Story Worthy

Today, I did a little experiment. I went to my bookshelf where I keep the books that I have studied in my English classes over the years. I did a quick count of how many works of literature I have read so far for my English major. The number is at about thirty (not counting course packs or works that I accessed online). Then I went to count how many of them were works of fiction that featured a non-white protagonist. That number was five (sadly, that is including a world literature class). I then counted the number of books that featured an explicitly queer protagonist. That number was one. Now, this surprised me significantly. Something seemed to be amiss when the ratio of diverse books is almost five to one. I encourage you all to conduct this experiment with your own bookshelves and contemplate those numbers.

The idea for this experiment came about when I read a novel that featured a black female protagonist and a gender-neutral secondary character. I found myself having to check myself constantly, recontextualizing and re-reading. I mistakenly kept on forgetting the race and the gender neutrality of these characters, while assuming they were masculine and white. I even fumbled the pronouns for the gender-neutral character in a presentation in class, which was particularly embarrassing. It led me to question why I did that. Why was it so hard for me to imagine a black woman without the author having to remind me of her race in every chapter? Why did I constantly ignore the description of her dark skin and assume that it meant she was a tan white person? Why did I find myself thinking of a gender-neutral person as a “he?” Why did I feel the need to subconsciously gender it[1] as a male when there was nothing essentially male about it?

The issue of the lack of racial diversity in literature is personally difficult for me. As someone who grew up exclusively reading about white people, it was very hard to imagine that my existence was “story worthy.” I didn’t think that people would read about someone who was Pakistani, unless their race specifically played a large part in the plot. Their race couldn’t just be something that just happened to be their skin color. I felt that their culture couldn’t just exist in their narrative without being relevant to the story or being constantly explained in some way. If you have to write a general story, it has to be a white person. Consequently, when I wrote stories as a child, it was about white people. I didn’t see a story in myself. To this day, when I write, I have to remind myself that it is okay to write about people of color. I have to reassure myself that I’m not alienating any readership I may have. I have to reiterate to myself that white is NOT the default and I am NOT a customization.

We would like to think that, as students submerged in the intellectual community of a university, that these issues are not as prevalent. But I realized that, despite calling ourselves scholars of all types of English literature, we still continue to erase minorities and diversities to some extent. Whether it’s our reading lists or syllabuses, there is an astonishing lack of diverse main characters, or any diverse characters at all really. Diversity is more frequently found in secondary characters. Thinking of diversity as a supporting character for the white cisgender heterosexual protagonist is damaging and I think we are all aware of that fact. But how many of us have actually taken steps to consciously notice how entrenched this ignorance is within our own courses and syllabuses? As students of literature, we need to start being more aware of this and unlearn some of these internalized assumptions. We should advocate for our syllabuses to look more like what our classrooms look like. Every time we pick up a book, we need to ask these questions. So take a trip to your bookshelf. What’s your ratio?

Psst. Please check out the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign – weneeddiversebooks.org.

[1] This particular character used it/its as pronouns

By: Fatima Ahmed

Image Credits: #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign, mothernaturenetwork.tumblr.com, wocinsolidarity.tumblr.com, thoughtsofaschoollibrarian.tumblr.com, twigbookshop.tumblr.com

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