Normally, we talk about diverse books in terms of the ethnicity and cultures of characters, authors, and story traditions. What speaks to me about the two articles linked above is the call to increase the diversity of the genres I read. The call to “read outside [my] own taste and interest” (from Bookriot), to read things I dislike or that scare me to try (as per the RA for All post).
We need diverse books to be sure, but those must be part of a literature that reflects our reality, books in which little black boys push one another on the swings, in which little black girls daydream about working in the zoo, in which kids of every color do what kids of every color do every day: tromp through the woods, obsess about trucks, love their parents, refuse to eat dinner. We need more books in which our kids are simply themselves, and in which that is enough.
On the last day of the KLA/MLA joint conference last week, I attended a session titled “Why We Need Diverse Books.” I believe the #WeNeedDiverseBooks initiative is one of the most important social movements going on right now. I believe diversity is the most important frontier for collection development in libraries.
The session presenters recommended a variety of publishers who are good sources of diverse titles and gave examples of successful diversity programming they had done at their own libraries. For me, the most interesting point raised was the need for foreign language titles in a diverse collection. Language is an essential facet of cultural diversity, and yet our diversity collections are still predominantly written in English. A truly diverse collection which serves a truly diverse community should have resources in a multiplicity of languages. Too often, this gets overlooked in collection development efforts. I think this is a point well-made.
I walked out of this session asking myself another question which sometimes gets neglected in our discussions about diverse books:
How do we get white dudes to start reading diverse books?
Historians agree that jazz was born when African musical sensibilities met European instrumentation. For Western listeners, it offered familiar sounds voicing unfamiliar phrases. For African listeners, it gave them familiar rhythms and musical ideas echoing through strange sounds.
For anyone who cared to listen, jazz was a music that expanded perceptions and broadened minds. It was a music that blended different heritages into something new and vibrant.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor is the kind of novel you get when non-Western storytelling traditions and sensibilities utilize the quintessentially Western cultural tools and structures of SF. Like jazz, the experience is revelatory.
The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eight by Jonathan Strahan is an excellent SF anthology.
In his introduction, Mr. Strahan briefly summarizes the history of SF short story anthologies and argues that one of their essential roles is to help shape the genre. Throughout this history, there have been editors who curated their story selections specifically to encourage SF to develop in desired directions.
Mr. Strahan proudly claims membership in this tradition. The stories he chose for the eighth installment in his annual Best of series suggest that SF is embarking on a very exciting new era.
Last week, I wrote about how important Octavia Butler’s work is to me. Every time I tell people how much I like Octavia Butler, someone inevitably says, “You should read Nnedi Okorafor!” or, “Have you read any of Tananarive Due’s works?”
And I always want to ask them:
“Are you recommending them because you think their writing style / subject matter / perspective is similar enough to Butler’s to merit the comparison? Or are you just naming them because they’re another black woman who writes SF?”
Octavia Butler is one of my most treasured authors. Her work is astounding. More than anyone in the past few decades, she took up the mantle of the literary scifi authors of the 1960s and ’70s—Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, et al.
Like them, Butler’s work transcends boundaries and achieves a level of artistry and power that’s rare. She’s an irreducibly important author. Her legacy is one to be treasured and honored.