As a straight, cis-gendered, white American woman who has never been affected by a disability or mental illness, my cultural experience is pretty well represented in the media. And when you belong to the majority, it can be easy to blind yourself to the experiences of people with less privilege and to internalize the prejudicial messages our culture propagates. To me, being a “good person” means consciously trying to unlearn all of the racist or homophobic or otherwise intolerant attitudes I have picked up through the years.
To do this, I try to read diversely and to listen to the stories of people who are different from me. Reading about the experiences of others helps me develop my empathy; a book can put me in the shoes of a Nigerian immigrant to America or an Autistic child. Reading books by and about people of diverse backgrounds humanizes groups of people that our culture prefers to think of as “less than.” (Book Riot also has a fantastic series of posts about why it is important to read diversely.)
In the last few years, I’ve been actively trying to ramp up my reading of books by and about people who are not straight, cis-gendered, white, or born in America/Canada/UK. In 2013, only 13% of my reading represented diverse voices, and 2014 saw a bump up to 20%; so far, 28% of my reading in 2015 falls into this category. I could still do better, and I’m always seeking out new books. For now, though, I’d like to share ten of my favorites for other people who are trying to read more diversely!
1. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. This collection of prose and poetry catalogues the microaggressions and blatant racism black Americans face on a daily basis. It’s powerful and uncomfortable, and it should be recommended reading for anyone trying to understand the frustration and fury felt by people of color.
2. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. In four years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men she cared deeply about. In her struggle to make sense of their deaths, Ward sees a common thread tying them together: These men died because they were male and Southern and black. Full of grief and loss, this memoir probes the ways America fails its black men.
3. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Both a beautiful love story and a tale of the immigrant experience, Americanah follows two young Nigerians, Ifemelu and Obinze, who leave their home country for America and England, respectively. It’s a thoughtful contemplation of race and identity, highlighting how race is experienced by non-American blacks.
4. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. On the first page, we learn that Lydia, the child of a white mother and a Chinese American father, is dead. The rest of the novel explores everything leading up to her death, including racial tensions in a small town and pressure to fulfill the dreams her mother wasn’t able to chase.
5. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. This Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories is made up of pieces about characters with ties to India. Some are the American-raised children of Indian immigrants, some are immigrants themselves, and some are white Americans observing Indian culture through their friends and neighbors. The stories are beautifully written and convey an interesting tension between two cultures.
6. Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg. Journalist Jenny Nordberg delves into the phenomenon of bacha posh, or girls who live as boys until they reach puberty, in Afghanistan. It’s a fascinating look at a practice that reveals really complicated things about gender roles in this Islamic country.
7. The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Set on a reservation in North Dakota, The Round House is a devastating coming-of-age novel about a thirteen-year-old boy seeking justice after his mother is brutally raped and left for dead. In addition to exploring life on the reservation, it reveals the frustrating complexity of tribal vs. state law.
8. For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu. The only son among three sisters in a Chinese Canadian family, Peter Huang is under enormous pressure to live up to his father’s ideals of Western masculinity. However, Peter struggles with his father’s expectations, for he knows in his heart that he is really a girl. For Today I Am a Boy is a fantastic portrayal of a transgender character without falling into the trap of being an “issue novel.”
9. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Shortly after coming out as a lesbian to her parents while in college, Alison Bechdel found out her father was also gay. But just a few weeks after this revelation, he died in an apparent suicide. Decades after his passing, Bechdel explores her relationship with her late father. This graphic novel is a fantastic meditation on family, sexuality, and the power of literature.
10. The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida. Written by a thirteen-year-old boy with Autism, The Reason I Jump takes readers into the minds of people who live with this often misunderstood disorder. This is a must-read for parents and teachers, but also recommended for everyone who is curious about Autism.
What are your favorite books by diverse voices or about diverse characters?