The concentrated effort to support and inspire more diversity in literature headed by Aarti of BookLust – A More Diverse Universe III – has ended in it’s official sense for 2014. She wrapped up the event here on Sunday, and shouted gleefully about the 73 bloggers who reviewed about 120 books over the two weeks of #Diversiverse.
I read five books for the event, and have added dozens of new titles to my TBR list. I read two books off of the list I concocted for myself – The True History of Paradise by Margaret Cezair-Thompson, and Everyone Leaves by Wendy Guerra (still need to review that…) I raided my local library’s pleasantly diverse YA collection and turned up Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor and Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis. I also read The Good Braider by Terry Farish, and realized that the author was a white lady from Connecticut only after I’d finished it (paying attention is free, yo…)
Which brings up an interesting point – we definitely need to see more diversity in books written by Caucasian and POC authors alike. But for POC authors it can be hugely frustrating, and seem unfair, when a white author writes a book about people of color and then joins the throngs of published books by white authors. For 20 years now the percentage of books by and about people of color has been floating around 10%. Not okay!
Author Ellen Oh discusses “Why Being a POC Author Sucks Sometimes” and touches on her own irritation over white authors who try to write multicultural stories, while grudgingly appreciating their efforts – if they do it right.
“It is a complicated situation. There is no easy answer. We need diversity in literature. We need it desperately. Diversity is not only for the under-represented—the truth is, diversity is important for everyone. All people need to be exposed to other races and other cultures in positive ways. All people need to learn tolerance and acceptance of differences. When we promote only a homogeneous view of society in our literature and our media, and deem books or movies about minorities as unsuccessful, it harms everyone. And so it is important that all authors include diversity in their books.“
Ellen Oh quotes writer Claire Light, speaking on the doubly damned white author writing about people of color:
“If you do do it and get it “wrong”, you’ll get reamed, and rightfully so. It’s presumptuous of you to think that you have the right to represent a culture you don’t belong to if you can’t be bothered to properly examine and accurately portray that culture.
Further, if you do it and get it “right”, or rather, don’t get it wrong, you’ll still get reamed by members of that culture you’ve represented who rightfully resent a white writer’s success representing their culture.“
All of this applies to Terry Farish’s book – The Good Braider – which is about a girl named Viola, who escapes South Sudan with her mother and comes to America to start a new life. Terry Farish (whose first job was working for the Red Cross in Vietnam during the war) lived in Portland, ME, for years and made many friends among the real-life Sudanese refugees who immigrated there. In the book’s Acknowledgments she lists them and speaks about how they impacted her life and helped build the story she came to write.
Perhaps this, then, is a book about people of color written by a white lady from CT, done right? Like Ellen Oh says, it’s complicated. But it is a good book, and one that Naomi Shihab Nye and Uma Krishnaswami were happy to stick up for. It is written in verse (I am on a real novel-in-verse kick this year, let me tell you!) and Viola’s voice is powerful. The book is full of details both beautiful and brutal. Terrible, violent things happen in war torn Sudan, and Viola and her mother carry their wounds with them to Portland, ME. (Trigger warning, for the wounded readers among us all: the story deals with rape, abuse, and PTSD.)
The journey from Sudan to Cairo is full of dangers, but Viola overcomes the obstacles with grace and intelligence. Life in the US brings many new difficulties, as she tries to fit in and find her identity, to be both Sudanese and American. Her struggle to adapt, to heal, and to blossom is a moving and important story.
I remember reading a newspaper article when I was a girl, growing up in a coastal Maine town, about the Sudanese refugees who were moving into Portland, ME. The community was finding ways to welcome, to house, and to understand these new neighbors and hopefully friends (Maine is still one of the whitest states in the country…) and I, who had no idea at the time what they were fleeing from, hoped that some would move to my little town. I wonder what my teenage years would have been like if someone like Viola had moved in next to me?
I can’t say if the book would have been better if it had been written by a Sudanese writer – I’m just glad I read it. I’m glad Farish took the time to listen to her neighbors’ stories, to learn how they braided their hair, what their food tasted like, and what their Congolese beats felt like in her tapping toes. That’s what I hoped to do as a girl, and what I still hope to do whenever I meet someone from a culture that is different than mine. I know that Farish wrote her book in the hope that it would inspire new understanding and friendship between people. That’s what we’re all hoping for when we demand multicultural stories.
Everyone needs to write them, especially the Sudanese woman who, like Viola, escaped the violence of their homeland and arrived in the US to build new lives. I want to hear their stories, in their own words. I’ll seek them out, and I’ll demand that they get published. Which brings us back round to #Diversiverse.
As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s not over. I’m on a roll here, and my TBR list is swollen with new authors and titles. I was going to list all the ones I’m excited about, gleaned from the #Diversiverse reviews (and I haven’t even gotten through them all yet!), but I’ve gone on here long enough. It was an exciting two weeks, and I’ll be benefiting from it for probably the rest of my reading days. #Diversiverse on folks!