Monday Musing: Demanding Diversity in Literature

At the start of the year, I wrote about the different ways to formulate ‘better’ reading goals, with particular attention to your own needs and wants. So much of how we read is reflective of whatever we’re experiencing in life. I know that over the course of my 30 years on this planet, both the types of book and the amount that I read have varied dramatically with my general mindset, stress levels, and the time demands of whatever newest hobby I’ve recently decided to embrace. Part of setting successful annual reading goals is, therefore, avoiding the guilt that new year’s resolutions typically inspire and opting instead for objectives that you can work toward without any of the traditional pressure. So while I certainly set out to read a certain number of books in a year (the satisfaction of watching that Goodreads metre rise up is intense), I always prioritise the ‘quality’ or general orientation of my reads over the quantity.

This year, one of my main objectives was to increase the diversity of what I read. Although I’ve already made efforts to read with a more globally-oriented mindset over the past couple of years, my tendency to fall back on classic novels whenever I have the opportunity has left some definite gaps in my experience of contemporary literature. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with reading the classics (in fact, I think classic novels are party to some of the most profound insights into the human condition that we have available to us). But I am keenly aware of the educational potential of fiction – particularly as it relates to my background in human rights. Watching the world trend itself toward exclusion and the building of (both literal and figurative) walls over the past few years has been one of the most unexpectedly painful experiences. As an immigrant – simultaneously privileged by my country of origin and yet keenly aware of the exclusion that this dynamic of partial exclusion creates – and a woman, I’m acutely attentive to representation and diversity, wherever I can find it. The literary world has been condemned multiple times for its lack of similar attention – the failure to publish or recognise voices that work to cast light on the absences in fictional representation. I’ve harped on this point a lot over the past couple of months – particularly in my reviews of Tommy Orange’s There There and Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Both novels pursue an authenticity that the literary establishment has been studiously avoiding for much of the history of western literature. Marlon James’ decision to write a fantasy novel that fills the spaces in authentic representation of his race and the rich history of African myth demonstrates how steadfastly novelists are working to shift the narrative of literary success.

As readers, we are in the position to demand diversity and better representation. It is not simply a matter of seeing ourselves represented in fiction (although this is important). Recognising the educational potential of literature – as one of the most effective forums for teaching empathy and compassion – makes the need to fill these gaps even more important. The way that we read and the books that we buy have tremendous power over literary trends and the recognition of authors who have made it a mission to write the books that they see as absent from popular fiction. Reading diversely – whatever that means to you – offers an opportunity to help populate the chasms created by the walls that we are still erecting between groups of people, filling them instead with the fruits of compassionate understanding, acceptance, and a willingness to learn.

Rupi Kaur

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