Monday, December 15, 2008

How Diverse Are Your Bookshelves?

This July 2007 New York Times article, by Martha Southgate motivated me to make a commitment to read a broader range of work by authors of other ethnicities and cultures. It wasn't that I was consciously reading only white American authors, but Ms. Southgate made me realize I was missing out on a lot of great work I hadn't heard of.

Pakistani writer and blogger, Usman Rafi recommended The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid and Snow, by Orphan Pamuk and Tim Hallinan, blogger and author of, most recently, The Fourth Watcher recommended Twinkle Twinkle, by Kaori Ekuni and Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto.

I'd read Denver writer Carleen Brice's superb debut novel Orange Mint and Honey and I've got her second novel, Children of the Waters on pre-order. You can read an excerpt here. I heard about Boulder author Kim Reid's memoir, No Place Safe, the 2008 Colorado Book Awards winner in creative non-fiction, through publicist Bella Stander's Literary Ladies Luncheon. For the most part, I'd only read the work of black authors I'd met (either in person or on line) or I'd read the work of very famous black authors.

It wasn't until Carleen Brice declared December "National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black" month that I decided to revisit my goal of reading more broadly to see how I did.

Carleen's new blog (you may know her from her blog, The Pajama Gardener) is White Readers Meet Black Authors and people are talking about it all over the internet. New York Magazine placed National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month on the brilliant side of their approval matrix.

This very funny video puts a tongue and cheek spin on the project.

I went through my bookshelves to see how many books I've got by non-white authors. It's not as easy to figure out as I thought it would be. My goal to read more widely included black authors, as well as Middle Eastern, Asian and Latino authors. If you look at the picture of me reading Martha Southgate's, Third Girl From the Left you'll see two piles of books on the shelf behind me and one on the shelf below that one.

The double stack is my collection of books by black authors; some African-American, some British, some from the Caribbean and some African and the smaller pile has Middle Eastern and Asian authors.

I didn't fare as well in the Latino category; however, my favorite lit-blogger, Scott Esposito, regularly reviews books in translation at Conversational Reading and he features them in The Quarterly Conversation. Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives and 2666 are on my Christmas wish list.

In addition to Carleen Brice and Kim Reid's books, I've read some notable novels by black authors this year, including Leaving Atlanta, by Tayari Jones, The Fall of Rome, by Martha Southgate and Like Trees, Walking by Ravi Howard. I recommend all of these fine works of literary fiction.

Whether literary or genre fiction is your preference, take a look at some of the recommendations at White Readers Meet Black Authors and join in the discussion.

What recommendations do you have when it comes to reading authors of another race or culture? What's on your wish list?


Carleen Brice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carleen Brice said...

Oops! Had the link wrong!
Thanks Lisa for the shout-out. I've got a post up tomorrow linking to blogger Alisa Alering, who's been writing about reading more diversely too. You should definitely check her out. She's got good links. No need to wait for my new post:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Oh, nice to think about this. I have a fair number of books by other cultures/groups and I have to admit a lot comes from being in a book group. We tend to pick books from other cultures more often than not. Left to my own choices in reading, it might not be as diverse.

Anonymous said...

As always, I'm astounded by the tonnes of books you go through. My book shelves are pretty diverse. I love American authors, but always have books from all over South Asia, or Middle East. The missing link is likely to be China.

Riss said...

I have to agree with Usman that Snow is pretty good. My goal is to read it in Turkish but that's going to take me ages. Hehe. He's had a few other good ones as well. Admittedly I almost kinda like Paulo Cohelo's work...I'd love to read it in the original language but the translations are good and the work is entertaining if not entirely amazing. I'm sure others would beg to differ. I have a few others but I don't have my books in front of me right. My wish list would be to find more japanese authors, try several of the black author books you've listed and find a book on south african or african myths and tales as told by a native.

Anonymous said...

Yes Riss. I do think Pamuk's MY NAME IS RED is a great book, better than SNOW.
But I have his other book BLACK on TBR list as well as Pakistani author Muhammad hanif's THE CASE OF THE EXPLODING MANGOES. That got short listed for a booker. I read an excerpt and it is hilarious, considering the topic.

Larramie said...

You look comfortable there, Lisa, and your diversity in cultures and ethnic authors is astounding BUT here's my dilemma. First and foremost I'd like to support American least for now. And Carleen's site furthers that cause.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've still got a few James Baldwin books to read. He's one of my favorite authors, black or white or otherwise. I've been doling his works out slowly to myself. I also have a book by Farrah Rochon to read. I don't actualy kjow the ethnicity of many writers I read. Never seemed important to me. I do read a fair amount of nonfiction from across the world, but less so in fiction.

Sustenance Scout said...

OMG this discussion is a feast, Lisa! So many new titles to add to the TBR list. I'm in the middle of SNOW (and yes, Riss, I'm incredibly impressed by your ability to read in multiple languages but this one would be a tome to tackle in Turkish, I imagine; I'm enjoying it but sloooowwwwly); Charles, James Baldwin is a long-time favorite of mine; Riss, Paulo Cohelo is a new favorite. Lisa, I've heard of that Ravi Howard book and now it'll be moved up higher on my list. So glad it's a gem; I love the title.

Carleen, see what you've started?! K.

p.s. Lisa, love the photo!!

Steve Malley said...

I'm a big fan of Baldwin, too. Also his contemporary Zora Neal Hurston. Looking around the shelves a bit I also see ALice Walker and Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe and a couple translations of the Koran. Steven Barnes and other sf/f authors of color sit on the shelves in the study, but it's early and I need coffee.

I've been keen to try the whole Hispanic YA thing, but those titles rarely show up on NZ's shelves.

Hm, speaking of NZ, Alan Duff is a Maori author well worth checking out!

Adalia said...

I read the books I do because I like them, regardless of the author's race. Reading books by authors of different races in an effort to expand literary diversity seems strange to me. It's as if you were saying that race is the great divider here and that racial and cultural differences = diversity, which is obviously not true. An analogy would be like those commercials you see every once in a while where there is a perfectly 1:1:1:1:1 ratio of blacks, whites, asians, hispanics, native american, etc. Because true differences are due to skin color, apparently. I do realize that different races have different cultures which can give you unique perspectives in novels or present different styles of writing, but mightn't an Asian writer have similar kinds of experiences and style as a white one? And what if that Asian writer happenened to identify more with American culture, rather than the culture you thought? I can understand your intent, which I think is to expose yourself to different things, but I am not sure this is the ideal way to go about it. I also didn't find the video very funny - it was actually quite condescending in a few places. There ARE a few of us out here who do realize talented contemporary black authors do exist, so the talking down to your audience? Not necessary. I don't mean to offend, but wanted to offer up some food for thought about how this entry might be viewed by others.

Lisa said...

Carleen, Anytime :) You're getting some really good synergy and discussion going with the new blog. I spent quite a while last night checking out the blog's followers and found lots of interesting people and posts.

Patti, I have an odd tendency to gravitate toward books by old white Jewish male authors, or academics at ivy league colleges. I have nothing in common with those stories, so it's a mystery to me why I read one after the other if I don't remember to look around and try something new.

Usman, You read very widely and I wish more work was more easily accessible to you. You've always got great recommendations about books I'd never find on my own. One of these days Amazon will ship to Pakistan :)

Riss, Holy cow -- you impress me more every day, girl! Paolo Cohelo is another author I've had an irrational resistance to (sort of like THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, which I ended up loving). Moonrat has some great reviews on Asian fiction at The Book Book you may want to check out. Have you read any Haruki Murakami yet? I think you'd really like him.

Usman, Now you just made me add THE CASE OF THE EXPLODING MANGOES to my wish list. It sounds terrific.

Larramie, So many books, so little time! That is always the problem, isn't it?

Charles, The ethnicity of the author is irrelevant unless race or ethnicity is obvious or integral to the characters and story and in lots of books, that is the case. It certainly the case with Baldwin's work. With other books, it's irrelevant to the story. I do like to read stories told from the perspective of someone who's had a completely different life experience (either in this country or another)from mine because of ethnicity.

Karen, I keep finding new titles at Carleen's :) I just read the Ravi Howard last week and it was excellent. It was one of my monthly signed first editions from Odyssey book club and I had it in the stack for close to a year before I got to it.

Steve, I hadn't heard of anybody on your list beyond Baldwin, Hurston and Morrison. I did see the film adaptation of ONCE WERE WARRIORS and I also saw THE PIANO again recently (why does Harvey Keitel suddenly look so much better on the second viewing more than 10 years later?) and it made me curious about the novel by Jane Mander, who was from New Zealand. I wish you had easier access to books there too!

Alice, I'm so glad you commented here. I'm not sure I can buy that a person can read any book without being aware of the author's race (unless it's science fiction or fantasy or a genre where the culture doesn't play into the story at all). I'm also not interested in books that sprinkle a mix of people in for the sake of the appearance of a diverse cast of characters. I'm not sure I agree with you on your assessment about the differences between cultures either here in America or around the world. How would you define diversity, or more specifically, literary diversity?

There's no question that my experience of growing up white in America was different than it would have been if I'd been black, native American or an immigrant or the child of immigrants and it may have been enormously different, depending on the time frame and the part of the country. Because I was in the military for quite a few years, I worked and socialized with probably a much more ethnically and geographically diverse group of people than most and our differences go far beyond skin color.

Our experiences and the culture to which we belong or from where we've come shape the stories we have to tell. My experiences are uniquely my own and there are obviously regional and generational differences between white people too.

What busing in Boston in the 70's was like for both black and white students isn't something a 12 year old of any race could relate to in this country today, just as living in America and in particular, the south in the 40's, 50's and 60's is something most of us have no clue about, unless we lived through it.

A writer of any ethnicity might identify entirely with American culture and ethnicity may not be apparent at all in the characters or story. But based on most (not all) of the books I've chosen to read, that's not usually the case. People do have very different American experiences depending on what they look like and how the culture at large perceives them and quite a few choose to write novels that focus on those themes. I enjoy those books the most because they provide me with insights I'd never otherwise have.

But as I said in my post, my interest isn't only American writers. I've read a lot of books in translation set in other countries too. If reading broadly from the works of people who have stories to tell that incorporate race and culture isn't the ideal way to try to understand a different perspective, what do you think is? I'm curious to know why seeking out good fiction (I'm not grabbing any random book just because the author is black or Pakistani) by authors from other cultures isn't a good thing, if I'm understanding you.

You haven't offended me at all and I appreciate your honesty. I'm just not sure I understand your objection.

Sustenance Scout said...

Another amazing facet of this discussion. Alice, I'm glad you brought up your concerns; they're similar to what I heard recently from my husband, who's from a mixed-race background. At first he considered the idea of Carleen's video condescending, but when he watched it through to the laughter at the end (which reinforces Carleen's tongue-in-cheek intent) he agreed the entire video makes a good point: Regardless of a reader's heritage, he/she should not hesitate to explore books by people of other backgrounds if he/she is interested in doing so. While many readers are fully aware of the wide range of fantastic contemporary authors, some do not even consider them for multiple reasons, most of which are not discriminatory. Perhaps they assume they wouldn't enjoy reading about the experience of a young black girl whose mother was an investigator in the Atlanta child murders of the 1970s. Perhaps they assume they wouldn't relate to a young Chinese woman who lived and died hundreds of years ago and returned to her world as a troubled ghost. But good writing is good writing, and authors of all backgrounds who eloquently portray strong characters and their life-changing conflicts produce stories that touch all of us simply because we're all human. THAT's the message of Carleen's video and of Lisa's post, I believe. The goal is not to insult anyone or to imply that awareness of different writers' racial and/or cultural backgrounds is necessary to the reading and enjoyment of their work. But I think to remain blind to the forces that compelled a writer to write a stunning book is to miss out on intriguing aspects of the book's creation that may make it even more enjoyable to read, even more fascinating to contemplate, and even more memorable.

Vesper said...

A very interesting idea and a great post to promote it. So lovely seeing you in front of some of your books! :-)

I find the South-American authors fascinating: Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernesto Sabato, Adolfo Bioy Casares.
Also, there are Belgians that I love to read, like Michel de Ghelderode or Jean Ray.
Marguerite Duras is another author I appreciate very much.

Color Online said...

If you're interested in learning about more writers of color, I invite you to check out Color Online or my virtual bookshelf at Black-Eyed Susans. I run a lit group for young women and we focus on women of color. I want our girls to read books by women who look like them and whose experiences mirror our girls' aspirations and lives. I have the good fortune of running our community library and I'm proud to say our collection is a great micro United Nations. My aim is to have something representing every country and ethnicity I can. I'm partial to women so shoot me. Our collection is roughly 90% women, too. So, if you want recommendations, I'm your sista. Holla at me.

I found your blog through Carleen's. Hope to hear from you.


Lisa said...

Karen, Yes, what you said! Great points all and I appreciate that you articulate them better than I did.

Vesper, I think Borges is going to be in my not too distant future. I keep stumbling over references to him and curiosity is getting to me. Thanks for the great recommendations.

Susan, Thank you so much for stopping in and passing along your site information. I've just been browsing both of your sites and will definitely be back. Lots of great recommendations and posts. said...

To read much and different things is cool! I also try to get acqquainted with different styles and writers. The last book I downloaded from rapidshare was Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - in these 4 lines the smal poem contains so much wisdom!

ken said...


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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf