I have a problem, and that problem is me

Posted: November 15, 2013 in Reading
Tags: , ,

I’ve been taking inventory of my books lately (as in the kind of inventory that leads to me cataloging and then arranging my personal library as if it were an actual library—an ordered life is a good life), and I’ve come to realize something rather embarrassing: the number of writers of color are pretty sparse on my shelves. I can literally count the SFF writers of color on one hand: Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, and Karen Lord.

I wish I could say, “But that’s just speculative fiction! The books I have outside my home genre are much more racially diverse!” Wrong again. Even there, I only have a little more than a dozen authors represented (of which Edwidge Danticat and Jewel Parker Rhodes might be included in my spec fic group as well, depending on how liberal your definition of the genre is). I own two of Danticat’s works, and my Butler is three books in one volume; every other author is represented only once on my shelves.

To put this disparity in perspective, I have roughly 1,000 books, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction combined (no, I have not read even nearly all of them—think more of Alaska Young’s Life Library). That leaves us with a ratio of roughly 1:50 for writers of color to the number of books I own.

I think there are a number of factors that have led to this little problem I’m having.

First, I read mostly on recommendations. Those recommendations come from family, friends, and bloggers and writers whose taste I trust. While this method is pretty good for general direction in finding something I’ll enjoy, it’s also a tad lazy and can easily lead to a “To Be Read” list that grows more and more insular over time. It’s comfortable, but comfort is not good soil for personal growth.

Second, I’ve focused mainly on finding and appreciating female authors in recent years. Here’s an interesting story. When I was in college I took a class that studied science fiction. Other than Mary Shelley and Judith Merril, there were no women included on the syllabus. The professor, bless his heart, acknowledged how heavily the required reading skewed male and explained that “women just weren’t writing science fiction until recently.” I appreciate that he took one step toward recognizing how unbalanced his syllabus was, but he took the easy way out and said, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” Frankly, that excuse is fucking bullshit. It’s also a cop out because it absolves the excuser of any responsibility in what she reads, as if reading is somehow a passive activity that happens to us rather than something we decide to do and how. This excuse is as bullshit when it’s applied to writers of color as when it’s applied to writers of the womanly persuasion. Ever since then, I’ve been slowly cultivating a mountain of evidence to counter his claim.

Third, our cultural climate is still not particularly friendly to emerging voices from historically marginalized and/or silenced groups. The books I own by writers of color are excellent, but some of them almost don’t count, especially Butler and Delany. That’s not to say that they’re not deserving of their place in SFF canon—in fact, they are brilliant and absolutely deserving of canonical status. It just doesn’t take much effort to find them. You practically trip over them on your way into the genre because they’ve been held up as paragons of writers of both genre and color, which is a dubious honor in a culture that substitutes real diversity with exceptionalism—and exceptionalism leads very easily to that bullshit assumption I just mentioned—that “well, there just aren’t that many [insert members of monolithic-yet-marginalized group] producing.” My personal library is pretty strong evidence that I’ve been complicit in this culture, however well-meaning I’ve intended or imagined myself to be.

Let me be clear that I’m not saying anyone other than me has to diversify their shelves. What I am saying is that I don’t feel like I’m getting as much out of my reading habits as I easily could if I just made more of an effort, and this failure derives primarily from my lazy selection process. Just as I (or anyone, one would hope) would reassess and change failing behaviors in any other area of my life, I’ve decided to change my failing reading behavior.

As miraculous as Google is to this end, however, I still want recommendations—I’m just being more specific about it this time around. I’ve been following Aliette de Bodard, Saladin Ahmed, and Wesley Chu on Twitter, so I’ll probably start with their work. That’s a start, but only a small one. Carrie Cuinn put together a list of Asian and Asian American authors earlier this year, and I think this list can serve as another good starting place. (Also, if you’re not reading Carrie Cuinn*, you really ought to. She’s wicked smart, and her style is refreshingly crisp and poignant.) While I’m finding my way through these starting places, I’d like to hear from anyone reading this post what else I should be reading if I want to expand my perspective as both a reader and a writer. Latino(a) and American Indian authors are most definitely my weakest points, if you have any direction there. I’m not looking for a dissertation or anything, but recommended good starting places (including blogs, websites, or other online communities) are welcome.


*I am keenly aware that in a post asking for direction on reading writers of color I’ve recommended two white writers. Both John Green and Carrie Cuinn are excellent, and I stand behind my recommendations of them. These facts/opinions are both independent from and indicative of the fact/opinion that I need the recommendations I’ve asked for to be a better reader and a better writer.


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