May 2, 2014
#WeNeedDiverseBooks hits Twitter
by Kirsten Reach
Though the campaign began earlier this week, the official launch of #WeNeedDiverseBooks began yesterday afternoon. There’s a Twitter conversation at 2 PM today and a Diversify Your Shelves chat on Saturday, when readers are encouraged to recommend books by diverse authors. It’s a conversation about race, sexuality, and other subjects that are underrepresented in literature.
Ellen Oh, one of the organizers of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, told Brenna Clarke Gray of BookRiot that this began as a Twitter conversation about the lack of diversity at BookCon, the last day of Book Expo America. (You may have read Dustin Kurtz‘s response to BookCon’s lack of diversity and the organizers’ response to complaints here.)
Oh says, “I couldn’t get over the fact that here we were in 2014 and we still aren’t invited up to the big boy’s table. And then more and more people began to chime in on the conversation.”
She and several writer and bookseller friends put together an event to get people talking about diversity online. The initial Twitter conversation took place between Oh, Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon of Lee and Low Books, and Megan O’Sullivan of Braun Books. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks team is designed to take place on Twitter and Tumblr.
An obvious goal is spreading the word about books and authors that readers may have missed. But it’s also building a conversation about language, education, social institutions, and publishing. Many readers have already encountered the New York Times conversation between Walter Dean Myers and his son, but there are some other recent articles that would be useful tools in this conversation.
Junot Díaz asserts that part of the problem is lack of diversity in the academic world. In an article for The New Yorker titled “MFA vs. POC” (Person of Color), published on Wednesday, he writes:
Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.
In my workshop what was defended was not the writing of people of color but the right of the white writer to write about people of color without considering the critiques of people of color.
This is excerpted from his essay in Dismantle: An Anthology From the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop. Díaz founded the workshop in 1999. He really puts MFA vs. NYC in perspective.
Another recent piece on race, family, and the South, was Kiese Laymon‘s conversation with his mother in Guernica, titled “Hey Mama”:
Respectability ain’t got nothing to do with me.
Don’t say “ain’t got” Kie.
Or nothing. Just don’t say “ain’t got.”
Nah, I’m serious. Or what? I know the language, Mama. You know I know the language. I know the rules. I know how to break and bend the rules, too. Plus, who would win in a contest between “doesn’t have” and “ain’t got”?
It depends on the judges.
Mama, how have we been having the same conversation about language for thirty years?
You are a grown man, but you’re still a black boy from Mississippi to people that want to hurt you. Speaking and writing in a respectable way is just one small way to protect yourself. How do you not understand this?
It’s about language. It’s also about representation. In a piece for Buzzfeed, Daniel José Older, author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, writes:
A young writer that I mentor reached out to me last week. “None of these agents look like me,” she said, “and they don’t represent anyone that looks like me.” She’s wrapping up a final draft of her first novel and I’d told her to research literary agencies to get a feel for what’s out there. “What if they don’t get what I’m doing?”
…Diversity is not enough.
We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism. It walks hand in hand with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and classism. To go beyond this same conversation we keep having, again and again, beyond tokens and quick fixes, requires us to look the illness in the face and destroy it. This is work for white people and people of color to do, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It’s work for writers, agents, editors, artists, fans, executives, interns, directors, and publicists. It’s work for reviewers, educators, administrators.
Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.