Belinda Huang ‘17, Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The issue of diversity in literature is hardly a new topic of criticism and analysis, but a recent social media campaign has once more put diversity in the spotlight, this time perhaps with a real chance at creating change. #WeNeedDiverseBooks was conceived by a group of authors, spearheaded by Ellen Oh, in response to the homogeneity of lineup at this year’s inaugural BookCon.
Why this issue, though, and why now? Although this attention on the lack of diversity in literature could be seen as a recent social trend, lamented about in newspaper columns and journals, this would be understating the importance of the topic. According to the Cooperative Children’s Books Center, the number of children’s books written about racial minority groups in the US has either stayed steady or fallen in the past ten years, while the population is only getting more racially diverse (http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp). Despite the talk, little effective action has been taken to make literature reflect the diversity of its readers.
The issue is especially prevalent and problematic in children’s and YA literature. People learn based on their preconceptions and existing beliefs – if they are not engaged from a place of cultural similarity or understanding, then children find it hard to learn. Expressing diversity in children’s literature also shows that, despite our differences, people have common feelings and dreams, and these deserve the same respect and empathy. Diversity in literature also reflects a diverse and interesting world which can spark student’s curiosity, encouraging them to continue learning and reading. After all, it is easier for someone to continue a book if they feel connected to the characters in real and tangible ways, especially if its a skeptical student going through their required readings.
It is for these reasons, and many more, that diversity continues to be an important discussion in publishing. If there can be dystopian societies ruled by dragons, then there can be books about aromantic people in wheelchairs, or genderfluid Muslims, or mixed-race Lou Gehrig’s sufferers. However, demanding diversity isn’t demanding the dismantlement of all literary tropes or traditional styles of writing. In fact, creating traditional stories of growing up or falling in love, but featuring characters with different racial, sexual, physical or mental types, is a powerful way of normalizing the experiences of people who have normally been marginalized in literature. What diversity calls for is the inclusion and representation of the full spectrum of people’s experiences in literature, not just the privileged or “normal.”
Another reason we need to mainstream literature from diverse backgrounds is that these authors often have a hard time obtaining the readership and popularity that would make their work available to a large audience. The few authors who do make it to a widespread audience can unintentionally become the only mainstream voice for their people. The popularity of authors like Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, and Amy Tan – people who write about their interesting and diverse experiences – can unintentionally create barriers for other similar authors because pundits may think that just a few names on the bestsellers list means diversity and representation has been achieved.
The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign came at the right time and has generated enough momentum to bring about some much-needed action. Besides an active Tumblr and Twitter life, the campaign created enough media attention and popular interest that its leaders were asked to host a panel at BookCon, the same convention that had sparked their campaign in the first place. The campaign has also been discussed by Publishers Weekly, LA Times, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and it has lead to Apple’s iBooks spotlighting the issue with a virtual display called “Celebrating Diverse Books” in the Children’s section.
This campaign has also had the advantage of allowing a dialogue through which writers and readers can share resources, booklists, ideas and plans for diversifying their own bookshelves or their local library. The campaign promotes smaller independent publishers for having diverse booklists, and provides a platform for more obscure or lesser-known authors to promote their own diverse writing with the hashtag.
As the campaign continues, organizing a Diversity Festival in 2016 and partnering with Read Across America to further spread diverse books in schools, its longevity and concrete planning fights the idea that this focus on diversity is a passing trend. For people who have been underrepresented for so long, this campaign could mean real and lasting action to make diversity a priority for readers, writers and publishers alike.
More information can be found at www.weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com, the official website of the campaign.