Just How White Our Reading World Is

This popped up in the Washington Post:

I read books by only minority authors for a year. It showed me just how white our reading world is

White authors reign in book reviews, bestseller lists, literary awards and Amazon.com recommendations.

HamletIt’s an old story that I have been pointing out for many years but Sunili Govinnage gives a much more specific representation of what is known in some circles as the Dead White-Man Syndrome and in others as the Western Canon. One thing Govinnage does which I seldom do (being 85% literature snob) is read and cite some of the less literary and more popular fiction of the countries involved. I’m thinking that reading some good crime novels from, say, Indonesia, might be educational as well as entertaining. I know there have been several mystery or crime novelists from outside the United States who have been popular recently but they’re from Sweden or the Netherlands, or even Iceland … but they’re still a part of the world that reveres the Western Canon.

Reading books by minority authors or books by authors from around the world and not just in acceptable “western” countries is a lot like Anthony Bourdain. Tony writes and films travel stories with a focus (usually) on the local food in each country of city he visits. True, he did go once to the Salton Sea and eat a patty melt of dubious distinction and also true he tends to go to the best eateries in town, but he might also be found in the backwaters of the Mekong River enjoying a fish fry with a local family or toasting goat cheeks over an open Bedouin fire in the Sahara.

BourdainI believe we should read books like Anthony Bourdain visits countries and enjoys the food and the company of locals: Bourdain even covets organ meats. So read all over the place and don’t get stuck on the acceptable literature waving at you on the front rounder at Barnes and Noble. Besides, if you really knew, your national literature might not be as great as you think it is. And very important, don’t just read establish authors: read what catches your fancy (but leave room for those classics that have been around for so long: there must be a good reason they have lasted).

Follow the 80-20 rules for your reading: 80% of your reading should be for your personal development, to sharpen your mind, learn about other people and other countries, or some vague notion of artistic appreciation; the other 20% should be for mindless entertainment. A sub-rule that is important to remember is that the 20% for entertainment is not just books but includes television and movies in the total.

But a few excerpts from Sunili Govinnage’s excellent post:

In 2014, I decided that for the entire year, I would not read books written by white authors. My goal was to address the reading practices I developed growing up in Australia, where white authors have dominated the literary world. My high school reading list was filled with the “classics” — Shakespeare, Austen, the Brontes, Euripides — and well-known modern writers such as Margaret Atwood and T.S. Eliot. After school, my pleasures came from bestseller lists, which also were filled with Anglo names: John Grisham, Peter Carey, Hilary Mantel. Then I read Questions of Travel by Sri Lanka-born Michelle de Kretser. It moved me so deeply that I decided to evaluate the literature I was reading. I quit my standard diet to expose myself to new perspectives.

But it was much harder than I expected to discover books by nonwhite authors. The resources most readers use to find good literature left me with all the usual suspects. White authors reign in book reviews, bestseller lists, literary awards and Amazon.com recommendations. 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. Among Amazon editors’ top 20 picks of 2014, just three authors were minorities. …

Research shows that my anecdotal difficulties result from a systemic problem in the literary and publishing world. From MFA programsto publishing houses to critics’ circles, the industry is suffering from a lack of diversity.  …

The most frustrating part of my year of reading diversely was not being able to access e-books for works published in other countries. …  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. …

Western CanonReading 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. …

I realize now that in declaring I would spend a year reading books written by nonwhite authors, I became part of a movement calling for a pretty modest transformation: better representation of who we are in books that are published, reviewed and read. We no longer live in a time when marginalized people are voiceless. Instead, we have the opportunity to ensure that those voices are amplified. People of all cultures and backgrounds have valuable experiences and universal ideas to share, and we all stand to gain when those voices are heard.

For those of you that inadvertently miss the complete article at the Washington Post (be ashamed, be very ashamed) here is the short reading list that the author provides. How are you doing reading these non-white authors?

  • “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
  • “Tiddas,” Anita Heiss
  • “Manhattan Dreaming,” Anita Heiss
  • “Paris Dreaming,” Anita Heiss
  • “The Book of Unknown Americans,” Cristina Henríquez
  • “Butterfly Song,” Terri Janke
  • “The Disappearance of Ember Crow,” Ambelin Kwaymullina
  • “The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf,” Ambelin Kwaymullina
  • “The Lowland,” Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Supernova,” Dewi Lestari
  • “The Astrologer’s Daughter,” Rebecca Lim
  • “Twilight in Jakarta,” Mochtar Lubis
  • “Mullumbimby,” Melissa Lucashenko
  • “Who Fears Death,” Nnedi Okorafor
  • “Here Come the Dogs,” Omar Musa

I’ve only read a couple of these titles but I suspect the list is possibly too contemporary for my old-fart reading endeavors. I have added this list to my much too long list of books I want to read before I die … so I better get back to reading … fast.

(By the way: Olivier’s Hamlet sucks!)

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