Changing "Read Diversely" from Buzzword to Action
So, you want to diversify your reading ... but what does that even mean? In the US, today marks the first day of AAPI, or Asian American and Pacific Islander, Heritage Month, which feels like a pretty apt time to talk about some of the nuances of reading diversely. The surest way to fail to meet a goal is to fail to define it to begin with, and I think part of what makes reading diversely feel daunting to people is not defining what it looks like in practice and not being really aware of all of the different ways diversity can present itself in books.
To be clear, I don't think there's any one definition. I've seen people define their goal in terms of reading books by and about experiences and identities that are different from their own lived experience in some significant way, and I honestly think that's a good way to go about it.
For me, as someone living in the US, I consider books written by authors who have any identity or experience that is marginalized within or by the global north. Perhaps that sounds a little vague, but you can kind of think of it in terms of: which books do publishers steer away from because they view them as less marketable?
I include books written by authors who:
are BIPOC, LGBTQ+, or disabled
immigrated from or live in the global south
are Muslim, Jewish, or any religion outside of Christian hegemony
Important note: intersectionality not only exists but is so critical to expanding our reading and worldview!
One of the reasons I wanted to emphasize the breadth of diverse identities is because of a specific TikTok video I saw a few months ago. It was an end of year wrap up including stats for that reader, and while the goal of emphasizing diverse books was great, two aspects of the video really stood out:
they only included books by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors as a form of diversity, and
they listed some authors as "unknown"
While I don't think there was any sort of conscious malintent, when it was pointed out that, not only were authors who are open about their identities listed as "unknown" but also that listing Jewish authors as "unknown" was extremely problematic, they did issue a general booktok apology ... without any specific acknowledgment of the problem of excluding Jewish authors from a list of diverse books. This isn't any sort of call-out, and I'm definitely not recommending anyone go searching out a months'-old video. But it is an opportunity for us all to think more critically about what we consider diverse and how we approach not only our own reading but the way we discuss diverse books.
It's also a good opportunity to branch off onto some of my thoughts as AAPI Month reading challenges and tbrs are starting to make their way onto my feed. Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders are a huge group to all share one heritage month, and AAPI encompasses a huge range of cultures. I'll do a full post with AAPI book recs and go into a little bit more depth, but basically, if we really want to talk about reading diversely, then we need to talk about books and authors who aren't only the biggest names in East Asian-American literature. This isn't an issue that's specific to AAPI reading challenges; we see similar issues when Pride month recs are all cis and white, when Latine Readathon books include zero authors from outside of the US, etc. But any attempt (conscious or not) to lump all Asians and Pacific Islanders into one cultural identity is simply another form of erasure.
This is what my reading tracker looks like, for example. Obviously, not everyone has to go to this extent; I'm an engineer and a little bit of a statistics nerd, so I like a pretty graph (or four). I go into a lot of detail that isn't necessary for every reader or every stage of a reading journey. But part of what I want to point out with these charts is that I am able to read a lot of diverse books as someone who is primarily a genre reader. I read some nonfiction and lit fic here and there, but most of what I read is romance.
You might have also noticed that I specifically refer to books written by authors from marginalized identities and not just books about diverse identities. To some extent, this is a personal choice, and I can acknowledge its flaws. By not necessarily reading books with diverse characters by authors who have no public information available regarding their own connection to that identity, I'm sure to miss out on authors who have simply chosen not to publicly disclose information that they don't owe any of us. I'll do an entire follow-up on #OwnVoices and its faults over the years because it is a nuanced subject. No one, including authors, should ever be forced to publicly claim an identity or to publicly out themselves, and hunting down private information about an author to try to "prove" whether or not their books are diverse or not is a harmful endeavor for everyone involved. If information about an author's identity isn't publicly available (social media bios, author websites, in their book's backmatter, or in author interviews), it isn't fair game to look for, to demand, or to disclose to others without the author's consent.
Reading diversely can look a little different for each of us. At the end of the day, I think the goal is about reading experiences that are different from our own and uplifting books that get less support simply because they are about identities that don't fit the status quo.
I kind of doubt anyone who wants to just read what they want or who doesn't want to have to "research an author" before they pick up a book has read this far, but just in case ... It doesn't take much effort to not only find diverse books, but to find diverse books that fit the tropes and genres we're looking for.
And the best part is, once you start, it only gets easier. You make bookish friends who also read diversely, and next thing you know, your tbr is overflowing with books that go beyond the publishing status quo. Books that might have never been on your radar otherwise. Books that just might introduce you to some of your new favorite authors.
Anyway, there's more to come in this series, including my thoughts on #OwnVoices and intersectionality as well as some book recs. What else do you think I should talk about?