Monday, May 9, 2016

Where are the POC Characters?


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I challenged myself to read at least 50% non-white authors this month.  I'm enough of a mood reader that I didn't think I'd enjoy forcing a 100% non-white authors month, any more than I'd want a 100% white author's month.  (I do hit about 80% white authors most months, which is why I decided to be more deliberate in my reading choices.)

I'm only a week in, having read five books that qualify.  I've read two books by Asian men (both graphic novels), two books by African American women, and one by Adi Alsaid.  His name sounds Middle Eastern to me, and he was born and now lives in Mexico City.  I dunno what his story is, but I'm counting him anyway.

The first thing that stands out to me is that while I'm reading diverse authors, I'm not reading diverse characters.  The illustrations in both graphic novels seem to be of white characters.  Charm and Strange is set in an exclusive Vermont boarding school, and while it never specifically states the race of the characters, I find it hard to avoid defaulting to white without being given any hints otherwise.  One of Alsaid's characters is Jewish (which is still white, I realize) and one is Latina, but protagonist and her love interest both appear to be white.  Nobody seems to be gay, poor, physically disabled, or anything other than blandly middle class.  (Well, okay, some of Koehn's and Alsaid's characters have mental health crap going on, but in every case there's a strong implication that it's caused by external events, not internal brain issues.)

Brown Girl Dreaming is the obvious exception to this, being a memoir of growing up black in the south, midwest, and NYC.

What do you think this means?  Is it a coincidence?  Is my white privilege leading me to assume characters are white even though the author wrote them to not be white?  (I am not one of the assholes who was upset that Rue is black in the Hunger Games movie, but I am one of the idiots that didn't fully understand that she was black in the book when I first read it, so I know that's possible.)  Am I drawn to these authors because they are acculturated?   WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!?

How can a black author write a book set in a New England boarding school and NOT mention race?  I went to a private college in Vermont.  It was weird enough being a second generation college student, west coast, public school kid there.  I can only imagine how hostile it felt to non-white students.  But I LOVED Charm and Strange.  Why should I expect the author to write about race if she wanted to write about mental illness, supernatural events, and family disfunction?

I'm excited to see what else comes up as I keep my reading focused on non-white authors.  This week I'm hoping to read a bunch of Latino authors.  My classes are at least 75% Latino, and I've been blown away at how engaged kids got this year in reading Francisco Jimenez's multi-volume memoir.  I want to see if I can find some other books that will have a similar effect.  Plus I've got that gigantic author-crush on Matt de la Peña, so I'll finally have a chance to read the last two books of his I haven't gotten to yet.

9 comments:

  1. I’m having a similar problem. I’m doing a diverse reads challenge this year, and it’s been difficult to find books that have racial diversity and that I want to read. I don’t want to read something boring just for the challenge. A lot of authors don’t mention the race of their characters, so I can’t use the books for the challenge.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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    1. I'm really struggling with my own hopes and expectations too. I feel like I can find plenty of contemporary fiction, but I'm at more of a loss with mysteries and fantasy, my go-to brain candy. Or in some books the characters are racially diverse, but only at a skin-deep level; they still read just like a mainstream white character.

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  2. I am glad that you made this post. Being in an interracial relationship I am always on the lookout for books that relate to me. But before my relationship I never second thought books and characters' races, but now I do. And if the character is not clearly defined I picture them the way I want to. I also picture most of them the way I want to...but I think most people do LOL.

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    1. It's funny how much our own experiences highlights what might be missing in mainstream literature. My kids are adopted, and since they came home I've noticed how WEIRDLY adoption is portrayed in the rare times it shows up.

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  3. I don't want to generalize, so I'll try to talk about my own experience. For example, I'm ecuadorian, and up to now, I've never read a YA story about an ecuadorian MC, or even set in Ecuador. I'm a writer, and I would love to write that story. But it's just... weird. I'm so used to reading about white people in the U.S/France/England, another fancy location/fantasy world that it's just hard for me to suddenly write this other completely different thing. It's like, the default. So even though we're not the default author, we do read a lot of 'default' books, so our writing is heavily influenced by that. I'd hope that with this recent campaign to not only call for diverse authors, but diverse characters that show the reality of these authors, this situation can change more and more until authors are less hesitant to go all in and write those characters.

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    1. Oooh, that makes so much sense. I'm thinking of an essay by Ursula le Guin--I don't remember the details, but basically she was saying that when she started writing sci fi, her characters were men, and she never even thought twice about it at the time. That's just who those stories were about! But then as she became more consciously aware of feminism, she started noticing the ways she had bought into male-centered narratives, and started to write more from the female perspective, to not feel that she had to shut down her voice in order to be heard.

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  4. A lot to respond to here, but I think I'll just throw out a few recs instead:

    East, West - Salman Rushdie
    Fury - Salman Rushdie
    Scandal - Endo Shukasu
    Memories of My Melancholy Whores - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    An Equal Music - Vikram Seth
    Dostoevsky's Last Night - Cristina Peri Rossi
    Right Here, Right Now - Trey Ellis

    If you don't mind poetry - Rita Dove

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    1. Very cool; thank you. I've never read any Rushdie and really need to correct that. I've never been able to get through GG Marquez though!

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  5. I feel like I read a lot of books with gay characters, but not many with racially diverse characters. I recently picked up a paranormal audiobook for review almost solely because I was drawn in by the black male main character depicted on the cover. It's funny because I almost felt a little bad - it somehow felt like some weird kind of reverse racism - but you just don't see black characters on covers all that often, and the book seemed like something I'd enjoy, so ... In the end, I guess I'm glad I'm drawn to books with racially diverse characters on the cover instead of the other way around!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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