Buffy: anya

January Posting Meme: A Year With No White Authors

Way back in December, franztastich asked me how my year of no white male authors went. Then I lost track of my December posting meme, and now here I am, finally answering this question in January.

Last January, I started working my way through the New York Times' list of 50 best books of 2014. As it happened, the selections I chose were all written by authors of color, and I wondered what I might learn if I spent a year without reading books by white people. The real revelation was how few voices of color exist in our country’s literary landscape. It would be very, very easy to spend a year reading only white authors -- in fact, I’m pretty certain I have without even noticing it. To do the converse by accident is impossible. To do it purposely requires effort and research. In the end, it wasn’t completely possible because the academic titles I needed were almost universally written by white people, and I couldn’t teach my class without them. We live in a diverse country, but our literature doesn’t reflect that. Our informational texts particularly do not reflect that, which means what we view as "facts" are overwhelmingly established by white people.

The saddest thing I heard this year came from a young African-American student in my friend's English class. He was admitted to a prestigious language immersion elementary school in our community, and he was the only black student in his grade level. He said it made him wonder if education was only for white people. I can only wonder how many times his experience is echoed and amplified by the vast number of books whose authors and characters are almost exclusively white. Issues of representation are not an academic matter; they affect real people in the real world in powerful ways. I don't know how to change this vast disparity between the voices we choose to publish, but I hope we find a way.

There are a couple things in the post. One is my reading journal for their year, which includes research about the authors I read, links to articles that helped me find books, and some navel-gazing about my literary selections. Fair warning: it's really long. There's also a much more concise list of titles I read, accompanied by short book reviews.

The biggest revelation so far is that it would be very easy to unthinkingly spend a year reading books by only white authors; in fact, a lot of people probably do. Finding authors of color isn’t hard, but it did mean that I had to be much more conscious of my literary choices. Although I know of many black writers in world literature, particularly Nigerian ones, my knowledge of African-American writers is limited to the literary canon I studied in college. I wasn’t able to name a single contemporary black American writer other than Toni Morrison. This is pretty embarrassing since I am an English teacher at a diverse high school, and I like to think of myself as an educated person.

Four of the five books I’ve read this year address questions of race and privilege in some way. The key difference, I’ve found, is that none of these books pat a white protagonist on the back for recognizing that racism is wrong. However, several of the books -- most notably Everything I’ve Never Told You and All of Our Names -- show white characters dealing with racism and privilege in flawed, problematic, or downright unpleasant ways. The scene that remains seared in my mind is a white woman who initiated a relationship with a black man, only to flinch away from him when he touched her in public. The story doesn’t show her as a villain; the novel took place in the 1970s, and the author intended to create a parallel between the imperfect democratic revolution in Uganda and the imperfect outcome of the civil rights movement in the United States. Still, the character isn’t given an easy chance to redeem herself. The moment fills her with shame, and she and her boyfriend awkwardly move on because they don’t have anyone but each other. This is pretty different from the story arc of books like The Help.

Something else I wasn’t expecting was that authors of color reported feeling pressure to write about people of their own ethnicity. In one interview, Celeste Ng pointed out that white authors are not expected to “interrogate their whiteness” but authors of color are expected to write about race. (You can read the interview here.) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie found that she was not just expected to write about Africa, but that she had to write about it in a way that conformed to American stereotypes. One publisher complained that her characters were “not African enough” because they were a middle class family who drove a car. Dinaw Mengestu, however, was criticized for focusing too heavily on the lives of Ethiopian-Americans. The ultimate message, I suppose, is that authors of color should write about people of color in a way that’s comfortable for American readers, but if they write too much about people of color, their creative vision is limited. Obviously, these three authors were still able to publish the stories they want to write, but I don’t think white writers receive these conflicting messages about race. I also wonder if other, less acclaimed writers of color are equally able to resist the publishing industry’s expectations.

Finding African-American authors outside the narrow sliver of literary canon that I read in college continues to be a challenge. This is partly an issue of author names. When browsing the bookstore, I can reasonably assume that an author named Akhil Sharma or Celeste Ng is not a white man. African-American authors, however, don’t always have such distinctive names. I thought I might solve this problem by clicking on the African-American fiction tab on the Barnes & Noble website. Wrong. Most of the selections appeared to be romance novels (judging from the rather erotic covers, anyway). A smattering of literary fiction appeared on the first page, but not all of it was written by black authors. For example, The Help by Kathryn Stockett was prominently featured. Next, I clicked on the “you might also like” tab for The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. This is a pretty serious piece of historical fiction set in the early days of the slave trade, and I thought I might get similar recommendations. Wrong again. Of the eight recommendations, one was for an earlier edition of the same book, five were decidedly un-literary romance novels or mysteries, two were not written by or about people of color, and only one was a piece of literary fiction of a similar caliber as The Book of Negroes -- and it showed up in the recommendation list twice. Checking the recommendations tab of All of Our Names by Dinaw Mingestu yielded much more helpful results, but I’m still surprised by the effort required to find literary fiction by African-American authors.

Reading books only by authors of color is a bigger struggle than I anticipated. At first, it was a fun research project; now, I’m counting down the days till I have the freedom to pick up any book I want to read. This project has clarified that reading, for me, is very much a matter of impulse. I view books as a way to explore the world, but I mostly read for enjoyment -- and a big part of that enjoyment is picking out whatever book seems to call out to me at the time. I read less this year in part because I was busy, but in part because my selection of books was substantially reduced (which is probably a lesson in itself).

The project became especially challenging over the summer, when I longed to read fun, entertaining books. Yet, the airport offered no options for “pool books” written by authors of color. Where are the books about, say, a Chinese girl looking for Mr. Right? Or an African-American lady who’s trying to work out a problem with her wacky extended family? These types of stories by white authors are easy to find; I’m sure there are similar titles by authors of color, but they’re not easily available to the casual searcher. (Or I failed at searching, in any case.)

Reading Night with my sophomore English class posed another interesting question: who exactly do we define as a person of color? By skin tone, Eli Wiesel is white -- but skin color didn’t matter to the Nazi troops who loaded his family onto cattle cars bound for concentration camps. Nazi policy considered Jews a separate race of people, and that fact defined Wiesel’s life and caused his family’s death. There is probably a long, academic answer to the question of whether Eli Wiesel should be part of a project devoted to reading authors of color. I went with the short one: if an author was part of a marginalized group in their country of origin, they were part of the project.

I started to wonder if I’m struggling to find books by people of color because of the huge disparity in the publishing world, or because of some crucial gap in my literary education. I hoped, honestly, that the problem was the latter. I would rather think of myself as ignorant than believe my society is exclusionary. Unfortunately, my struggle to find books by people of color reflects the disturbing reality of the publishing world, and I found several articles to confirm this. Here’s one about a reading project similar to mine. This one is about authors of color searching for agents of color. CNN reported (kind of weakly) on the absence of people of color from YA novels, and Christopher Myers (the son of famed author Walter Dean Myers) wrote about the apartheid of children’s literature in the New York Times. Apparently, of 3200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about people of color. No wonder so many white people are wandering around our country claiming that racism doesn’t exist anymore. They never have to read anyone’s perspective but their own.

My friend in NYC is the vice president of a literary agency, and she added some more perspective to my project. She receives up to a thousand manuscripts every month; of those, at least ninety percent are written by white people. Even if her agency signed every author of color they encountered (which wouldn’t be realistic, because most manuscripts are terrible, regardless of the author’s race), it would still not be possible to publish an equal amount of literature by white authors and by authors of color. Writing is a profession that requires free time. Free time is most easily available to people who have wealth, savings, or another person able to support them -- and because money is not distributed equally in our society, it is easier for white people to become writers than people of color. This disparity is also evident in the world of publishers and literary agents. These fields pay poorly, and earning even a middle class salary requires both time and luck. As a result, many people who choose what books to publish come from wealthy backgrounds, and that means a hugely disproportionate number of them are white. And when the gatekeepers are white, it’s not really surprising that many of the people they let in are white as well.

That, I think, is the ultimate lesson of my project: not just that American literature is unbalanced, but how unbalanced it is. Narrative is so often where we find our role models, or at least the reassurance that we are not alone. Representation matters, and I’m sorry that our country that claims to worship diversity doesn’t display more of it.

*Not every book on this list is written by a person of color. Some of the books I teach in my classroom are written by white people, and I had to re-read them in order to teach them. Likewise, some books of the non-fiction I needed for my trip to Rwanda were written by white people.

Five Stars
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng - My favorite book of 2015. A seemingly ordinary family wakes up one morning to discover their oldest daughter missing. A few hours later, her body is found floating in a nearby lake. At first glance, the book is about the mystery of whether she was murdered or committed suicide. But, as the narrative moves between each member of a mixed race family in smalltown Ohio, the real mystery is why the parents chose to raise their daughter with so many impossible demands. Many people in this book are not precisely good people, but the writer makes you sympathize with them anyway -- and that, to my mind, is the mark of the very best writers.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien - Every time I re-read this short story collection set during the Vietnam War, I am awed by its moral complexity and the incredible, flawed humanity of its characters. A favorite that’s withstood many years of re-reading.

Night by Elie Wiesel - Wiesel’s account of his adolescence in a Nazi concentration camp is still one of the most beautiful, bleak, and haunting books I have ever read.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates - Coates writes a 100-page letter to his son inspired by the Michael Brown verdict. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that this is among the most important books written about race in America, and you need to read it.

Four Stars
Laurinda by Alice Pung - The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants wins a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school in Australia. The plot of this book is quite obviously derivative of Mean Girls, but the main character is engaging, and the overarching theme is surprisingly nuanced. It was the closest I came to actual chick lit this year, and it’s a nice choice if you’re looking for lighter reading that still has some substance.

The Moor’s Tale by Laila Lalami - The tale of Spain’s first, disastrous attempt to colonize Florida, told from the perspective of a Moorish slave who accompanied the expedition. Some people complained that they didn’t find the characters engaging, but I don’t think they were reading the same book I was. Estebanico, the main character, is compelling and sympathetic, and I could barely stand to wait to find out what happened to him in each chapter.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Phillip Gourevitch - Written in the immediate aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, this book is still the definitive journalistic account of the complicated international and domestic factors that allowed 800,000 Tutsis to be slaughtered in just 30 days. Now that I’ve been to Rwanda, I know that it leaves out some important details of the country’s culture, but it’s still the best available opportunity for Westerners to understand what happened -- and most especially, how colonial policies and Cold War-era arms deals laid the groundwork for the genocide.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill - If I had a three and a half star category, that’s where this book would go. The main character is a child captured and sold into the slave trade, and the narrative spans her life in historical settings that I’d never read about: pre-colonial Africa, the United States before the Revolutionary War, Canada when it was a British colony, Senegal as the first colony for freed slaves, and finally nineteenth century Britain. As a result, the book was hugely educational, and the first three parts are extremely engaging. Unfortunately, by the last two parts, the author has started to run out of steam, and the plot feels more like a checklist of historical events the main character needs to experience. I would still highly recommend this book as a tour of little-explored eras of black history.

Three Stars
Caucasia by Danzy Senna - Set in the nineteen seventies, this book tells the story of two mixed race sisters, one of whom passes as white. The book gets off to a promising start, but ultimately takes too many surprise plot twists to be satisfying. The early chapters directly compare the sisters’ lives in a way that allows us to see the stark reality of racism in America. However, when the mom gets involved with the Black Panthers and goes on the run from the FBI, the book loses its credibility and becomes less enjoyable to read.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi - Like Caucasia, this book is also about mixed race sisters, one of whom can pass as white and one who cannot. I could see why it was a critical darling, but I didn’t personally find it engaging, and I barely remember reading it now.

All of Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu tells the story of a white woman who falls in love with an Ethiopian refugee in the United States. The book occupies the uneasy historical period following the Civil Rights movement, when openly expressing racism was no longer socially acceptable, but few white people actually accepted black people as equals. Intellectually, I appreciated the book for exploring an era I had rarely thought about, but I didn’t find the characters very empathetic or engaging. I wasn’t sorry to finish it.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez - A Mexican couple whose daughter has special needs immigrate to the United States. This book was perfectly fine while I was reading it, but I barely even remember it now.

Family Life by Akhil Sharma - This semi-autobiographical novel explores how a family’s life is shattered when one son is catastrophically injured in an accident. It’s a good enough book, but the ending is really abrupt, and I’m not sure why it was such a critical darling.

Two Stars
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson - What would happen if the earth suddenly stopped turning? The author explores this intriguing scenario with the help of an insipid narrator and a really banal plot. Least favorite book of the year.

One Star
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James might be a really good book, but I couldn’t get into it. This one ended up in my did not finish pile.

Pimp by Iceberg Slim - A former pimp recounts his life in 1930s Chicago. I stopped reading it when he started raping people.
I think it's especially difficult for people in the mainstream system. You go to the bookshop, you pick up a book, chances are the writer is going to be white and straight. And more often a man than a woman, especially for the books that are recommended.

For people who get their info from the Internet, Amazon, Goodreads, Tumblr... I feel like it's much easier to find diverse books nowadays. But it's probable that a lot of people and especially a lot of teens don't realise all the resources available to them.
Even if you get your info from the internet, etc, if you aren't willing to pirate books and you don't have that much money to spare, idk where you live, but libraries here are probably mostly filled with white authors. I have in the past looked for Chimamanda Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, some Asian authors in the libraries I've had around, and most often than not there was nothing or very little. And they're kinda big names, not recently published new authors. It kinda sucks.
Sometimes you can request books and they can get them from a different library or buy them themselves. I don't know how efficient that is, though, as I get my books on Amazon.
I know. I did that several times when I was younger but they aren't really doing that here anymore because of budget cuts and all. Not at the ones I've been to, at least. They tell you 'they'll process your request' but they never come in these days, sadly. I got it ONCE in recent times and it was at my university, and because they had it in another campus.
I have found Amazon to be the best for range of selection, but that comes with its own problems too -- namely, that their way of doing business is disturbing, and I'd really rather not give them money if I can possibly avoid it. You're probably right that the selection would be much worse if I were relying on the public library.
This is going to be great for me because I've vowed to read more diversely in 2016. Technically my pledge has been to read authors from different countries than the usual for me (which would be USA, UK and Spain) but I also intend on reading more LGBTQ and POC writers. I'll mostly check your 4-5 stars and maybe some of the 3. I actually have a couple of Helen Oyeyemi books waiting in my e-reader, that's one of them.

I think you make very valid points about writing, time, money and race. Just the other day a girl I know was happily blogging about how she's spending more time writing than looking for a job these days, and I remember thinking, well, shit, that's not an option for me. Like, ever. So just add in the problematics of race, the bigger disparity, and all, and yeah, I can see it.
This is such a good goal! If I ever read enough, I'd take it on. At the moment I'm just trying to focus on reading more women because there are not nearly enough.
Since I'm doing the Writers of Color 50 Book Challenge at the moment your post resonated a lot with me. I too have been having trouble finding a lot of fun books to read. I have to be in the right frame of mind to read serious, challenging books and sometimes I just want braincandy.

And I'd like to second laeryn that libraries are seriously lacking in offering books by writers of color. At least it's like that where I live (Austria). Though they have been good about buying books I've wished for. That's how I've read Malinda Lo's Ash and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, both of which I recommend.
I am so glad you did this. Not least because.... as a woman of color I don't have the strength right now to do it. It would sadden me on too visceral a level to deal with atm.

One thing I've liked about SF&F is finding a few authors of color making more ground and gaining more praise and sales -- Nnedi Okorafor, Liu Cixin, N.K. Jemisyn, to name a few. So of course apparently a big chunk of the SF&F establishment thinks their gains are a loss for everyone else and the quality of fiction in general, as seen by the Sad Puppies / Rabid Puppies debacle.

Also, "Something else I wasn’t expecting was that authors of color reported feeling pressure to write about people of their own ethnicity." Oh man yes. Even fanfic writers get this -- I have had people ask me why I didn't restrict myself to characters of color, and I feel an obligation as well as a joy in promoting characters of color, and struggle with balancing them. Pro authors get it sooooooooooooooooo much more.
That sounds like a good goal :D

I plan on reading more books written by people of color and books written by women this year as well.
When I took AP English in high school, my teacher made an effort to have our reading list contain a decent percentage of literature written by non-white dead males, and looking back on it, I think of how great it was that he did that. I'll be honest, I was at a suburban Catholic high school that was almost entirely white, and like most schools, our English classes had been filled with reading books by white guys, so it was really, really good that we had our perspectives diversified and widened, even just a little bit. I'm not sure how many teachers do that (or can do that? I'm guessing a lot of the reading lists are probably mandated by the schools), but I wish more would.

(ETA) Also, the comment you shared from the young kid makes me really, really sad.

Edited at 2016-01-18 12:19 am (UTC)
Working at a library, I can really see how little publishers put out by authors of color that isn't romance or "urban fiction". And the sad part is that most bookstores separate out "urban fiction" and that because the African-American area by default, but anything literary written by an African-American author is mixed in with all the other Fiction. But if the books were all segregated out, would a white reader ever go into the section to browse?

This was definitely a feat. Bravo for you even attempting it!

(also, is it okay if i share this post with a friend who is always interested in these kinds of topics? Wasn't sure if it was f-locked)
It was interesting reading about your project! I think I'll add some of the books you liked to my to-read list. :)
Really interesting post :) Everything I Never Told You has been on my to-read list for a while now, I'm going to try to get around to reading it this month
Really interesting, there are many on this list I'd like to read.

Regarding this: I can only wonder how many times his experience is echoed and amplified by the vast number of books whose authors and characters are almost exclusively white.

What are your thoughts about books where the characters' race/ethnicity is not mentioned or implied? Do readers feel free to imagine/assign the characters any race/ethnicity they choose? Or do readers generally assume the characters are of the same race/ethnicity as themselves? Or is there some unspoken societal thing at work that makes all readers, regardless of race or ethnicity, assume the characters are white?

I know for myself that as a Black kid I tended to imagine all characters as White Unless Specified due to cover art and all the other million factors that go into "White = default". As I got older I was fortunate to see more characters of color and to think about my own assumptions (to notice my own assumptions, even) but I've seen others talk about having similar experiences.
Several of my students have told me that they just picture all book characters as white, even if their race isn't specified. Look at what happened with all the HP characters - a race was never directly specified for any of them, but somehow the cover art on the books ended up being white, and the actors were white, and people freaked out when a black actress was cast as Hermione for the stage show. I think we will first have to write stories that include more characters of color before people will start picturing the characters as anything other than white.
And even when race is pretty clearly specified by the author, as it was for two characters in The Hunger Games, there was still quite a bit of controversy over the films at the time with a lot of Twitter users objecting to black actors being cast/saying they had always pictured those character as white
For your lighter reading, Beverly Jenkins writes amazing historical romance centered on African-American protagonists around the Civil War, Sonali Dev has a loose series of contemporary romances set in India and America, and Marjorie Liu has a bunch of paranormal romantic mysteries (as well as the most amazing independent ongoing graphic novel (Monstress.))
Interesting to See how your perspective changed over time. Thank you for the reviews, a couple Brooks go in my to-read pile now. :-)
This is such a great goal, and thank you for these recommendations! I have a 24 hour flight ahead of me next week, so that will be the perfect opportunity to check out some of these.

I'm going to make it a goal of my own to read more diversely this year. Now that I'm heading towards becoming an English teacher myself, I'm suddenly much more aware of how white the Australian curriculum is. There have been efforts to improve the curriculum, but a lot of the gestures feel like tokenism, and therefore I think it falls to me as a teacher to try to make up for what the curriculum lacks, which is hard to do if my own wide reading is not very diverse. The year 7-10 curriculum is better than it has been, but the year 11-12 curriculum is still disappointingly white-centric.
This was such a good idea, and it is really interesting to read your thoughts throughout the year and the conclusions. Admittedly, my reading is currently at a horrifying all time low (unless you count board books ...) but I'm trying to ease back into it.

We have a couple of the books on your list on our shelf right now that I haven't read. I think I'll try to get to those this year. Thanks for sharing all of this.

I think I probably already recommended it to you, but if you want a light, fun travel book, Plane Insanity by Elliott Hester is my favorite flight attendant book ever. Full of great anecdotes, both his own personal experiences and a variety of collected news articles. An added bonus is that he can really write! (Most of the FA books I've slogged through are painfully bad writing.) He's African-American and a travel writer.

ETA: Just looked up Elliott Hester again (it's been ages, clearly!) and saw he has another travel book that looks awesome. I will be getting it in short order. It's called Adventures of a Continental Drifter. Haven't read it, but I cannot imagine it's not amazing. (He writes/has written about travel for National Geographic, NY Times, etc.) This one actually looks even more up your alley than the flight attendant one!

Edited at 2016-01-19 04:30 pm (UTC)
What a great project, and I really should go dig into this list soon and find some things to my liking; I could really use some more diversity on my bookshelf too, sigh. Thanks for posting this!
This is fascinating (and depressing). Definitely making notes on some of these books! The only ones I've read are the first three.