Who is Telling the Story? Another Question of Diversity in Publishing
I started off talking about the lack of diversity at one specific event that I attended in Toronto and moved on to discussing the publishing industry. This Wednesday I want to move on to something that was briefly mentioned last week both in my post and by various people who commented. I had said:
I also think that the fact that the biggest titles are often written by non-POC / international authors about POC / international characters is related to the lack of diversity / equity in the publishing industry. We seem to be (sadly) more willing to push people like us writing about those outside the dominant group than this ‘other’ writing about their own experiences. I don’t know why that is but I wonder if it somehow seems more familiar to us?
Today I want to talk less about the publishing industry and how the lack of diversity in offerings is related to that and instead I want to talk about something that we see everywhere – writing about the “other”. And what I want to focus on specifically for today is the white, American / European authors writing about Africa. I’m really just going to ramble on for way too long because I have a lot of conflicting thoughts on the subject. I am going to close not only asking for your opinion but also with a poll.
This situation was brought to my attention strongly at Book Expo America when, during the BEA Editor’s Buzz panel, one of the books pitched (and one of the books with the a very large presence at the conference as a whole) was Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron, published by Algonquin. Basically, if I remember correctly, Benaron worked with Rwandan refugees in the US, was fascinated so went to Rwanda, thought more people need to know about what happened there, so she wrote a book. While listening to the pitch I actually wrote up a note on my iPhone titled “How to Write about Africa for White People”. Clearly the list is a generalization and not specifically directed at this one book / pitch which I’ve not read. I think the list is a general representation of what we see over and over again and the truly successful books have some combination of these things. Here is my (mostly) unedited list which was written half jokingly and half seriously (and please remember this is not specifically about this one book, but rather about the trend of writing about Africa):
- Include lots of stereotypes.
- People might have potential but given where they are (i.e. Africa as opposed to the ‘developed’ world), they will never become anything.
- Main character must always be naively innocent of all evil occurring around him/her (else we can’t sympathize with them).
- There needs to be a white / American / European person to show them (Africans) the way to safety / success.
- The main character will always child-like until the end (related to point 3).
- Main character or close relative must face terrible violence.
- Exoticize everything as much as possible, especially the land.
My original thought is ‘how selfish’. If you truly want more people to know about the place and situation, might an option be to help aspiring Rwandan authors become published in North America rather than appropriating their stories? This leads, of course, to the thought that when it comes to literature there are no real rules, so how can I be upset? Anyone can write about anything and one has to hope that they’ve done the research to ensure that everything matches reality where it should. When it comes to writing about other cultures though we have to really wonder – does the author really know what it is like to be a part of the culture, to get the events correct, to get the diction correct, etc. And is the book truly shining a light on this other culture or are they maligning it?
This topic first came up here on Amy Reads back in August 2010 in my review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. In that book Richard is an Englishman who is dating a Nigerian woman and lives through the Biafran war but in the end decides that it isn’t his story to tell. This was something that I brought up in my review to ask people’s thoughts on and got a lot of fantastic discussion points. The main point was that it is easy for the privileged to write about other groups and cultures but their voice will almost always drown out those who are actually living the culture and trying to write their own stories.
Thinking of this also reminds me of Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, some of which was included in his book The Education of a British-Protected Child. In an easy in that book he talks about how so many said that Conrad was “on the side of the Africans” when really the story is full of racism and denies true humanity to the Africans. With this specific example we are also talking about historical stereotypes, but I still think it is an important point. If we are not a part of the culture being discussed, how can we know if it is a good and accurate representation or not? And can we trust some author who may or may not have visited the country in question once or twice to actually get it right?
What I think the main point is, besides the privileging of ourselves over those whose stories we are taking and who don’t have the same opportunities to get their stories out, is one of truth and research. How do I, as a Canadian, know if the culture / voice / events / etc of this book set in another country is true? Unless you specifically make an effort to read local authors as well as those from outside, you will never truly know (and hence my Nigerian lit project). Some may ask whether this really matters, and personally I think that it does. I think that by distorting our views of other parts of the world we are doing ourselves a disservice. It is not only profiting from others who aren’t given opportunities to publish their own works it is also distorting the truth behind their lives.
At the same time, I think it is important for authors to include a diverse mix of characters in their books. I like when there is a mix of sexual orientations and racial backgrounds presented by the characters in a book because it makes it feel more true to real life. I don’t think authors should write all of the characters in their book white and straight. I wonder if maybe the key is the level of research and the reasons WHY the diversity was included. Are you trying to be representative of true life by including diverse characters or are you trying to be sensational and sell more books. What is your end justification for the location / characters – is it for some noble reason of ‘helping’ or ‘educating’ others maybe you want to rethink why you are the perfect person for that and if those people you are trying to help can better help themselves in some way?
A quick note: While discussing my attempts at pulling together this post Cass mentioned that it is rather ironic that I, as a white person, would write this. She is quite right and perhaps I’m not really the best person to do so. If we use the test I mention I would say that my reason for discussing it is simply to get people thinking about what they read and who wrote it as well as get people talking, so hopefully that makes it OK :)
This is a topic for which there doesn’t seem to be one easy answer and I’ve really just been thinking out loud here. I want to know, what do YOU think?