When you read as much as I do, deciding what to read next is a very carefully structured system. I keep a shelf next to my bed carefully dedicated to that month’s TBR list (to-be-read list, for those in the book blogging biz). My Kindle is organised into endless collections: monthly TBRs, urgent TBRs, non-fiction TBRs… It’s a whole process. I take it very seriously. And I just scrapped the whole thing. Because I just found out about Diverse December.
Popular literature has been for a long time overwhelmingly white, while BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers are hugely under-represented on book round-ups and prize lists, if they’re published at all. And to be honest, I haven’t done much about this. I read articles about the We Need Diverse Books movement, I shake my head in anger at the unfairness of it all, and then I go right on back to buying books by white people, about white people, with white people on the cover.
This isn’t an active decision, of course; I’m not scanning the shelves for white faces. But “colour-blind” shopping is not good enough. Naomi Frisby, from The Writes of Woman, summed it up pretty well for me:
The idea that someone doesn’t see colour is [complicated]. In a society dominated by white narratives, if we don’t see colour we don’t see black and Asian narratives. That makes us complicit in the maintenance of a dominant white narrative. It’s not a statement of equality, it’s a statement of ignorance and it’s a dangerous one.
OK, so I need to actively choose to read narratives from writers of colour—but that’s easier said than done. Because where are they? All the books on my Goodreads recommendations, on my Kindle storefront, on the bestseller shelves—they’re all by white people. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s not obvious how to break it. Writer Nikesh Shukla dissected the problem:
When you criticise prizes and review coverage and lists for not being diverse enough, you’re told it’s because of what publishers are submitting, that it just reflects what publishers are putting out. So you say OK, publishers, and they say what they publish reflects what they’re sent by agents, so you say to agents, ‘where are the brown people?’ and they say they don’t discriminate, they just aren’t getting submissions through. So you say it’s the writers’ fault. So you speak to writers, and they say they look at the prizes, the lists, the reviews, the bookshops, and they don’t see themselves reflected. So whose responsibility is it?
That’s the problem with a meritocratic way of thinking: it does nothing to tackle inequality. It’s easy to sit back and say that you don’t discriminate, that your selection process is no different for white or BAME writers, but that fails to take into account that their experiences are different. Perhaps we’d know that if we all read a few more BAME narratives.
Diverse December Reading List
- The Color Purple, Alice Walker
- The Spider King’s Daughter, Chibundu Onuzo
- The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, Lola Shoneyin
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
- Redefining Realness, Janet Mock
So, starting with Diverse December, in which I will be reading only books by writers of colour, I’m taking responsibility for my part in this. It may mean straying from the shiny bestseller lists. It may take a bit more research. These books aren’t being handed to me on a platter, but I’ve used that excuse for far too long.