lot to consider as we pick which books to read.

    I agree with Shannon about reading (and buying!) books as input to publishing houses. In the simplest terms, they want to make money. So if we are making them money by reading and purchasing diverse books, they are going to publish those books.

    I could see how the articles you mentioned could be really frustrating. I find myself rather disagreeing though. It seems naive to me to say that any one book could be encompassing of any experience, be it racial, gender, religious, or location. We are both white women but I don’t imagine that our lives are the same. To say that one author’s writing is not authentic to your particular experience ignores the fact that it will resonate with someone else’s life.

  14. This is a great post Trish, and I think we have a lot to consider as we pick which books to read.

    I agree with Shannon about reading (and buying!) books as input to publishing houses. In the simplest terms, they want to make money. So if we are making them money by reading and purchasing diverse books, they are going to publish those books.

    I could see how the articles you mentioned could be really frustrating. I find myself rather disagreeing with them. It seems naive to me to say that any one book could be encompassing of any experience, be it racial, gender, religious, or location. We are both white women but I don’t imagine that our lives are the same. To say that one author’s writing is not authentic to your particular experience ignores the fact that it will resonate with someone else’s life.

  15. CJHill

    Oh, Trish.

    You know me.

    I don’t pay much attention to who writes the books I read, beyond the name. In fact, I don’t want to know much about them because their views on things are theirs and I respect their right to have them, but I have stopped reading some authors when I’ve discovered their views to be so strongly against my views. Does that make sense? I mean, why would I want to spend my hard earned money on an author who feels perfectly comfortable disparaging people who believe the way I do? I’ve been called a lot of names based on some of my viewpoints.

    So, I stopped paying attention.

    I was recently asked, by a student who is an atheist, if I’d read any works by atheists writers. My answer is no, I haven’t, nor do I feel the need to do so. I understand his viewpoint and I respect his right to have it. I do not need to read books he thinks will change my mind, because they won’t.

    I know I’m not making myself popular with any of this, but your post (well written as always) sort of proves my point. Who gets to decide which books are the ones we should read? Who decides which aspect of an issue is the right one? Will reading a book written by a radical Islamist help me understand Islam? Will reading a book by Jremiah Wright help me understand anything about black ministers? No, in both cases. They will expose me to two very narrow viewpoints, neither of which is necessarily the ‘right’ viewpoint.

    I read to get away from a job that far too often comes with the hard times in life; people in pain, people who have been injured, assault, abused, and in crisis. The very last thing I need in my books is more of what I deal with on a daily basis at times.

    I read to escape and if an author can give me a good story, that’s all I care about. And the last thing I’m going to worry about is whether or not I’m reading ‘the right’ book, written by ‘the right’ author.

    And that’s my opposing viewpoint… for what it’s worth.

    cjh

  16. I don’t like reading posts like the ones you mentioned because they make the wheels in your head go round and round and make you start doubting your book choices. I read for enjoyment only. If I were to start worrying about this and that, it would take the pleasure out of reading…like having too many review commitments that have to be posted on a certain date. We all know how stressful and unfun that is.

    I enjoy reading diverse books/authors and choose the books I read by the cover (yes, I’m a cover snob), on the recommendation of other book bloggers, but also by the ratings on sites like Goodreads and Amazon, and of course the blurb. I don’t really care if the books is “authentic” or not.

    If I think I’d enjoy the book, I read it. I don’t take anything else into consideration.

  17. This issue is so complicated – sometimes – but on the issue of diversity in books it’s actually VERY simple. If you read books by authors of colors, and promote the ones you like, you’ve helped. You may not get thanks, and you may not be appreciated – but you HAVE helped. Just ask any of the authors of color whose work you’ve gushed about :-)

  18. I can feel my anxiety rising just reading this because I feel the same way you do though I think you’re braver than me because my approach is to give up and put my head in the sand. It’s not that I don’t care but the articles like the ones you’ve mentioned make my head hurt and it kind of feels like there’s nothing I can do to help. Reading your post and the comments – especially Tanya Patrice’s really helped me. I’m over thinking and I’m letting the constant barrage of media get to me too much. Thanks Trish for this post! You did a great job being honest with a very tricky topic.

  19. I just tweeted this but this post made me realize something important: while I make an effort to read diversely, I am not representing that on my blog. Virtually all my reviews are of white authors. There are two books I read this year that I LOVED, and I recommend to people ALL THE TIME, but I’m completely blocked when it comes to a review. I don’t know where to begin. I was thinking it’s because these books are very serious, and I like to take a light/funny tone in my reviews- but I don’t think that’s it. I think I’m scared to comment on race and how it plays into each book. Which just means more of the same, another white blogger reviewing books by white authors. Ugh I’m pretty upset with myself now!

    So that`s what I take from this, and to answer your question, what can we do? I think we can review diverse books. Not just read. That’s the one thing we CAN do as bloggers.

    Anyway, thanks for hitting submit.

  20. Something that Junot Diaz said stayed with me. When he was asked why he had so much untranslated or unexplained (not just Dominican slang, but obscure references to all sorts of things) in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao making it hard to understand, he said mainstream readers would experience feeling like “the other” for a change. I sometimes don’t mention race or sexual orientation in a review, or just glancingly, if it doesn’t seem to be a major part of the book, since I don’t specify race of white authors or mention if characters in the book are heterosexual. I worry about things like this, too, and thought your post and the comments are very interesting!

  21. I think Jill / Rhapsody said it well. As a minority that many people don’t even talk about when discussing diversity, I can say that we have a long way to go. Support is important in whatever what possible. The more we show publishing companies and libraries that we’ll read and buy non male WASP books, the more willing they’ll be to publish them.

  22. This entire topic can get out of control. Who decides what is diverse or what is “authentically diverse” and WTF does that even mean? I’m tired of people telling me I should be reading this or I should be reading that. I rarely if ever note the nationality or race of the author I’m reading. Is that bad because I’m unaware of how “diverse” I am or is it good because I’m not choosing books based on an author’s color?

    I know this. I read for pleasure. Consequently, I read what I like. If a book sounds good I’ll buy it without any agenda whatsoever.

    And if someone says my reading isn’t diverse enough are they saying because I only read one “type” of author that I’m essentially a racist? What does not reading diverse enough really mean?

    Thought provoking topic, Trish. For a second I thought I stumbled upon slate.com.

    Pax

  23. I’m so glad you wrote this. It’s something that needs to be discussed :D

    The thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of authenticity. Who gets to decide? Who would come up with the benchmarks? Every single person would have a different idea. Could I write a book that would represent every white female? Could I write a book that could represent the Midwest? Nope and nope. I’m sure the same is true of every race, every region. My authentic story is different from your authentic story. That’s the whole point!

    I think reading diversely is better than NOT. It’s what we can do and so we do it. If we buy diverse books, review diverse books, discuss diverse books, then we’re doing what we CAN. I think that’s important. Maybe it’s only a drop in the bucket but at least it’s SOMETHING.

    If there were a solution, if there were something more we could do then we would do it. Book people are some of the most open minded people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. If we’re not up to snuff in this area it sure isn’t due to not wanting to be.

    We want to do better. I don’t think that looking down on us for trying is the right way to go. It only makes people want to stop trying, it makes people not want to discuss these issues for fear of getting it wrong :( Closing down the discussion is certainly not the way to go.

    Thanks again, Trish. You opened up a very important topic!

  24. “Is it problematic to seek out authors and read books because they are diverse?”

    This is a question I’ve struggled with. In the past year or so, I’ve mainly been sticking to authors I already know and love, few of which are either POC or feature such characters.

    I kind of feel inauthentic when I go searching for diverse books simply because they’re diverse. But then I also know it’s important.

    I have no answers either, but this is a great discussion!

  25. This is precisely the issue that I had after reading Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. If you haven’t read it yet I don’t want to spoil it for you, but basically she raises the issue of whether a white person has the “right” to write a book about their experiences during the war in Nigeria. I won’t tell you what conclusion the book leaves you with, but suffice it to say I was troubled by it (and I ended up writing a blog post about it).

    Although I haven’t read The Help, it does make me feel squirmy to think about a white person trying to interpret/portray black experiences. THEIR experiences living in a world populated with black characters is a different thing to me. Honestly I have the same problem with non-Southerners trying to write about the South–as evidenced by all the clichéd tv shows and movie made about it.

    As a reader, I think it’s important to be aware of this issue but I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about not reading diversely enough. Every writer has a different story to tell and readers have the right to read whatever they want. I like diverse narrative voices and I particularly enjoy fiction that challenges me with its perspective (as Adichie’s does). At the end of the day, though, I’m the only one who gets to say what I take away from a book and whether it is meaningful for me–no matter who wrote it.

  26. Hi Trish – what an excellent post. It was posted on a twitter feed by Laura Frey and I was thrilled to read it … I am a writer – and then, I started working at an anti-racism organization – and then my whole world shifted – including the world of books. I still struggle with those questions – but what I value about your article is it illustrates all things we try to promote in my organization’s work – moving from political correctness to authentic dialogue – moving from knowing the answer to asking the right questions.
    More importantly – you highlight it IS a question. It isn’t a non-issue. We could say the world is beautiful and in art, we can/should be colorblind. But the reality is that all structures – including the industry of books – are not immune to the systemic influences of the -isms … (heterosexism, racism, able-ism, sexism). [There’s an amazing article in Blink by Malcolm Gladwell on how sexism influenced orchestras for many years despite the claim of “expert” musicians that they judged only according to the quality of the music]. We don’t do anyone favors by not asking the questions. We enrich the world and our own experience as readers, authors, – a literary community by asking these questions.
    Sometimes, I check into a blog called Racialicious when I need another perspective. I don’t always agree with what they say (and I am Filipino in my ethnicity) – but I like the different perspective. I like the questioning – I use it to move me, not paralyze me :) It can be done! Best wishes and I also thank you for pressing SUBMIT. I would love to have a back and forth dialogue about this anytime … warm regards.

  27. I read this yesterday but couldn’t come up with anything profound to say. Then, just now, as part of one of my classes, we are reading an excerpt from Barbara Daniel Tatum’s book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, she asks this, “If I have not been exposed to positive images of marginalized groups, am I seeking them out, expanding my own knowledge base for myself and my children?” And yes, you are.

  28. This is a great post and I’m glad you put it up. These are questions I struggle with too, and I definitely worry that, like you, as a white, straight, middle class woman I am not qualified to really write about issues like this. I think it’s worth trying, though. How else will the world change? I am glad that a lot of other people have just said reading and write about books by marginalised / non-mainstream writers is already helping. I am sticking with that.

  29. I don’t think anyone should abstain from talking about a different culture nor should anyone abstain from reading a book just because it is apparently not written in an authentic voice. The whole culture thing and its interpretation is very subjective. As an Indian, I have a big problem with a lot of books about India written by non-Indians or even by Indians who write in flowery English when their characters aren’t even supposed to know English. But that’s my problem, not yours. That’s my problem only because I am intimately familiar with India. Why should I insist everyone follow my yardline? There is always going to be a disagreement on how Indian (or Chinese, or Polish, or Moroccan, or xxx) a book is, depending on who you ask. Heck, there is even disagreement about how Indian or Chinese or Caribbean a restaurant is. What I want readers to do is talk more about a book with others and accept that some of what a book mentions could possibly be Westernized or Americanized, but talk to people and find that out. I believe that if a person, who doesn’t know anything about what it was to be a slave in 1950s America, read a book, however grandiose, about slavery, he/she is at least a little more informed about the situation than he/she was before he/she read that book. As more books come your way, you learn more about that culture. You may start off by recommending all the wrong books (this is true even if you are learning about botany or astronomy or food or magic) but over time, as you read more about that culture, you will start finding the right books. For my part, I shouldn’t scoff at people who pretend to know about India just because they read a book about India. I should appreciate that they seem to know more about India than they did before the book. Isn’t that how people learn anyways? No one is an expert in one day – both sides need to appreciate that. Sorry for the loooong reply. Didn’t intend to type so much.

  30. I’ve struggled with this too. I try to read diversely but you walk that line of not knowing what to read or feeling like it’s a discussion you aren’t allowed to be part of. I love this post because you’ve expressed a lot if what I haven’t been able to put into words.

  31. Trish, thank you for this post. I’ve been trying to formulate my thoughts in response (or, maybe I should say in support) and then I got lost reading the comments and never wrote them down.

    Events, readalongs, campaigns, etc to read more diverse books pop up in the book blogging community every few months, and I start to have similar questions – do I read diversely enough? Does my reading reflect the open person I try to be? Am I doing diversity “correctly”? Is what I’m reading authentic of the true experiences?

    Like you, I don’t try to hit a certain percentage of female writers, writers of color, translated novels, etc. I do try to read books set in a diverse number of locations, and I’m always open to participate in group reads to expand my horizons whether that be through the book blogging community or my book clubs. Like you, I want to learn more about cultures and religions and people and places around the world.
    Who’s qualified to talk about those cultures, religions, people, and places can be difficult to determine. We’ve gone from saying only anthropologists/academics to journalists to members of those groups can write about said groups. Fictional novels set in India come to mind; British writers dominated the 1800-1900s and Indian novelists are now published in the US. Is it possible these are more sanitized? Yes, but I doubt they are more sanitized than those written by British novelists.

    You specifically mentioned Kathryn Stockett. Admittedly, I struggled with the idea of a white author writing about black maids before finally reading the novel. Yet, does her experience growing up in Mississippi raised by a black maid who disappeared from her life not give her the authenticity to write a character like Skitter? And how do you write a character like Skitter without including Aibileen and Minny?

    One of the beauties about the book blogging community (and, I’ve recently discovered, with book clubs) is we have people from diverse backgrounds willing to call out books as representative of what they know to be reflective of their community. But there are, I believe, slices of authenticity in Stockett’s novel or in those discussed in Akhbar’s article, and I wonder if “authenticity” is being criticized because they are not reflective of an individual person’s experience. In other words, the characters in the novels Akhbar criticizes are not her so she doubts her authenticity rather than recognizing there can be diversity within religious and ethnic groups or within countries.

    You and I have both lived in Texas and we are both white women, but no doubt characters based on us would be different. Does that mean I should doubt the authenticity of a character based on you? (Sorry, I might be getting too abstract here.) What I’m trying to say is living in one state is not representative of the entire United States; reading one book about Southeast Asia is not representative of the entire population.

    So, yes, it is important to read widely and diversely, but it is also important to recognize that no one can ever be an enough of an expert on their homeland or their community to truly question authenticity. And I would hate to see a world where publishers and readers say you’re from Southeast Asia, you must write about Southeast Asia or you’re gay so you must write about gay people experience coming out and only coming out. That would be the opposite of diversity, in my opinion.

    I hope my jumble of thoughts make sense. If not, just know I’m struggling like almost everyone else who has commented on this post.

  32. I try to review newer authors and try for the unusual. I love to read historical romance and have recently read some very nice historical fiction. Tomorrow I’ll be posting a review about a girl who had been sexually abused and has cervical cancer. These are books perhaps not as well read because we get squirmy thinking about it.

    I read because I want to learn about other cultures,experience other people’s experiences. If the experience isn’t completely authentic, I am sure I can gain other experiences from the book if it is well written.

  33. Trish, I read your post when you first published it and had it bookmarked but things have been crazy with school, so apologies for the delayed comment. I re-tweeted one of the articles you mentioned and had some thoughts on your comments in this post.

    First of all, I’m glad that you did click the submit button. I believe reading diversely is important and it seems to be an increasing topic of discussion in the book blogging community, and I am glad of it. I don’t think we all always agree on what “diverse reading” means, and I think every reader who does try to participate in the discussion has a valid viewpoint, whether the person is straight, white, and female, or not.

    With the Jabeen Akhtar article in particular, I re-tweeted it because I can see the trends that she discussed in the publishing industry, and wanted others who are interested in reading diversely to think about those trends. In terms of authenticity, I can identify at least two publishing trends that bother me in terms of South Asian/American fiction. First is the fact that publishing houses – especially the Big Five – only seem to publish certain kinds of books. Typically, books set in India lean toward a romanticized notion of the country. In some ways, that feels like colonialism all over again – like they’re exoticizing India or only spotlighting what they think readers want to see in order to sell the books. Akhtar mentions Adiga’s The White Tiger, which did get a lot of attention in the U.S. But we don’t see that kind of attention for other Indian authors who are writing about contemporary India. The India that I see in books is almost unrecognizable in comparison to the India that I see when I visit my relatives there. But India is also a country of contradictions so what is true in one place is the exact opposite somewhere else. I don’t think the types of books that we get from publishing houses reflect those contradictions.

    Secondly, in terms of South Asian American authors, I think the publishing houses place a lot of emphasis on immigrant narratives (or cultural gap stories). I love immigrant narratives when done well but I don’t think immigration/fish-out-of-water stories represent the entire South Asian American experience.

    One more point on authenticity: in addition to re-tweeting Jabeen Akhtar’s article, I also re-tweeted a series of articles discussing the dearth of translated literature from South Asia. I think authenticity goes hand in hand with translations (or lack thereof). Many of the authors that we think of as Indian are now living outside of India (including the aforementioned Aravind Adiga). Many of the South Asian authors that we have access to are writing in English. So how much of a diverse perspective are we getting? Are there multiple narratives available to us or a single narrative?

    All this is to respond to your post but in no way to blame you. These are larger trends that we, as the reading community, have to be aware of and raise so that publishing houses know that we want diverse reading material, and not just in terms of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

    If I’ve said anything that offends you, please forgive me. And I apologize for the lengthiness of this comment. These are difficult topics to discuss but I’m glad that we’re having the conversation.

  34. Interesting post! This is a subject I honestly haven’t really given any thought. I chose all the books I read by wandering my library’s shelves and picking out books that catch my eye (cover art, back cover blurb etc). While I glance at the author’s name to see if a books is written by someone I’ve read from before, I don’t put in any thought beyond that. Male, female, ethnicity etc-it’s just not even something I pay attention to.