Our Reading Lives

My Recent Experiences at Literary Events as a PoC

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Samantha Gualito

Staff Writer

Samantha works in the digital textbook world by day and lives in the book world by night and on weekends. She blogs at Book Beat and lives in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @bookbeatblog.

I’ve been attending literary eventsbig and smallon my own since I was a teenager. I almost always found myself being one of the few people of color in the room, and sometimes I was the only Latina. Unfortunately, even as a twenty-something adult, I still find myself being one of the few or the only person of color in many literary spaces. Sometimes even a simple trip to the bookstore results in the same.

I don’t know if any other people of color can relate to this. I live in Chicago, a very segregated city to say the least, and perhaps that plays a role in the lack of diversity I see in literary spaces. Regardless of the writer’s race or ethnicity, the more well-known the writer is, the more likely the event will be held downtown. But even smaller, DIY literary events can lack in diversity, although these are, in my opinion, the more likely to attract people of color my age outside of a college campus event.

It’s daunting knowing that you will be the only one of your kind at some of these events. When you’ve been made to feel your otherness so concretely in the past, it’s hard not to notice it. I can’t help but feel out of place, even if it’s only for a moment.

Knowing that there is a diversity problem in the publishing world, in the classroomI can’t help but feel as if my presence is somehow a mistake. I’ve often doubted myself and asked, “What am I doing here?” or “Is that ex-boyfriend right about me being a coconut? Is everything I like a white people thing?”

Well, let me tell you about October 2015.

On October 5, I went to see Cherríe Moraga at DePaul University for the 25th anniversary of This Bridge Called My Back. And then on October 19, I went to see Junot Díaz at the University of Chicago. (I know. What a month!)

These two events were unlike any other I had ever attended. I’d been to events like this at colleges before, but never had I sat in a room with so many other people of color. The words to describe it are still difficult to formulate. Even though I didn’t know anyone else in the room (save for my two friends at the Díaz event) I felt as if we all shared the same is-this-real-life moment.

I can’t speak for the other attendees, but for me, those two events were pretty life changing, as cheesy as that sounds. Of course I know there are other people of color like me, who love books, writing, and keeping up with their favorite writers. I had just never been around so many of them all at once. My feeling of otherness in this space that tends to be so white had gone away.

It made a brief appearance shortly after, however. On October 24, I went to see Ta-Nehisi Coates at Northwestern University. It was the first event of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Once again, the majority of the audience was white. I was feeling out of place up until Coates addressed the fact that white people love his book. The audience laughed awkwardly at this, while I settled a little more into my seat. He didn’t directly address what I am writing about, but in a way, he did.

He doesn’t know it, but I read his book and I was in the audience, and I am not white. This probably only matters to me, but it’s important. It’s important because even though I am just one of the few people of color in the room, my presence helps to make it a little less white.