My Bookish Life 5. Diversity in Books

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

"Diversity: the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, colour, religion, socioeconomic stratum, sexual orientation, etc."

*Beware, spoilers ahead! If you haven't read the book mentioned, you should skip it.*

I've been wanting to write about Diversity in Books for some time and I decided to do it now because in the last few days I've seen people discussing diversity a lot more than it's usual in the bookish community. As I'm not from the United States of America (I've noticed that most people addressing the theme were from there), I do not know what started the debate this time, even though I've been looking for (if you know it, please share with me because it's driving me crazy not finding the reason).

As I stated above, I'm not from America. I'm from Portugal -for those who don't know, it's one of the European countries responsible by the enslavement and because of it sometimes it's awkward for me to discuss certain diversity issues. However, I'm getting over this awkwardness because I believe diversity is considered an issue because we keep it a taboo -we don't share our opinion because we are afraid of the other people's reaction. 

Firstly, before I share my opinion about diversity in books (and I believe I'll get a lot of heat for it), I have a couple of questions:
  • If a character is blind, is there diversity? 
  • If a character has a mental disease, is there diversity? 
  • If a character is an orphan, is there diversity? 
  • If a character is poor, is there diversity? 
  • If the character had red hair, is there diversity? 
  • If the character is Romani, is there diversity? 
If I was asked all of these questions, I'd answer "yes". For me, all of these situations represent diversity.  However, I feel that most people when they talk about the lack of diversity in books nowadays they are only focused on the lack of representation of LGBTQ characters (which has been growing, but not as much as it should). But diversity is a lot more than a different sexual orientation! Following the definition above, diversity in books is about writing characters from different countries, with different skin colour, with different religions, from different socioeconomic stratums, with a different sexual orientation...  

Now, I confess that I find that diversity in books isn't a big issue as it was years ago. *and the heat starts* Why? Nowadays, people are more open-minded and they are not afraid of speaking out or writing about themes that years ago were not possible. I'm part of a generation that grew up aware of different ethnicity cultures and that every person, no matter how different I found it from me, deserved a place in the society; deserved the right to be represented in a book

While growing up I read every kind of stories/tales (before I knew how to read, it was my mother that read those stories to me). Back then, my favourite genre was Fables. Looking back, there are no stories with more diversity than fables. You could choose to be the turtle or the hare; you could choose to be the fox or the stork. And at the end, there was always a lesson: be tolerant, be respectful, help those who need. I understand parents want to read their kids stories about interracial families, same-sex parents, disability, etc, because it's good to have someone you can connect with. I agree with these parents (in Portugal, I can say there is little to none of children books that address these themes), and step-by-step, the Publishing Industry is writing/publishing children books full of diversity, but there are so many stories that give children all the tools to grow into a caring, tolerant and open-minded person (and those stories don't even feature people). If a child is raised with these values than diversity will just become another word and diversity in books will become something natural and not an issue. 

For those who read Young Adult, New Adult or any kind of genre that is written for an older audience and still struggle to find diversity: I think some readers are picking the "wrong" book (yes, there is never a wrong book, but I'm explaining what I mean with it). If you want to read a story set in Regency Period or Victorian England, you can't expect to find that much diversity. But if you want to read a story set in a high school from the 21th century, you can expect to find diversity.

I became a more active reader in the last six years and I've come across so many amazing and different characters (and sadly, many readers didn't take a moment to realize the diversity in these stories). Here are some examples from books I read recently:
  • Cinder from The Lunar Chronicles (I've only read Cinder yet) has prostheses (both in her left hand and leg) and has a mixed ancestry, Asian and Caucasian. Also, Prince Kai has Chinese ancestry.
  • To All the Boys I've Loved Before is a really cute contemporary and Lara Jean, the main character, has Korean ancestry (she is half-Korean and half-Caucasian). Also, she, her sisters and her father try to keep Korean traditions alive in their home. 
  • A Thousand Nights, The Forbidden Wish, Rebel of the Sands, The Star Touched Queen are books that feature a main character that has olive/dark skin and that is from the Middle East or India. Yes, these books are recent, but take a look at The Chaos of Stars or Defy.
  • Sandy Hall always features in her book a set of diverse characters. In A Little Something Different, Lea is Asian, one of her best friends is homosexual and [big SPOILER ahead] Gabe after an accident is left almost deaf and his struggle to learn how to live with this disability his followed throughout the story. In Signs Point to Yes, Teo is Latin and Margo is bisexual and she's trying to figure out how to tell it to her parents. And Been Here All Along... well, just read the summary.
  • Luna from Reign of Shadows is blind and even though she can't see, it doesn't stop her from wanting to help the others or wanting to live an adventure.
  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo has a set of diverse main characters. Also, there are various kind of relationships (different sexual orientations; interracial relationships; positive female friendship).    
"But you are only mentioning books that were released after 2010!" I can pick up a few books that were released before 2010 and portrayed a diverse society (and one of them is very popular).
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, The Help by Kathryn Stockett. These books are about the Afro-American experience in America (and at the end, you understand that it's about something more) and there isn't a racist representation of the characters. 
  • A Song of Ice and Fire has so much more diversity than initially meets the eye (yes, most people are Caucasian, but as I stated above, skin colour isn't the only criteria to say if a book has diversity or not). First, one of the favourites characters from the series, Tyrion,  is a little person. Second, it has different religions (the Old Gods, the Seven, the Drowned God, the Lord of Light) and different sexual orientations (Renly was even in the run to become the King of Westeros). Third, women may be portrayed as sexual objects a couple of times, but who runs the world? Girls like Daenerys and Cersei. 
  • In City of Masks by Mary Hoffman, Lucien has cancer and his struggle is followed in a reinvented Italy. 
  • Cassandra Clare introduced Magnus Bane and Alec Lightwood in City of Bones, and they became of the most admired and loved same-sex couple. Also, Magnus not only is homosexual but he also has Chinese ancestry.
  • Katniss from The Huger Games has Native-American ancestry (most people overlook it because of the films) as well as Mercy from Mercy Thompson.
I could mention a few more books and authors (such as Melissa Marr and Anna-Marie McLemore), but I think this text is already long enough and probably whoever is reading it is already feeling bored. I just want people to realize that there is more diversity in the books than they initially think.  

Do we read more books where the main characters are Caucasian? Yes. However, does it makes us love a book more? No! We love a book for being well-written and for its ability to captivate our attention and to make us fall in love with fictional characters. At least, that's what I look for in a book. And if it features a diverse set of characters and mentions certain themes, it's a plus that shows how the world is embracing diversity more and more every day.  

P.S.: I apologize for any grammar mistakes. English isn't my first language. 

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