Is Diversity in Literature A Good Thing?

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If I had to choose one word to describe the most major issue promoted in Canada today, it would have to be this: representation.

Representation is everything. Representation leads to normalization. Representation leads to acceptance. Representation leads to understanding. Representation allows for other voices: minorities, Indigenous peoples, the LGBTQ+ community, other cultures, women’s side of the story, etc… Representation lets us battle oppression.

With such a profound focus on representing every possible human’s story and experience, the movement of this mindset into the literary sphere is unavoidable, and naturally so. What else is literature for if not to tell stories, right? What better place to provide a platform for these hitherto unheard voices than by adding them to the literary canon? The message comes through loud and clear: literature is most useful and good when it is most diverse.

The first big push to diversify literature occurred as a twitter hashtag in 2014: #WeNeedDiverseBooks. According to a Huffington Post article, some of the 12 Irrefutable, Amazing reasons that #weneeddiversebooks include:

  • “We need diverse books because no little kid ever said ‘I want a box of 64 white crayons!'”
  • “We need diverse books because my daughter was 3 when she first said she hates having brown eyes and brown hair
  • “We need diverse books to show kids it’s okay to be who they are”
  • “Kids might not judge a book by its cover, but they will judge themselves by a book’s cover”
  • “We need diverse books because seeing a reflection of who you are allows you to understand who you can be”

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Close on the heels of this hashtag exploding on Twitter, a grassroots organization was founded called We Need Diverse Books (WNDB). WNDB’s mission statement is that they “advocate essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” They argue that children look for themselves in books, look to see their own experiences, and having literary representation helps to teach them they are an accepted part of society, and their stories are valid.

Logically, this trend didn’t stop at children’s literature. In 2017, a Lambton county school board replaced their entire grade 11 English curriculum with Indigenous writers. The gist of the argument was that it provided an opportunity to discuss Indigenous issues with high school students, and teachers everywhere are being encouraged to look “beyond Shakespeare” for their course materials. This mindset is taking effect in universities as well, where many English Literature programs are branching out to offer more courses in genres like LGBTQ literature, African American Women Writers, African literature, and Indigenous Voices literature. Students are getting involved, too. At the end of July, several undergraduates from the University of Manchester painted over the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, and replaced it with “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. Their rhetoric was that Kipling had outdated, imperialist views that could cause outrage. Maya Angelou, a black, female poet, was a more inclusive and representative author, and as one of the students stated, “God knows, black and brown voices have been written out of history enough, and it’s time we try to reverse that.” Even awards organizations have begun to re-evaluate the names associated with their awards. At the end of June, the prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder award had the name removed, because Little House on the Prairie and the rest of the series are culturally insensitive and the characters have racist attitudes towards the Indigenous peoples in the story.

Ultimately, it all circles back to representation. The entire concept is summed up quite well by Sierra Ayonnie in her recent article The Problem With Representation in Literature, where she states: “A lack of diversity among authors leads to a lack of representation of characters in books, leading to few stories students of color can relate to which makes it hard to motivate them to read.”

Now we finally come to the question I ask in the title (no, I didn’t forget about it): is literary representation and diversity a good thing?

Well let me start by continuing to talk about Sierra Ayonnie. In the same article, she references Elif Shafak, the award winning Turkish feminist author. Shafak gave a TED talk in 2010, where she describes the power of fiction to help us meet new people and travel to new places, places we might even have been biased against before. Since Ayonnie kindly included a link to the TED talk, titled The Politics of Fiction, I looked it up and took a listen (and I’d strongly encourage you to as well). Aside from being one of the most interesting people I’ve ever seen, Shafak presents an enthralling message that bluntly and brutally opposes the entire point of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and everything it has led to.

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Elif Shafak

Shafak began with the same ardor for stories that I’m sure many of the founders of WNDB and the like share. Who doesn’t love stories, after all? But then she makes an interesting distinction, saying, “Yet as much as I love stories, recently, I’ve also begun to think that they lose their magic, if and when a story is seen as more than a story.” To explain this point, she spoke of one of her books about a Turkish man at a university in Boston. One of her critics commented that he wished she’d written the story differently: there were many international characters in this story, but only one Turkish one, and he was a man. Shafak’s response to this captures the entire idea of WNDB, and also the problems that exist in it: “He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happen to be one. We often talk about how stories change the world; but we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read, and reviewed.”

The power of fiction and literature is to tell stories, yes – but diversifying authors to get as many different narratives as possible does not serve as useful a purpose as our society seems to think. Shafak spoke of a literary panel she sat on in a conference in the Philippines, where she was with two or three other authors. They had no common genre in their books, they had no common writing style, no common language – the only reason they were sitting on the panel together was because of their unique passports. This is the fundamental problem with telling everyone’s individual story – the stories themselves start to matter less and less, and the background of the author starts to matter more and more.

Fiction is not a means to an end – it is an end in itself. You could have a Muslim woman write her story, an African American write his story, a gay or lesbian person write their story, and an Indigenous individual write their story. But unless these stories are written well, they are unhelpful, regardless of author. It would be better to have a story that has a deep, common theme of the human experience of oppression. A story that transcends the real world experience and connects with people on a level of emotional truth. A story that will resonate with anyone who has experienced oppression, and allow them to say, “Yes, somebody else understands.” And a very well written story would be one that even resonates with those who have never experienced oppression, and allows them to say, “Ah, so that’s what it feels like. I understand now.” This is the true power of fiction.

This is what WNDB misses out on. They want me to read a story about a successful Canadian girl with brown curly hair and blue eyes who was homeschooled, so that I can look to them and realize that I too can be successful. They also want me to read a story written by a Muslim woman about a Muslim woman, so that I will be informed about her specific struggles and sympathetic to her way of life. But if this is all these stories accomplish, they have failed. Good fiction would mean that the Muslim woman could read the story about that Canadian girl and connect with it, or vice versa. Good fiction should step over the boundaries of mere experience and draw on the universal experience of being human. To quote Elif Shafak yet again (seriously, go listen to that TED talk), “When identity politics try to put labels on us, it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger… Identity politics divides us – fiction connects.”

charlottes-web-e1511207780397This is why we can be so moved by non-human characters in books. Charlotte’s Web can make us cry because we know the bittersweet ache that is losing a loved one but realizing that the world is still bright, if different, without them. In C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, we cheer for Puzzle the donkey when he finally stands up to Shift, because we know what it feels like to be manipulated, and if patient, slow, kind-hearted Puzzle can challenge someone who is taking advantage of him, then perhaps so can we. We sympathize with Roald Dahl’s The BFG when he doesn’t fit in, and we smile contentedly at the end because we too know the warm happiness of a true friendship.

Laura’s experience in Little House on the Prairie is not something that only white settlers from the 1800s can relate to – it is a story about immigrating and moving to strange new places with strange new cultures and peoples, something that is extremely relevant in a country like Canada today with such a high immigrant population. Rudyard Kipling’s If is a wonderful poem that challenges us to walk steadily through life without falling into extremes or losing our balance on the tightrope of human experience. If our children are judging themselves by the covers of books or hate their appearance because they don’t see their exact selves represented in stories, the problem is not with books – the problem is a society tells each and every one of us to have our own narrative, and has a “look but don’t touch” policy for the narratives of others. 64 crayons of every colour imaginable does no good for a child who does not like to draw.

So.

Is diversity in literature a good thing?

Of course it is! A multitude of good stories is a feast for the soul. There should be literature about joy and heartbreak, death and life, oppression and victory, war and peace, chaos and order, despair and hope, hatred and love, humour and sobriety, beauty and ugliness. There should be literature that combines these things and varies them and finds everything in between. Of course it is not a bad thing to include authors of different race and background. Of course it is not a bad thing to have stories about residential schools or what it’s like to be an untouchable on the streets of an Indian city. But the unique experience portrayed by the author should be a way to go deeper than culture, deeper than race, deeper than personal experience, to a level that resonates with human experience.

Let me finish by using a quote from C.S. Lewis from On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature:

“To be stories at all they must be a series of events: but it must be understood that this series – the plot, as we call it – is only really a new whereby to catch something else.”

The “something else” is the whole point of stories. It is what the human soul longs for and cannot put into words, something beyond ourselves, and it only comes within grasp through good stories. We need diverse literature because we need as many ways as possible to get at that “something else.” And it is precisely that which gets lost and forgotten in our current obsession with finding everyone’s separate series of events and nothing more.

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