read more books by people of color

Oops, I started this blog post 9 months ago. (I started writing on a lunch break and realized I could export my GoodReads data, and then I spent the rest of my break formatting and analyzing data. ~little nerd things~) In the interest of the “open-source” part of open-source mind, this is what the post outline looked like: 

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 7.02.23 PM

Near the end of 2014, I decided to read 50 books of people of color in 2015, partly inspired by Victoria Law’s post “I Read 50 Books By People of Color This Year.” (“Parly inspired” as in, I read the headline on a few people’s news feeds, thought “huh, yeah, I should do that,” and then didn’t click through to the article until months later, when I started writing this blog post. Victoria’s post includes a long list of recommendations, yay! And also, Victoria is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, which is on my to-read list, so yay again!)

Here are some numbers from my past reading challenges:

omg i love data

2015 data current as of Monday, Sept. 21.*

Background on reading challenges:
In 2013, I decided I wanted to read 50 books, but I didn’t set that number until December, so I read 7 books that month, including 4 books on Dec. 30 and 31. (I was literally late for a New Year’s Eve party; I left my apartment late with a chunk of book I figured I could finish at the bus stop/on the bus, and ended up reading the last few pages under a streetlight outside of my friend’s building.) Also, speeding through The Time Machine because it was already on my Kindle and I could tell it was short seemed kind of not in the spirit of a reading challenge.

In 2014, I raised the goal to 60, and then was funderemployed, so I had time to read a lot. You can also tell from the numbers that about halfway through the year I semi-intentionally started reading more books by BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color). A huge factor in that shift was living in Portland and feeling surrounded by whiteness, and also being more intentional about carving out space and time to be in community with QTPOC and wanting my personal time to reflect that commitment, too.

But even thinking about last year’s reading compared to this year’s, when I have a more ambitious goal of reading 50 books by BIPOC writers, I can tell that there’s a huge difference. Not only am I intentionally seeking out authors of color, I’ve also tabled reading books by white authors because I was behind on my reading challenge. It’s also, incidentally, made it more jarring when I’ve made exceptions to read books by white authors. I read Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip in May, and wanted to love it, but the race analysis throughout her text often felt inauthentic and/or tacked on and/or appropriative, in an aspirationally intersectional feminist way.**

I am bored of writing this blog post, and I keep not finishing posts (the last thing I published was last November), so the rest of this post will be bullet points.

  • Here’s my “authors of color” bookshelf on GoodReads. Here’s a bookshelf based on Facebook friends’ recommendations (it unfortunately doesn’t include books that were recommended that I’ve already read because they are already on other shelves and I’m not feeling that ambitious/generous at the moment.)
  • Reading nonfiction by authors of color was incredibly refreshing, and I was surprised how much of a difference it made. It is really, really nice not to be racially microaggressed or erased and invisibilized in the middle of a chunk of otherwise great analysis. It’s also pushed me to read nonfiction that has been languishing on my “To Read’ shelf for a long time.
    • Some of my faves:
      • Redefining Realness, Janet Mock
      • The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, Grace Lee Boggs
      • Assata, Assata Shakur
      • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, Marie Kondo (I would have been very stfu if this book was written by a white person)
      • Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawaii, Ed. Candace Fujikane (technically read last December)
      • The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Alexander (I will love this book more when Alexander finally decides that she is a prison abolitionist and releases a second edition editing out some of her more reform-minded passages)
  • I’ve read everything Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has published and am sad.*** More sad: Realizing there are a finite number of Octavia Butler works and that I have to pace myself because I can only read her books for the first time once. (In related news, I pre-ordered Octavia’s Brood, and have been hoarding it to read on a special occasion.)
  • Things I love about libraries:
    • Did you know you can freeze holds? If you’re going out of town or behind on reading, you can suspend your book holds so they don’t come up when you’re not ready to read them!
    • If you have a library card, you can check out ebooks even when you’re not in the city. (I prefer paper books, but the Kindle is light and my brother bought it for me, and it’s nice to be able to preload a bunch of stuff instead of taking 9 books on a week-long trip.)
    • Theoretically, if you always manually downloaded your ebooks and kept your Kindle on wifi mode, your Kindle would not know to automatically return your library ebooks after the three week checkout period.
  • For a while, I considered doing a “rereading the canon” project and revisiting and critiquing books that I’d loved when I was younger, but so far that has just made me sad. (i.e. Being more aware of the colonialism, imperialism, and racism in Cat’s Cradle, rereading the passage in Fahrenheit 451 where Ray Bradbury calls “political correctness” the root of censorship.) Of course, it’s also nice to reread things and be able to recognize my own growth and evolution; and I also think it’s important and valuable to have a concrete understanding of how and where I’ve internalized problematic and or toxic messages, and to reflect on how my perspective has shifted and how I need to intentionally and consciously unlearn internalized oppression. Maybe this line of thought will grow into its own blog post.
  • I’ve also been thinking a lot about how writers who are not in oppressed groups can be better about writing diversity. I appreciate the work of We Need Diverse Books (and that they include disabled and queer characters as part of their definitions of diversity instead of solely focusing on race), but I also wish they were more critical and pushed back a little harder on problematic representations of diversity. There’s been a really awful trope (always, really, buy also it seems to be gaining popularity?) of cis writers revealing characters’ trans identity as a surprise plot twist, and it’s really, really gross and lazy to have that be the explanation of someone’s entire pathos. Or look at the anti-Blackness in Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians. Or male writers in general sometimes forgetting that women are people.
    • Roxane Gay spoke at UCLA on Monday (I literally left work in the middle of the afternoon, but I was still late, so my live tweets are mostly of her Q&A), and one of the many fantastic things she said was “Don’t be lazy when writing difference. … People who get excoriated for writing difference poorly don’t have good intentions.” That seems like a great starting place.
    • I have many, many more thoughts about the politics and burdens of representation and the importance of intersectional feminist analysis and also ~art~ and “censorship” and etc., etc. For now, I will say that reading writers of color obviously doesn’t eliminate the potential for problematic or oppressive writing, but being intentional about curating what I choose to read has let me enjoy reading time a lot more.

This is blog post length now, right? I will live you with some other faves from the last two years;

  • Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler — I’ve heard this described several times as “if The Hunger Games acknowledged that POC exist” and also if the writing and political analysis included an understanding of racism and intersecting systems of oppression, plus it’s based on post-apocalyptic LA and then the road up to Portland
  • On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee — future Baltimore, with race and class and science and community engineering
  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — hence reading everything she’s written; the intertextuality of the narrator’s blog posts is fucking brilliant, and also the way she talks about race and also there are hilarious moments
  • Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin — owned for years, read in preparation for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I started today, thank you LA Public Library! I did not have to wait as long as I thought I would.
  • Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, Sara Farizan — technically I gave this book a 3, but it is melodramatic queer YA featuring an awkward fat Persian high school girl, and it was very rewarding to read
  • Ash, Malinda Lo — a queer YA retelling of Cinderella! And it’s dark! Some passages are brilliant, and I loved the feel and pacing
  • The Painted Drum, Louise Erdrich — intergenerational Ojibwe family narrative with multiple kinds of storytelling woven in
  • The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri — Interpreter of Maladies is still my favorite, but have I mentioned that I love multigenerational interwoven family narratives? (see also Zadie Smith’s White Teeth)
  • Ten Little Indians, Sherman Alexie — see note on anti-Blackness above, and also I think some of Alexie’s writing is misogynistic, so this is with a big asterisk, but “Flight Patterns” and “Can I Get a Witness?” are two of the best post-9/11 short stories I’ve read.
  • Other short story collections: Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Yiyun Li; Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the Vona/Voices Writing Workshop; A Good Fall, Ha Jin
  • Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay — ❤ and now I have a signed copy!
  • chapbooks: Narinda Heng‘s what is precious and Tk Le’s The Labor of Longing (it’s not out yet but will be soon, and you will be amazed and cry many tears)

* Technically it’s current as of today, because I just started a new book on the bus ride home and have only read 22 pages. (I put a footnote in a caption just because I could.)

** (I had the same critique for how she addressed neurodivergence, though I feel less comfortable making that argument as an able-bodied person.) Also, the appendices include great resources.

*** Shout out to Beyoncé for making the waiting list for all of her books exponentially longer.

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One response

  1. re: I’ve also been thinking a lot about how writers who are not in oppressed groups can be better about writing diversity.

    If you haven’t, you might like reading these articles:
    http://midnightbreakfast.com/writing-people-of-color
    and
    http://www.racialicious.com/2009/05/20/write-what-you-know-limiting-or-authentic/

    the latter of which referred to this excellent post:
    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2009/03/13/mary-anne-mohanraj-gets-you-up-to-speed-part-ii/

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