Let’s take a poll. Did the last book you read feature a white protagonist? Was it written from the perspective of a culture well-known and accepted? Did the content challenge any societal norms? (And I don’t mean in a “50 Shades of Grey” type of way.)
It is no secret that the world is not solely made up of white people, but if you’re not up to speed in the realm of books, your past reading endeavors might not reflect that. The publishing industry is notoriously white, and the books that are being published indicate that. According to an October 2015 salary survey conducted by Publishers Weekly, 89 percent of publishers identify as white/caucasian.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, compiles annual statistics about the number of young adult and children’s books published by people of color. According to the CCBC, the number of diverse books published over the last 20 years has remained stagnant at about 10 percent.
“Growing up, our version of U.S. history was to learn about Anglo-Saxon,” said Ann Angel, author and English professor at Mount Mary University. “If that was our education then we were more likely to mirror that education in what we chose to do with our lives and what we wrote.”
Angel is involved in a campaign called #weneeddiversebooks, which operates a website, promoting the readership of diverse authors and books with diverse content through photos, GIFs, news, interviews and booklists.
In its mission statement, We Need Diverse Books explains how it defines diversity: “We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities. Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping and other forms of marginalization.”
Angel identifies with the campaign from personal experience.
“I have a mixed race family and I wanted to make sure that the books I bought my kids reflected who they were,” Angel said. “I’ve always appreciated diverse books because they demonstrate diverse lives and some of our similarities as well as our differences.”
Angel’s decision to write her first book, “Real for Sure Sister,” was inspired by Ishmael Reed’s “Writin’ is Fightin’: Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper,” a collection of reviews, essays and editorials in which Ishmael picks away at the norms of pop culture. Angel’s book was the first book that was written for children about adoption.
“My first book was an intention to educate, and I think education is also a form of protest because you’re protesting ignorance,” Angel said. “Writing and realizing there was such a lack of diverse books for families like mine, I realize my writing is a form of protest. Education and writing is where you can make change happen the fastest.”
Angel was also the editor of a collection of young adult stories called “Such a Pretty Face: Stories about Beauty.” The first cover image she was presented with featured a blonde-haired, white teenager who was “super super skinny.”
“My goal with ‘Such a Pretty Face’ was to talk about the diversity of beauty and I fought the cover,” Angel said. “They replaced it with an Asian teenager who is not so super skinny that you’d think the book was going to be about eating disorders.”
In a study conducted in 2011, Roxane Gay reported that 88 percent of all books reviewed by the New York Times were written by white authors. Mount Mary University librarian Daniel Vinson works closely with the book collection on campus and has encountered his own share of the white dominance in his time spent updating the collection.
“Art was, to an extent, all dead white people,” Vinson said, referring to Mount Mary’s library collection. “Both men and women, but mostly men. We had no books on Asian Americans in art, at all. I ordered some of those. Everybody’s making art, from all walks and all places. It was really trying to reach into those kind of areas.”
Vinson also has experience in two realms of the book world, both retail and library, where organizational tactics differ.
“For a long time I worked at Borders bookstore,” Vinson said. “Borders was known for really categorizing the hell out of everything. It was helpful because people would ask for stuff in that way, like ‘Where are your African American authors?’ If you don’t have that section it’s kind of like, see that really big wall all over there?”
However, libraries offer a different approach. Vinson describes them as “the pinnacle of the book world.”
“They haven’t really changed, which is both good and bad. In this respect, I think it’s good. In terms of literature, it’s by period and within that the type of work it is – fiction, drama, Shakespeare, poetry. Each one of those has its own little subsection. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you started, if you’re a particular race or religion. That’s what I love about upstairs; on any given literature shelf it’s all of these people, some you know, some you don’t. You can pick up anything. It’s sort of like a great equalizer.”
Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, worked in the publishing industry in New York for many years and is familiar with its lack of diversity.
“I worked in New York and I worked with a few African Americans and a few Latino but for the most part they weren’t in positions of power,” Goldin said.
Publishing organizations are starting to keep track of how many diverse authors appear on prominent book lists, including those sponsored by the American Library Association.
“ALA never looked at who was writing the books by culture nor the cultural diversity within the books. They’ve only started to do that since 2005,” Angel said. “They discovered that the majority of books, by far, were written by white authors.”
Goldin chalks it up to a change in the panel of judges, citing the recent Oscar award accusations as a parallel problem. The book awards struggle to put together a diverse panel of judges and it reflects on the awardees.
“This is not to say that I as a white guy might not say that one of my favorite books of the year is written by a black woman, because I will,” Goldin said. “I still slot it differently. You make the decisions differently, instinctively. You screw up. The fact is that if you make a more diverse voting panel … you’ll have more diverse awardees.”
Dasha Kelly, Milwaukee performer and writer, said the publishing industry is becoming more accessible. What used to be a strict path to publishing, with no allowance for stray, now has many alternative routes. Now the writer can be both the writer and the business owner.
“Don’t get me wrong, that entire team is definitely essential in getting part of the business and being a sustained writer,” Kelly said. “However, you also have a lot more agency as an independent business owner … it’s not possible for every writer to also take on the publishing side of things as well, but those who do, have the advantage of moving their latest work, whether it be a piece of literature, a book of essays, or a poem, faster.”
Traditionally, Kelly said, authors were at the mercy of an agent and publisher. The opportunity for the writer to also take over the publishing and business aspects of their work has several effects, some positive and some negative, she said.
“You have a lot of individuals that insert into the market products that maybe shouldn’t be on a bookshelf,” Kelly said. “It makes it even more difficult for readers, for bookstore owners, for publishers, for agents, even other writers. It makes it more work to go through the volume of published, printed book covers to find works that are real quality, to find works that are exciting.”
Kelly said authors who write from a position of diversity have to reflect on when to give themselves permission to add their “voices to the dialogue.”
“It makes perfect sense that because I am a black woman that I would have a thousand things to say about anything about being black and anything about being a woman,” Kelly said. “But when is inserting my opinion okay, especially if I’m not offering … a unique perspective? And not that I think that everyone has to have the most original thought and the solution too, but in my narrative, in my story, in my opinion, in my position, are my words going to carve out another tiny fresh space? Or am I layering on a point that has been made and made and made?”
Books have the power to leave their readers thinking long after they have closed the cover. Maybe you are familiar with the feeling of trying to get through a book that tackled issues that made you uncomfortable. For some, one book can open up their world.
For Vinson, that book was “The World According to Garp” by John Irving, which he located on the eighth grade reading list.
“I was like ‘Garp,’ that’s a funny word … It was thick and I was like ‘oh my god,’ but I read it,” Vinson said. “I’m not going to go into detail because it was pretty horrific and also like comically absurd … that set the course for me being interested in big things. There were a lot of big topics and it isn’t just a coming-of-age story.”
For Angel, her moment came during undergraduate studies. The book was “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, and she credits it in part to inspiring her to adopt, in addition to her reading Ishmael Reed.
“That was the first book I read by an author outside the white culture,” Angel said. “The idea of his invisibility intrigued me and it made me sad. And I started to watch the world a bit more. And I started to look for more books like that because I realized that my view of the world had been very narrow.
For Kelly, reading is something she’s always done and always voraciously. When she was in middle school she began reading directly from her mother’s bookshelf, no matter the content.
“I’m certain that I never had the thought, ‘This is something that I shouldn’t have access to,’” Kelly said. “In context I was still clear that I wasn’t reading porn, I wasn’t reading a roster of ‘bad words,’ that the elements of the story were distant from me because I wasn’t a grown-up and those were grown-up conversations, grown-up challenges, grown-up days. I knew there were some jokes or conversations or nuances that were above my head. Kind of like when you were in school and a conversation just stopped when you walked in.”
Kelly’s grandmother likes to say that Kelly has been an adult since she was 5 years old.
“If anything, I really appreciated all the stories and all the elements of things that I was able to read,” Kelly said. “Just having a glimpse into something that was completely outside of my understanding … Every story is peeking at the world outside of your bubble.”
There are other positive aspects of reading a book that is different than your usual. For one, reading a book is cheaper than airfare.
“Next to travel, it’s probably the thing that is going to get someone as close to a culture as possible,” Vinson said. “Whether it’s reading about an American culture you’re unaware of or a far-flung place … I feel like even though I haven’t gone to a place, I’m close.”
Angel said that for most people, reading outside of their cultural norms can broaden their worldview.
“It gives them an opportunity to learn what it would be like to sit at someone else’s kitchen table,” Angel said. “They may broaden their friendships, they are more likely to move outside of their own culture to make friends, and they’re more likely to have honest conversations with people they meet, even if they’re difficult conversations.”
“I’m encouraging you to think outside of your neighborhood,” Angel said.
If your book list needs updating or you’d like to read something written from a new perspective, check out the resources below.
Recommendations from Boswell Books’ Daniel Goldin
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham
The Mothers, by Brit Bennett
Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson
Known and Strange Things, by Teju Cole
You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain
Same Family Different Colors by Lori Tharps
The Fisherman, by Chigozie Obioma
The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
La Rose, by Louise Erdrich
Prudence, by David Treuer
The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez
The Water Museum, by Luis Alberto Urrea
Night at the Fiestas, by Kristin Valdes Quade
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, by Quan Barry
The Wangs Vs the World, by Jade Chang
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
I’m not a Terrorist but I Play One on TV, by Maz Jobrani
Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari
Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni