I Read White: The Issue of a Single Story

© 2014 the Jotter’s Joint

© 2014 the Jotter’s Joint

When I first started writing fiction I wanted to be intentional about representing a diverse cast of characters: race, culture, and socio-economic levels. For my first novel, which is still in process, my main character is black, her best friend is biracial and another central character is Latina.

Despite my desire to be intentional, I was also concerned about promulgating the stereotypes associated with race. This hope to handle well a people’s culture and race, a people’s story, has been one of the constant sources of writer’s block for me. What if I failed? What if I made a mockery of someone when I wanted to be honoring?

My reasons, of course, for being purposeful in character selection were well founded. I wanted to create a story that would have resonated with the eight year old me. A story that wasn’t accessible to my younger self but could fill the gap for another child.

I wanted to write a story where someone who looked like me, sounded like me, and acted like me, would take grand adventures and do amazing things in far off places. I wanted to write a book where main culture and lifestyle weren’t reserved for a single segment of the population but where anyone could take part in it. Such high hopes.

Every child deserves such a story.

My juvenile literary exploits were limited. Partly because of the topics that interested me and partly because of what was at my disposal More than anything, I had a fascination with white stories even though I wanted to see myself on the page.

Unfortunately, I read white. Regardless of how the characters are described, my mind generates Anglo images and I have to reframe what people should look like each time they appear in the story. It’s terribly annoying.

Sessions at the Festival of Faith and Writing 2014, like: It’s Just Fiction: Reading and Writing About Race, Culture, and Power with Mitali Perkins; The Power of Suspending Disbelief: Why I Read and Why I Write with Pam Munoz Ryan; and Issues Facing Writers of Color in Christian Publishing with Edward Gilbreath, Marlena Graves, Al Hsu, and Helen Lee; as well as the myriad of presenters, opened my eyes to a greater challenge …

As much as I encourage my dudes to read, I am guilty of raising another generation to read white. Looking at their bookshelves is a clear indication of how I’ve grossly neglected diversity in their literary lives.

How had I missed this?

I guess I could make excuses. I could say it’s because there isn’t enough diversity in their areas of interest. A sure sign that we as writers have work to do and we as readers need to support what is available.

How is it that I could be acutely aware of this injustice in my reading experience and miss the signs in the singular experience I am delivering to my dudes?

How had I, one who’d been victim to single story, been negligent? How could I see the importance of raising readers as a response to my personal history described in a recent post, yet overlook this distinction in theirs?

I could make excuses, but I won’t.

Honestly, I don’t know how I missed it. The good news is there’s time to change their reading trajectory and mine. I need to apply the same intention to selecting books for my family’s reading life as I’ve attempted with my writing life.

And, there’s so much more to “diversity” beyond what I’ve previously stated, like: religion, sexuality, politics, gender; the possibilities of variety are endless.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie beautifully conveys the issue of a single story in literature in this Ted Talk, recommended during an FFW session. I encourage all of you as readers and writers to take the time to watch this video.

Ahh! Awareness!

During teacher appreciation week I usually buy books for my boys classrooms. Mrs. B. responded to my inquiry for what books she was hoping to add to her class library with, “Of course, any books with multicultural characters.”

A wonderful reminder to me for which I am grateful.

Since hearing this cry for diversity at FFW, I notice it everywhere. My Amazon trolling looks different, my search criteria for a good book is broader, but it’s only the beginning.

Another reminder I am thankful for is the #weneeddiversebooks campaign that is currently storming the social media world keeps the issue in front of me. This article is one of many that shows how important it is to tell every story.

I wish I could accurately express how I feel realizing that I’ve fallen short. I wish I could help you understand how far we’ve yet to go. But it starts with being aware. It starts with passing it on.

Help me change the way I read. What books would you recommend, for my dudes and me, to expand our horizons and build a richly diverse library? How have you battled this issue? Please share…

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this insightful post (and for the link to the wonderful TED talk). Having spent my early years in Brazil, I was exposed to multiethnic stories but when I moved away, the stories became very Eurocentric once again. I love that you buy books for Teacher Appreciation Week.

    • Thanks Letizia. It’s cool you were exposed to multiethnic stories while young. I sure that it has made you open to many things in literature. Buying books for teacher appreciation is win/win. They read my boys stories they won’t read with me. And it serves many classes of kids to come. Thanks for reading.

  2. This can be a tricky subject, but I’m totally chiming in. I started playing with diversity more during Everything’s Not Bigger, in which I explored the Roma (or “gypsy”) population, a subject I studied in college pretty extensively. For my current WIP, The Bra Game, civil rights are on the move in the 1950s so clearly I dug deeper into diversity here. Another theme I tend to delicately weave throughout my novels involves homosexuality. Especially because of my dance background, from a young age I always had very close gay friends. I have chosen to celebrate them as characters in my books, because like anyone else, they are people.

    As writers we have the opportunity to create diverse worlds. Some do, some don’t. I like to be in the company of those making positive strides.

  3. Hi Gail, coincidentally this post follows hard on the heels of a blog by the excellent Janna Noelle
    http://jannagnoelle.com/2014/05/12/for-diversitys-sake-on-representation-ones-true-art-the-vicious-circle-of-mainstream-media/ in which she looks at character diversity in modern writing.
    As a writer it made me feel uncomfortable not to have considered more diverse characters when drafting my novels. As a reader I’ll go for books I know that I’ll enjoy and I guess that, with the exception of American police/crime novels the protagonist will usually be white/straight.
    It’s an area in which even expressing a personal opinion is fraught with danger though. I reviewed what I think was a great book recently – a white woman’s experience within a Native American tribe she feels very much attached to. It has drawn huge criticism upon her and I caught a bit of the flak for commending the book. Here’s the review http://backontherock.com/2013/12/15/book-review-the-dark-horse-speaks-little-white-bird/ Sometimes it’s easier to settle for the familiar rather than the best road.

    • Roy, Thanks for the Janna blog post. I loved it. You’re right that voicing our opinions on polarizing topics can be dangerous. It’s actually the topic of my next blog post. As readers, we like what we like. The fact that the book resonated with you shouldn’t result in criticism but unfortunately it does. Thanks for reading Roy!

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