As I work on reading more diverse books, I’ve had to really think about what diverse books are and how I want to define them for myself. When I think of diverse books, the first thing that comes to mind are books with person of color or LGBT characters or authors. I feel like that’s a pretty standard definition. But for my personal goal of reading more diverse literature, I tend to extend that definition to include any books that open my eyes to a new culture or way of life, even if it is not obviously ‘diverse’. Recently, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into where I draw that arbitrary line. Why do I consider certain books diverse and not others? Should diversity mean the same to everyone? Or is it dependent on each person’s individual experiences? (Sorry if this post is kind of ramble-y, it wasn’t easy to write, and I had a hard time really pinning down what I want to say.)
I think my personal definition of diverse literature is rather broad. I include authors or characters of color and LGBT authors or characters (including own voices). I also count religious, political, and neuro- diversity as well as mental illness. But I’ve realized my instincts towards categorizing diverse books are somewhat arbitrary, and the more I try to figure them out, the more confused I get.
Recently, I started reading a translated work of fiction from Spain. I realized a few pages in that I was mentally counting it toward my diverse books goal. But are international works of fiction inherently diverse? Is is enough that they are opening my eyes to the culture of another country? Or must they also feature characters/authors/elements that are traditionally considered diverse? And why did I automatically think of this book as diverse, and not, say, War and Peace (a translated work from Russia)? Is a book from Japan diverse because it contains Japanese characters, or does it also need to feature characters of other ethnicities and/or sexual orientations?
Because I was curious, I looked up the dictionary definition of diverse:
Diversity: the condition of having or being composed of differing elements : variety; especially : the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization” (Merriam-Webster).
Which poses yet another question: does diversity in literature refer to the inclusion of minorities, or does it require variety? If all the characters in a book are gay, for example, is it diverse? It’s easy to see how books of only straight, white cisgender characters (of which there are plenty) are not diverse. And I have a hard time viewing books as diverse because of a single “token” black character, or a gay best friend. (Is a book diverse if most or all of the main characters are not diverse, but there are side characters that are?) But is a cast of homogenous characters – regardless of their ethnicity, orientation, religion, etc. – diverse? There are so many books out there that feature an actual diverse cast of characters, and I’ve realized that’s what I like to see. That’s what reflects the world – particularly America – as I see it. And that’s what I want to see in my literature.
Another element of diversity (at least in my mind) is how characters of color are portrayed. Personally, I don’t count books as diverse (at least for the purposes of my own reading goals) when they come off as discriminatory. (I am planning another discussion post on that topic, so I won’t get into it here.) But what if the most prominent character of color is the villain? Or just terrible friend? Or – worse yet – completely lacking in personality? Does it matter what roles diverse characters play in books? Personally, I don’t think it should, because I think there should be a variety of representation in a variety of roles (and making antagonists exclusively one ethnicity is also problematic). But I feel like it’s different when there is only one (even if the book contains more diversity in other ways), and they are set apart from the others. Do the antagonist and protagonist have to be the same? Can we just have heroes and villains without necessarily bringing their personal experiences into the conflict itself? Do you feel like diverse characters tend to be more or less dimensional than those of color, or LGBT characters?
How do you define diverse books? Should authors make a point about including diversity in their writing? How do you feel about white authors writing diverse characters? (As a white aspiring author, I think it’s wonderful, but – as evidenced by far too many books – sensitivity readers are necessary. However, I also see the need for own voices books, and make an effort to read those as well.) Do you make your own determination about why a book is diverse, or do you listen to others? Do you think own voices books are inherently more valuable than diverse books written by an author of a different race or orientation? And, finally, are there any diverse books you would recommend to others?
I look forward to reading your input, because this is a topic I want to become more educated about. I may not spot problems in books when it comes to diversity as easily as others, but it’s definitely something I am trying hard to work on, rather than ignore. If you’re trying to do the same, I hope this post encourages some good discussion that we can both learn from. I would also encourage you to follow the many diverse book bloggers out there, because I learn from them every day.
I hope you enjoyed this post! As always, let me know if there are any topics you’d like to see in a discussion (or other) post.