On Taking a Cautious and Thoughtful Approach to Inclusion in Books

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Enobong Essien

Staff Writer

Enobong is a former professional dancer turned publicity and marketing assistant and life-long lover of books. Fully Nigerian and fully British, Enobong now lives in Chicago with her nonfiction enthusiast husband and peculiar yet adorable cat roommate.

I think it’s fantastic that – in general – people are becoming more aware of the need for more diversity in books. As someone who has experienced being in the minority for the majority of my life, I have been privy to an awareness of minority representation in art and culture since before it was trendy. My mum was an English teacher in Nigeria and, among her Shakespeare, Dickens, and Chaucer, she also studied Buchi Emecheta and Chinua Achebe and encouraged me to read widely. She was adamant that I should see diversity in the books that I read. This meant that among my Enid Blyton’s and Jacqueline Wilson’s, I was reading Malorie Blackman, read Chinua Achebe for the first time at age 12, and even attempted reading Wole Soyinka’s West African pidgin in one of his plays at that age as well. It didn’t go well.

I appreciated J.K. Rowling’s attempts at including diverse characters in the Harry Potter books, although her character descriptions were somewhat clunky and stereotypical, and have paid attention every time a character is said to have dark skin and “unruly curls” in their hair. I think I read The Color Purple for the first time at 14 or 15, always seeking out representations of black people when I would feel a lack. Even so, I would have loved to have seen more young people of colour in the YA I was reading and love that I’m seeing them now.

That’s all to say that I’m happy about the increased diversity in books. I’m happy that future generations of kids brought up in the West won’t be able to list on one hand the number of books they’ve read with black characters. I’m happy that they won’t have to search out black protagonists and come up short. However, there is a part of all this that doesn’t seem all that organic to me.

Many schools and big corporations have started implementing diversity checklists into their administrative practices. These kinds of procedures work brilliantly for those kinds of institutional platforms to safeguard against prejudice and exclusivity. However, there have been a number of books I have read recently where it has felt like the author has abided by the same list, including a black character, an Asian character, and a gay character. Bonus points if you write about a lesbian woman of colour and tick all the intersectional boxes at once. I want a diverse cast of characters in the books that I read, but it’s obvious when the cast isn’t organic. It becomes contrived, formulaic, and almost patronising. Kind of like the author is saying, “Look, I included you.” 

The old writing adage to “write what you know” has its faults and limitations, but it also speaks wisdom. If you live in a world that isn’t particularly diverse, write that world. If you live in a very diverse world, write that world. Or, if you are great at researching and know how to write honestly and convincingly about what you don’t know, then write it, but write it cautiously. I think all authors need to have a beta group of readers to read their work and honestly tell them if it’s convincing or not, because if it’s not convincing then the author isn’t doing the readership any favours.

What I love about where we are right now in western literature is that it’s not only about diverse characters but about diverse authors. Different voices are telling their different stories, and that’s where you have to start. I want to read about different worlds from different perspectives and different people. I’m not looking to see representations of myself everywhere I turn, although it is nice to have that option when I need it. Sometimes it’s good to look away from yourself; it broadens your perspective and part of the joy of reading is to experience worlds that are different from our own.

I want to read books by authors who aren’t afraid to write about diverse characters but who also don’t put them in to pander to the masses either. I want to read the stories that authors need to tell and for authors to tell these stories without feeling pressured to diversify the cast if it doesn’t pertain to the story and to not diversify the cast if it does. A story set in London with no characters of colours might raise a few questions. A story set in the Lake District with no characters of colour won’t raise as many.

Write honestly and the rest will follow.