Discussion: What does diversity mean to you?

‘Diversity’ shouldn’t just become a buzzword (though it may already be becoming one in some ways…). But one way to pull it back from the edge is to flesh it out: What does it mean? Why should it be considered? Etc. We’re trying to uncrack that nut.

Claire

I’m glad Nikki decided to start this topic because I was beginning to suspect that we had different and yet very similar ideas on what that word or train of thought means. For me it is all encompassing, from the characters in it to the authors that write about them. I don’t get “feelings” for books like Nikki, I just read whatever my hand or mind is drawn to at the time. I might feel like a genre or a specific trope, like my love of dragons and magic, but I rarely, rarely feel like reading a cultural sort of thing. When I have felt like that it’s mostly been for Caribbean books and I think that’s because it’s most familiar.

In my review of 2015 I noted the number of books that I read that had lead “diverse” characters or written by a “diverse” author and for me that category is one in the same. I’ll read a book with South Asian narrator or protagonist even if it’s written from a middle class white guy from the US. Authors and narrators/protagonists are on equal ground here for me.

Now to get into the awkward nitty gritty, um, I guess diversity for me is anything against the typical status quo. So a non diverse book, I’m purely guessing and writing in a stream of conciousness style now, would be one with an American/British/Western middle class/rich white guy narrator or author. Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s counts as a non-diverse book. I don’t want you to think that these books are bad, they are not, I think every book that I like is great and the ones I don’t like are great but to someone else.

They’re just not expanding my perspective on things, which is again fine. Just not all the time, we need to break things up, to learn, to explore and reach. That’s why it isn’t just about race, it’s about reading about people who think differently, who are differently abled, different sexualities or classes, from different countries or genders, it’s about challenging what you think of as normal and understanding that for others their normal is different. My normal as a biracial queer woman born and raised on a small Caribbean country is so very different from my friends in the UK and that is what makes life so amazing and full of flavor. That’s why I’ll read books by middle class American white guy authors but they wrote a really diverse character, I think that’s cool. Now how good the execution of that is or was, is a totally different topic which you read about below with Nikki (she’s such a good thinker, I love the way she thinks I really do).

On an aside, mostly because I tend to prefer female authors and protagonists, for me it’s hard to think of reading by gender (or nongender conformity) as being diverse but that’s my privilege as someone whose been able to command her gender and how people perceive of it and I know that, so I’m trying to work on that.

•••

Nikki

I tend to focus on diverse creators rather than just works with diverse characters in them. For example: if I were in the mood for a story set in asia or about asian culture, I am more likely to pick up something written by an asian (often one that is actually from Asia and not just Asian-American) than I am to pick up a book with an asian protagonist by a white American.

I know a lot of people are happy with just having diversity on the page/screen/facing the audience, and it’s great to see that too, but the way I choose to deal with this is to have a more diverse range of creators behind the page/screen/whatever because the work will naturally become more diverse and deal with a wider range of topics in an organic way that isn’t contrived or lacking in understanding and insights. It is also less likely to fall prey to tokenism or to run into the awkward problem of cultural appropriation.

There is nothing wrong with an able-bodied person writing about someone with a physical difference or a white person writing about black protagonists (as long as it’s well researched)! But sometimes we run into the danger of creators talking over the people they purport to want to elevate which is never good. Not to mention that readers should be aware that are not really getting an authentic view of that minority perspective…they’re getting a fabricated (but hopefully researched!) minority perspective from someone outside of that minority group which is worth bearing in mind.

I know I’m in the minority in thinking this, but I personally felt like this happened in the graphic novels Rat Queens and Sex Criminals in relation to straight, cis, white guys talking over women and talking over people of colour and talking over people who identify as LGBTQ+. It felt less ally and more tokenism, fetishism and stereotyping to me.

It’s a really delicate balance and I think you need both. You need marginalised people to be able to tell stories. All sorts of stories! It doesn’t need to be confined to just stories about being marginalised. If they want to tell sci-fi stories or historical fiction stories or high fantasy stories or memoirs or non-fiction or whatever, they should be able to do that and not feel like they’re not invited to the storytelling party. And you also need less-marginalised people (like those straight, cis, white guys we talked about earlier for example) to include a more diverse range of characters in their stories too. It reflects real life, it’s more inclusive, and it shows that it’s not just something for “them”, the marginalised people, to tackle. And it’s interesting! It helps us all (creators and readers) stop inadvertently ostracising ‘other’ voices and start understanding that they are all ‘our’ voices…and we all get new types of cool stories to read. Everybody wins!

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to read anything from the current ‘default’: able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered, white, usually male (but sometimes not…depending on the genre?), middle-class authors. Some of my favourite authors fit that category: John Steinbeck, George Orwell, P.G. Wodehouse, Andrew Kaufman, Jon Klassen, Garth Nix, Brian K. Vaughan, Agatha Christie, Kate Beaton… Trust me, I am in no danger of excluding those who belong to that demographic. But I want my favourites list to be less samey in its point of view.

So for me, although I appreciate works with diverse characters regardless of who the author is, creator diversity is what I tend to mean when I think about reading more diversely and I don’t think it has to mean the same old expected ‘other’ stories either.

NameNikkixClaire

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18 Responses to Discussion: What does diversity mean to you?

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  3. I’m really trying to branch out with diverse reads. Especially because sometimes I read YA sci-fi for an ‘easier’ read or a bit of a break from the heavy stuff, and they’re all about blonde-haired white straight girls. I want some more interesting characters pleeeeeeease. Any recs for me? I feel I should also try more translated works.

    (Also in terms of TV, watch The 100 for diversity!)

    • Nicole says:

      I seem to read a lot of classic sci-fi which is terribly white, middle-class, sexist, cis, vehemently straight male sooooo….I’m looking for more options in that area too!! haha
      I still haven’t tried any Octavia Butler yet, but she seems to be ‘the’ prominent WOC sci-fi voice I tend to hear about a lot (I think she not only tackles racial themes but LGBT themes too?? I’m not 100% on that, but I think so). So I’m going to investigate. But I agree; it seems harder to find diversity in that genre. I think it’s been pretty non-inclusive-feeling for a long time and the changes there are slower than in, say, fantasy for a lot of reasons..
      Anyway, if I come across anything I’ll let you know! 🙂

  4. moosha23 says:

    Love this. I think I agree with diverse reads being those written by people I don’t normally read from. It does seem like tokenism (great word by the way) and this happened recently in Doctor Who so very blatantly when the Doctor told a woman to stay in the Tardis out of harm’s way and there was a whole two-minute scene on the woman telling him that, no because she is a Strong and Independent Woman she refuses to do so. Ends up being the first one to die afterwards (but that’s a whole other story). It just felt very reductive with the show trying to show that they’re up for feminism, but being bluntly offensive in doing so.

    But diversity?
    I’m reading Reading the World by Ann Morgan – the first literary book I’ve read this year that didn’t have that annoying ‘Title: Explanation of Title in Goddamn Title’ thing going for it. She made a point (lots of points actually) about what diversity really means – and I guess this is why I agree with trying to find authors from other countries regardless of what they’re writing about when taking into account the diversity of your reads. She says:

    “Words such as ‘black’ and ‘white’ felt cramped and inadequate as a means of talking about ethnicity, suggesting, as they did, that I must have more in common with an Albanian donkey farmer than with the Zimbabwean-British family living down the hallway from me. Such distinctions seemed to deplete the individualism of all of us and make us poorer, two-dimensional people.”

    And from this I can’t help but think about what it means to be PoC and what that means. I think in recognising diversity we have to recognise the complexity of people, and yes I feel that focus should be more on people who aren’t getting their voices heard – but also to stories that aren’t being heard from whoever writes them because it’s the stories themselves that are forming the status quo. I believe in the diversity of the stories from people – I think the real danger lies in reading “single stories” all the goddamn time. And yeah that means not reading from the typical middle class Western white straight man, but doesn’t that also mean refusing to let this man become a two-dimensional “character” and experience new stories from his history/experiences.

    I don’t know. I think I need to do more thinking about that last point (I’m close to something…but I don’t think I’ve worded it in the best way possible).

    Hopefully you can glean what you can from this! 😀

    • Nicole says:

      Hahah yeah I think I agree with you! I feel that, for one, the status quo isn’t going anywhere and I will continue to partake of it. BUT that doesn’t mean I can’t also consume a wider breadth of content and perspectives (without sacrificing any enjoyment). Honestly, I find it really frustrating if I’m reading something written by a man who assumes to understand what my experience is as a woman and writes something that’s just totally off base and doesn’t feel like what ANY woman would do, and that feels blatantly inauthentic and downright insulting. It’s hard to give examples but, for example, I’ve read a fair few books by men where it’s like they think “I know women are insecure about their looks” (as if men aren’t) “so my believable female character will repeat several times throughout the book in her thought-speeches all her feelings about her boobs!” Like..WHAT!??? I don’t go around my daily life thinking about my boobs every two minutes and they don’t define me and aren’t the first thing I think about when I meet someone new: “Gee, I hope they’re not thinking about how imperfect my boobs are” or something ridiculous like that. (Looking at you, Murakami >;/ haha) It’s an emphasised example, but that kind of thing is really annoying to me and I find you get that less when someone with an authentic experience is writing. Like, a woman would probably never write that kind of thing.. Or if she did, I can assume that that is then part of this specific character she is trying to craft. Yknow what I mean?
      But I agree that diversity (in the case of race for example) cannot be reduced to just “white” and “black” labels or throwing in a character here and there who isn’t white and then not treating them with the same respect as other full characters who are white like in your example with Dr Who with the feminist character (….although I would say that they seem far from showing that they’re up for feminism and seem more about portraying it as silly/frivolous/plain stupid…Moffat is well known for his poor treatment of female characters in general).
      I guess overall I feel like minorities will likely give the sensitivity and nuance to characters that are like them that the writers we are accustomed to hearing from are incapable of giving through no fault of their or lack of skill…but simply because the types of authors we have primarily been hearing from just don’t have that experience to give and there are some things that can’t be imagined so easily or wouldn’t even be thought of until it is lived or shown. That’s why I am such a strong proponent of creator diversity. I think everyone can get a piece of the sharing stories pie and everyone will benefit. I hope all that doesn’t seem ranty…I just get so passionate and have so many things to say! :’D hahahah
      Anyway, I’m going to check out that book you mentioned! You always seem to have some interesting critical reads! 🙂

      • moosha23 says:

        No it doesn’t seem ranty at all! I’m currently finishing Reading the World and I really, REALLY recommend it. I think you’d love it! It’s about a woman who sets out to read one book from every country in the world within a year – and what she learns from this. It’s excellent.

        • Nicole says:

          I was looking for it on Goodreads and couldn’t find it until I searched by author! Despite many versions of the book being called “Reading the World” on GR they only have it listed as a very slightly different title @_@; hah Mystery solved. I’ll keep an eye out for your updates as you make your way through it! 🙂

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  7. Tara Anderson says:

    Diversity for me means, first and foremost, attention to marginalized and underrepresented races, cultures, ethnicities, languages, sexual orientations, genders, classes, abilities, religions, and body types. However, in books I think it can also relate to diversity of genres, formats, styles, etc.

    One thing that kind of bothers me, though, is how the book community doesn’t always want to approach racial diversity. I think some folks do this well, while I’ve seen other folks continue to read “diversely” in the context of everything EXCEPT race. I think sexual orientation has had the most attention lately, followed by gender identity, but I’d love to see and read more diverse books across the book blogosphere in general.

    • Nicole says:

      Yeah absolutely! As far as what I see people reading in the “diversity” arena, seems to largely just mean “I’ve added some women to my roster”. And while it’s great to shake things up in any way at all, that seems like the smallest way of doing that. The one I see least overall is probably disability and physical or mental differences. And, personally, I don’t want to (and definitely don’t think I have to!) sacrifice good writing and good stories in all my favourite genres to read diversely in all sorts of ways. I just think it requires a bit more digging and a little less passivity on the part of the reader. And, really, once I start digging, other things do come up.

    • Claire (BWB) says:

      You put it really well Tara! The YA field has put a big focus on sexuality which I think is really good but I want to read more books that look at intersectionality a bit more. Malinda Lo is the first author I’ve read that had an intersectional queer woman (and in a fantasy setting to boot!)

  8. Wendleberry says:

    I would prefer to read books from more diverse authors, but a more diverse cast of characters by any author is better than cis-white-in-America everybody.

    And talking of diverse reading, i tried to get Lagoon from the library today, to read along for your book club, and they don’t have it. And now i feel utterly let down by the entire library concept–they should have ALL the books!

    • Nicole says:

      Very true.

      Ack! No, library! You have failed us! I, too, am the type of person who feels personally wronged when the library doesn’t have what I want. I almost want to search/ask again just in case the second time, by some miracle, the thing I’m looking for shows up haha
      Hopefully some of our future books are on there!
      One of the rules we set each other for the book club was that it’s also a cheap book club so it has to be available at our libraries or cheap to buy (like less than £5 preferably including shipping). But it doesn’t always work out that way and occasionally we’ll agree on something that breaks that rule. Would be cool if you could join us for a future read though (depending on book availability)! 🙂

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