Decades ago, I lived in Latvia for several years. I was a volunteer English teacher, and I met a few other Americans who’d come over on the same program. Latvians frequently used the term “normãli” to mean “as usual,” and our students therefore tended to overuse and misuse the English word “normal.” One of my colleagues was asking her student how her weekend was, and the girl replied, “Normal.” Liz responded, “What’s normal for you might not be normal for me,” and thus a great catch-phrase was born.
I was thinking about diversity in literature recently, based in part on an article about how only four YA fantasies by black women are expected to be published by major houses this year. FOUR. There’s so much more variety of authors and diversity of characters than there used to be that it’s easy (for a white lady like me) to think things are markedly better. But the vast majority of what’s published is still by and about white people.
And straight people.
And monolingual English speaking people.
I started thinking about all the boxes you have to tick off in order to qualify as the default, as “normal” has been defined for generations.
- Raised by birth parents
- Able bodied
- Christmas-celebrating, but not significantly religious
- Native English speaker
- Middle class or wealthy
- Politically moderate
- Slim, or at least wishing to be so
- American, Canadian, British or maybe Australian
But still—look at that list. That’s a LOT of things that have to line up exactly in order to be considered “Normal.” Miss any one of those things, and all of a sudden you are “diverse,” “exotic,” “niche” and in an “issues novel.”
And yes, I was EVERY SINGLE ONE of those so-called “normal” things growing up. As were my parents and sisters. I have branched out a tiny bit since then—I’m on antidepressants, and I’m overweight and underconcerned about it, and my family has been built through adoption. It’s not much, but it’s enough that when I read about a character struggling with mental illness, or a character who’s fat and doesn’t “win” by losing their weight, or when I read about different parts of the adoption triad, I feel seen. (I also feel confident in weighing in on where representation in those areas is poorly done, but that’s another issue.)
It’s enough that I get, just a little bit, what it would be like to have never seen yourself in a book. To have to cobble together representation from almost-likes and well-I-guess-that’s-universals. And then what it means to actually find a piece of your lived experience in a book.
I made a book buying resolution for my classroom library this year. I am focusing on the areas students constantly run out of options in:
- Graphic novels
- Latinx rep
But now I’m thinking about my own reading and the voices I seek out. I will always be a mood reader, and I will always read plenty of books in which my white-cisgendered-straight-girl self is well repped. I’m okay with that. It doesn’t mean I can’t also seek out authors and characters who do not fit neatly onto the list I began with. People who are
POC of all varities
Transgender, non-binary, intersex etc.
Raised in non-nuclear families
People with disabilities
People with mental illnesses
People of other religions or more niche brands of Christianity, strongly religious Christians
Immigrants, migrants, and refugees
Non-native speakers of English
People living in poverty, homeless people
People living in non-English speaking countries or countries that ended colonization in the 19th or 20th century
Extremely conservative, liberal, or libertarian political views
Little formal education
There is a whole world out there. None of it is normal, or all of it is. Hard to say. But I just bought an #ownvoices book about a blackAce girl, and I can’t wait to read it.