Minorities and Mainstream Reading

There’s been a lot of talk about diversity in literature lately. Or rather, the lack thereof, and what we can do about it. There’s a great hashtag going around Twitter right now called #WeNeedDiverseBooks that you should check out if you haven’t already.

I want to read more cultural stories, to be sure. I read a lot of South Asian literature specifically because I want to read about people like me. I want the face I see in the mirror to be the face I read about in my books. That’s not to say I only want to read South Asian lit, but that I do a little happy dance every time another piece of South Asian literature is released.

Cultural fiction is awesome. There’s no doubt that, short of traveling, it’s pretty much the best way to learn about a place, a culture, and a people you don’t know. I’m always seeking out new fiction about different cultures, but sometimes I want something simpler: something not sot heavy, not so difficult. I’m not trying to imply that all cultural stories are heavy (though South Asian fiction tends to skew that way), just that sometimes I want to read about someone like me, rather than just someone who’s only of the same culture or background.

But what happens when you want a book about a minority character that isn’t necessarily a cultural/historical story? You want to read a romance novel that happens to feature an Indian woman or science fiction with a Latina as the lead? Well, that’s harder. Much, much harder.

I’ve been gushing about the novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin lately; storied life of aj fikry - gabrielle zevinit’s an awesome quiet read that is basically an ode to how books can change your life. It’s sweet and beautiful and if you’re a reader, well it was written for you. But what I found remarkable (and it really shouldn’t be remarkable, but it is) about this little novel was the main character: A.J., or Ajay, Fikry, a half-Indian man. The book isn’t about him being a minority. Yes, he does discuss it briefly, and also mentions that he feels like an outsider because of it, but that’s about it. The story is about something else entirely. The main character just happens to be a minority.

THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN OFTEN ENOUGH. I can’t tell you how much I wish it occurred more. You know that women’s fiction novel you’re reading? Why can’t the main character be Asian? Or that fantasy novel—does everyone really have to be White (::cough A Game of Thrones)? We’ve accepted diversity in our society; in fact, for the most part, we celebrate it. So why is our reading still so White-washed?

Dorothy Koomson, an author whose novels I devour as soon as they’re released, is The Woman He Loved Before coverwonderful about this. She writes fiction about women; her novels are thoughtful, emotional, and absolutely resonate with me. I really love her books and wish she was more widely read.

Another thing Koomson does? Her main characters just happen to be Black. The books aren’t about their minority status; they’re fully realized, independent, resourceful, and completely awesome women who, as fate would have it, aren’t White. And I love it. (Koomson’s latest novel, The Woman He Loved Before is beautiful and powerful and ALL THE THINGS. Everyone should run out and pick it up immediately.)

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with reading about White characters; just that I’d love to see more diversity in the books I read. And while I want to see more cultural fiction, I also want to see more thriller and romance and contemporary authors embracing diversity. You don’t have to write a minority story in order to embrace a minority character.

(And yes, I know this opens the “Can white authors write minority characters?” can of worms. Preeti Chhibber, a fellow Rioter, wrote about that really well—her bottom line, and one that I agree with wholeheartedly, is that we need more diversity, regardless of how we come by it, because we don’t live in an ideal world.)

What do you think?

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