The Value of Discomfort

This year has seen a lot of first-time novelists being published, prompting some of the Book Riot team to label 2015 the year of the debut. But frankly, based on the little segment of the bookternet I follow, it’s the year of the uncomfortable book.

Uncomfortable books are not bad books. They are well-written, compelling books that focus on difficult, important topics. This year alone, I’ve read (or am reading):

These books have been heartbreaking and difficult. They cover topics that have been discussed in the public eye, but paired with a literary, mainstream transparency we’re seeing again in 2015.   There is incredible value in the narratives that challenge the status quo. Books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique helped spark the modern environmental and feminists movements, respectively.  I do not find them to be the sole cause or most critical factor – this isn’t about connecting discomfort to the big books myth. Uncomfortable books matter not because they can be big books involved in big movements. It’s the more intimate relationship between the book and the reader that carries worth.

Current events play out in full-color streaming media. There are hashtags, there are protests, and there are national news stories dissecting issues of access and power among marginalized, disenfranchised populations. We see racial, gender, and class inequality in Twitter fights and behind police tape. There are plenty of reasons to become an activist, plenty of ways to stand and lend your voice to a cause of your choosing – whether it’s featured on a #blacklivesmatter Buzzfeed listicle or a #coplivesmatter one.

I have written before about my own privilege and why diverse books matter. But part of my struggle – and one that perhaps other white, upper middle plus-class feminists share – is knowing when to STFU.

Seriously.

You can’t talk back to a book. You can’t argue with it. You can’t engage in dialog with it. You can do all of those things with people, hopefully after you’ve read the book or informed yourself on the topic of conversation. And sure, you might choose to “change the channel”: close the book, put it aside, never finish it, ignoring whatever message it had to offer.

Uncomfortable books give us space to explore the perspectives of others. They offer this without judgment, confronting us with realities of others. They may provide a spark for activism, for charitable giving, a shift in perception, or perhaps a stronger reinforcement of our own ideas and values (Lord, whenever I read an abstinence-only sex ed book). And if we are receptive, we have no option but to listen first.

Thanks for reading! Why do you think discomfort is valuable when we read?

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So You Want to Stop “Distancing the Other”: Recommended Reading

I’ve written before about the importance of diversity in literature (I, II, III), but I never offered any recommendations from my own reads. With the news lately (including events last week in my current locale), I think it is important to resume those conversations. I’ve put together a list of book recommendations meant to encourage conversation about politics of identity, stereotyping, and what I’ve called “distancing the other” in the past.

Some of the suggestions will be familiar, but I’m hoping there may be some new titles. If you have recommendations of your own, please leave them in the comments!

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Obligatory: How to Support the Ferguson Library

When I first conceptualized this list, I had two definite novels in mind. The very obvious (IMHO) choice, To Kill a Mockingbird.

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“Atticus–” said Jem bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”
“How could they do it, how could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it — seems that only children weep.”

The other book was The Dry Grass of August. I tend to see this on lists like “You read The Help, now what?”

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Spoilers: Set in the 1950s, a culminating event of the book involves the tragic death of the protagonist’s family’s black maid. There’s little hope of real justice. Later, a white boy dies from a faulty repair and the tragedy spurs the white community (and the protagonist’s family) into action.

Relevant.

I also thought of my favorite Grisham novel, A Time to Kill. If you’ve only seen the film, you’re doing yourself a disservice. This is Grisham at his best.

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When I was going through my Goodreads list, I stumbled upon a few books that I thought would be good additions.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is one of my favorite books. I listened to the audiobook, and at times it had me bawling in my car. It’s a beautiful story of young love, family, and identity set in Seattle in WWII.

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A wonderful supernatural genre pick about segregation, stereotypes, and extremism is Red Moon.

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You could also try out City of Stairs, which has a more mythical feel and explores themes of colonialism.

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And if you’re more into sci-fi, try Dark Eden.

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Obviously I can’t resist mentioning my favorite book of the year, The Girl in the Road. If you’ve felt like my suggestions above are too mainstream and you’re looking for an Atwood vide, give this a read. Perception plays a huge role in this book, so I feel like it fits well in the context of this list.

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Another one you may have missed is The Kitchen House, a tragic and touching period piece that explores the relationships of slave women and an indentured orphan. Class and social dynamics are significant.

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Running the Rift won the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Set in Rwanda on the cusp of civil war, it features gorgeous prose that captures the heartbreak of conflict.

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For YA fans, I’ll admit that I’m not quite on the up and up since I tend to pick rather mainstream options. However, I don’t think you can go wrong with Tamora Pierce’s series. I’m a personal fan of the Song of the Lioness Quartet, but the Circle of Magic series seems to be popular, too. I strongly suggest checking out the We Need Diverse Books website. They have some great resources for reading lists, and these holiday stocking stuffer graphics make book-buying super easy.

Since I’m just getting into comics and graphic novels, my only suggestion is – you guessed it – Brian K. Vaughan’s brilliant, imaginative Saga.

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Really, though: keep talking. Books are just one way to experience different perspectives other than your own. Have conversations, share experiences, and look beyond your limited perceptions.

Please, leave more suggestions and any feedback in the comments!

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“My Story Isn’t the Only One Worth Telling”: Why Diversity Matters, Part III

This series includes some of my favorite images from the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, author/blogger posts, and my own insights (obvi).

In Part III I discuss current initiatives and what we can do to avoid the “fetishization” of diversity.

Warning: ink (or…pixels?) will be spilled.

In Part II, I wrote about the danger of distance and raised questions about empathy and censorship. Today, I’d like to talk about current initiatives to promote diverse books, and what we can do – as writers and readers.

The organization First Book has an initiative called Stories for All, which aims to buy more books featuring diverse characters. This happens through purchase orders in the tens of thousands – a larger stake for publishers, and one that represents a more sizable market than the traditional classroom order. It’s an interesting solution, because it empowers a smaller group to band together and have a considerable market impact. Read more about the initiative here.

Over at the #weneeddiversebooks campaign headquarters, you can check out the summer reading series. It provides reading pathways for YA/children’s titles – a “like this? read that!” type feature. I love that it connects readers through familiar territory, but I have to ask – are we going about this the right way?

One of my favorite posts about diversity echoes the feelings I talked about in Part I. In “Why I’m Weary Diversity Will Be Reduced to a Fad,” Jill writes

We had our fair share of vampires, zombies, and now I’m ready for faeries and urban fantasy to curtsy off stage. What does that leave to be the next big thing? Please tell me we aren’t going to reduce diversity to a new trend….We cannot fetishize race, or describe their features and personalities with stereotypical characteristics. We must treat those things like clichés because they are. Describe characters – personal ticks, sins, hearts, souls, flaws – and make race secondary.

This is where I have trouble navigating. Is it inappropriate to point out diverse books because of the elements that makes them diverse? By identifying a text as a “diverse” read (in addition to or instead of a worthwhile or engaging read), are we setting up a “diversity sells” market? Or are we continuing the conversation about diverse literature by identifying new pathways to engage unfamiliar and/or disenfranchised readers? Personally, I lean more toward the latter – but I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Have more questions, answers, or reading suggestions? Leave me a comment!.

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“My Story Isn’t the Only One Worth Telling”: Why Diversity Matters, Part II

This series includes some of my favorite images from the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, author/blogger posts, and my own insights (obvi). In Part II I explain why diversity is just the tip of the iceberg in this conversation and include my own observations about the danger of “distancing ‘the other'” through culling the literary herd and censorship. Should be a pretty light read . Warning: ink (or…pixels?) will be spilled. In Part I, I discussed my personal and professional connection to #weneeddiversebooks, and why I value the initiative. I wrote,

I worry that without exposure to diverse experiences and populations, it’s too easy to take life at face value. Diverse characters question my view of the human experience. If I think everyone lives like me or faces the same obstacles as I do, I would have a narrow, limited view of life. Books show me a worldview other than my own, and make me think about life outside my little slice of the universe.

Let’s pick up that thread, but expand it just a touch. We often talk about the value diverse books have for underrepresented demographics, but as this HuffPost piece points out, “Seeing only white characters in books can turn children of color off of reading, but it also keeps white children from getting a clear picture of the world they live in.” tumblr_n59jh4bnpd1ta4uato1_1280 Limiting our exposure to people “like us” and reading books that reinforce our own worldview can have implications and consequences. For example, we may perceive experiences as shared, or assume there’s common ground when there isn’t. Even the Bible contradicts itself and includes differing perspectives of events – and that’s okay! tumblr_n4wvwffG3x1twp5c5o1_1280 People who live in a bubble – like I did, for the most part – can use books as a vehicle for seeing other lives and cultures; kids have an opportunity to recognize other problems and other sources of happiness. When you look at something solely from your POV, you’re limited by your own blinders – to plight, but also to joy. If those books aren’t available, that opportunity for understanding is limited. Without any kind of connection, we may distance the other.

“Distancing the other” is a phrase I encountered back in my Gender Studies days. In this post, I’m using it less as a physical descriptor (think pogroms) and more of a sociocultural one (enclaves) – though, I guess, the sociocultural could lead to the physical. It’s not quite xenophobia, but it is getting there.

If we only expose ourselves to things that reinforce our perceptions, we won’t know there can be a difference. We may not respect those with lives other than our own. We may issue judgment based on unrealistic expectations or perceptions. After all, you have a good life – so why shouldn’t someone else?

Going a step further – what happens when those kids grow up? What happens when they make choices beyond themselves? Voting, budgeting, leading – all acts of power (great or small), and all susceptible to biases created by our own constraints. tumblr_n5aay7hRDK1ta4uato1_1280 We can argue causality and correlation all day, but keep in mind that I’m not using this blog post to drag out statistics and quantifiably prove why diversity is a good thing (I left my high horse Metrics in the stable today). Frankly, I’m not sure myself – does a lack of diversity reinforce that xenophobia is acceptable, or does distancing the other create a lack of diversity? It gives rise to another “chicken or the egg” idea that I have, that I want to put out there for discussion and more research. It’s a tenuous claim made by someone who believes literature can be subjective and open to interpretation, and conversations about the role of literature may be subjective as well.

When we talk about diversity and distancing the other, I’ve seen few posts touch on censorship and banned books. However tiny, I think there’s something worth exploring in that conversation. We should be asking why we challenge books that make us uncomfortable. We should be asking why we push away books that lead to difficult conversations. We should respect that parents want to protect children from a harsh, cruel world, but we also have to acknowledge that sometimes in the desire to speak louder, we don’t just drown out the other voices – we silence them. tumblr_n4vlhuqGAj1ta4uato1_1280 Tune in tomorrow for Part III, a discussion of ongoing initiatives and avoiding the fetishization of diversity in literature.

Have more questions, answers, or flat-out refutations of the points above? The only things I censor are spam and comments that throw shade on my sweet style.

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“My Story Isn’t the Only One Worth Telling”: Why Diversity Matters, Part I

This series includes some of my favorite images from the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, author/blogger posts, and my own insights (obvi).

In Part I of the series I discuss why I value literary diversity and what the conversation means to me as author, reader, and, you know, human being.

Warning: ink (or…pixels?) will be spilled.

We need diversity!

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Aside: my mother is right; I wear sunglasses in too many pictures.

…cried the white, hetero, twenty-something privileged woman.

Chuck Wendig has a brilliant post about why a white male author actively joins the diversity conversation; go read it, if you haven’t.

I find myself in a similar position. I’m not joining this conversation because I am marginalized. Far from it. As Chuck describes,

…I wanna talk to more people. Not at more people. But as part of a two-way, we’re-all-at-the-same-table conversation. Even when I’m getting it wrong. And it always strikes me as ironic that science-fiction (HEY LOOK THE FUTURE) and fantasy (WE CAN MAKE UP ANYTHING WE WANT) are so frequently mired in the narrow Heteronormative White Dude paradigm. You can do anything you want in these worlds and yet somehow they end up always looking like the samey-samey worlds that came before them.

As a writer, I can be writing better characters – because to me, writing better characters encompasses crafting people who represent a variety of experiences and demographics. I don’t want to marginalize the conversation by saying I should write “more diverse characters.” That limits my range and the character’s range, where the character is unique because of his or her sexuality, color, or creed (Katie at Doing Dewey Decimal warns against this practice as well).  I want to strive to go beyond that.

I want to be a storyteller. I want to write with a thousand voices.

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I also want to acknowledge that I am not coming to this conversation as someone who feels marginalized in mainstream publishing.

I don’t feel the “white woman” demographic is missing in YA or general fiction. I don’t perceive underrepresentation: those voices aren’t missing from the pages.

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Or, to put it differently (and bluntly): I think it would be easy for a white girl or white woman to find a role model in a book.

I was lucky to be encouraged to read, to fall in love with books, to have parents with disposable income to buy any book I wanted. I have always been an avid reader. I got in trouble by missing instructions for class assignments, failing to respond during attendance, or being tucked away in the reading corner when I should have been taking a spelling quiz.

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I was the model student, unless you put a book in my hands. I met so many characters. I saw so many worlds. I escaped – not because I needed to, but because it was fun. It was a privilege afforded to me.

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I was lucky to be in advanced, non-traditional Reading, Language Arts, and English courses throughout K-12. We read some of the obligatory classics – Shakespeare and The Scarlet Letter and Cyrano de Bergerac. We also read Life of Pi (before it was a movie), In the House of the Spirits, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Beloved, Things Fall Apart, Siddhartha, Like Water for ChocolateTheir Eyes Were Watching God, and In the Time of the Butterflies.

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Through books, I got to see a sliver of the world (and imagined worlds, too). I am an only child, but I’ve always had books to give me a little taste of what it might be like to be someone other than myself.

To me, this is the real crux of diversity: it offers another window into a life experience. It means we see realities that aren’t our own – including problems we may never have to face. If I want to read about a privileged white girl lamenting that her parents don’t understand, and school is hard, and her crush doesn’t like her, I can just go back and read my LiveJournal archive.

I worry that without exposure to diverse experiences and populations, it’s too easy to take life at face value. Diverse characters question my view of the human experience. If I think everyone lives like me or faces the same obstacles as I do, I would have a narrow, limited view of life. Books show me a worldview other than my own, and make me think about life outside my little slice of the universe.

Tune in for Part II, a lofty analysis of “the other,” culling the literary herd, and censorship.

Join the conversation and leave a comment below!

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