By Shahnaz Radjy
At the beginning of last year, I went on a modern-day quest of sorts. I realized, with a bit of a shock, that I was reading primarily white authors. It surprised me because I come from a mixed background – my father is Iranian, my mother Bolivian, and I grew up in Switzerland. I have always been around people from different nationalities, cultures, and walks of life.
And yet, it seemed I was limiting my literary experience to only a sliver of what the world has to offer.
Remembering a video, I saw years ago about there being more that brings us together than not, I decided that it was time to use my love of books to widen my horizons. I wanted to learn more about different cultures, and also appreciate anything I might have in common with those who at first glance seem diametrically different.
Diversifying Your Reading List
Everyone has their approach to building their reading list. I use GoodReads to keep track of my reading wish-list as well as what I’ve read. See, I’m a sucker for challenges, so my self-imposed goal of reading 52 books for the second year in a row is my incentive to keep a note of books I’ve read – and it works! In 2019, I got through 23k pages across 68 books.
To diversify my reading list, I used four primary methods:
- Googling “best Latino authors” and adding their books to my wish-list if the descriptions intrigued me
- Paying a bit more attention to Twitter to see if I came across any Asian, African, or Latino authors that appealed to me
- Talking to friends about it, and signing up for “The Required Reading List“ a once-a-month book recommendation curated by Bree Turner in 2019
- Asking the Facebook “hive” for suggestions, on my profile as well as in a few writers’ groups
The range of recommendations I added to my GoodReads “want to read” shelf was nothing short of impressive. Memoirs, short stories, sci-fi, young adult urban dystopias, fiction, fiction written as slam poetry… it is now all at my proverbial fingertips!
First Impressions, Because We Know They Matter
A year in, it seems crazy that this hasn’t been my modus operandi all along. In some cases, reading a book by an Asian, Latino, or African author may seem like the same thing as reading a similar story not written by them. It isn’t.
While an author's point of view or perspective is hard to explain, I believe that all of the writers at Two Drops of Ink will understand – your experience colors everything you produce. Click To Tweet
Even if you write a simple children’s story (which are, in fact, anything but simple), your life will seep through the words.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, for instance, is a coming of age story of a young Latina. There are cultural elements to her upbringing, of course, that are part of the tapestry of her being. The most striking aspect of the book, however, is that each chapter was a slam poetry reading.
In other cases, the beginning of a story will feel uncomfortable and foreign to me until a filter I never even realized existed becomes like a borrowed pair of colored sunglasses. At some point, it clicks. That’s when my understanding of other people’s experiences, my empathy, my ability to write different characters, level up.
Reading: A Writing and Life Hack
You can collect lessons, tools, ideas, and so much more from everything you read. A sub-hack is that while you can buy all these books to read in print or on your Kindle, you can also keep it budget-friendly by joining a library. For instance, the New York Public Library has a few apps such as SimplyE or Libby, that you can use to access tens of thousands of titles for free or close enough.
One example of how reading diverse works has inspired me is Nicole Cheung’s All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir, about her growing up adopted in a white household after being born to Korean parents (I am grossly oversimplifying).
Another example is There There by Tommy Orange, a work of fiction building on history and real experiences of Native Americans living in the United States of America (USA) today.
Both blew my mind in very different ways.
Beyond the narratives, the writing styles were fascinating, with Cheung making it feel like a casual conversation. In contrast, Orange alternated points of view and weaved together different characters’ stories into a single tale of what it means to figure life out while craving that feeling of fitting in (again, I am oversimplifying).
Diversity in Reading Expands Your Perspectives and Perceptions
Why does it matter if we read “diverse” books or not? When asked, a few people told me they intentionally read diverse authors because they want to get a better feel for different perspectives and experiences. One friend said it helped him understand the world a bit more; another said reading Black American authors was essential for anyone living in the USA today. A third recommended books that have had a lasting impact on his views and life, all told through the lens of other cultures.
It is also true that reading diverse authors is just a part of what it means to read diverse books. What about authors with entirely different experiences or opinions and philosophies even if they are white? Educated by Tara Westover comes to mind. What about genres you tend to leave untouched?
To avoid over-complicating an already complex topic, I believe that the reasons to read diverse books are the same reasons anyone might have to read books:
- To pass the time
- Escape into literature
- Learn a new skill
- Inspire your writing
- Find solutions to problems
All of those reasons mean that you should do yourself the favor of sampling the full riches available today.
Who Wants Just Gray?
Imagine being a painter and only ever painting in shades of grey? Yes, Picasso had a blue phase, but he could do that because of all his experimenting with color and shapes and styles beforehand.
Also, that Facebook post on my profile? It only got 13 “likes” but 77 comments, probably one of my most engaging posts last year!
Diversity Colors Your World with a Different Lens
Diversity is an intrinsic element of our time and our world. You can ignore it, intentionally or by not being proactive about reading diverse books – but if you’ve made it this far, something tells me I should wish you a fun journey ahead. If you’re looking for easy ways to diversify your reading list, you can start with these recommendations:
- Reading Women Challenge for 2020,
- Washington Post’s list of 15 upcoming books you won’t be able to put down and that are written by women,
- Literary Hub Reading Lists such as their various “Best of the Decade” lists.
Bonus: Books recommended to me, or books I’ve read
- There There (Tommy Orange)
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N. K. Jemisin)
- Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi)
- The Poppy War (R. F. Kuang)
- The Poet X (Elizabeth Acevedo)
- All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir (Nicole Cheung)
- With the Fire on High (Elizabeth Acevedo)
- Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
- Dealing in Dreams (Lilliam Rivera)
- The Lies We Tell Ourselves (Robin Talley)
- Becoming (Michelle Obama)
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)
- Educated (Tara Westover)
- The Kiss Quotient (Helen Hoang)
- Leapfrog: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs (Nathalie Molino Nino)
- Refugee (Alan Gratz)
- A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Ishamel Beah)
- Married to a Bedouin (Marguerite van Geldermalsen)
Recommended (in no particular order)
- Men Without Women (Haruki Murakami)
- Wings of Ebony (J. Elle)
- The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros)
- The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende)
- Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood (Trevor Noah)
- Kindred (Octavia E. Butler)
- The Broken Earth series (N.K. Kemisin)
- The Dark Side of Love (Rafik Schami)
- The Kindness of Enemies (Leila Aboulela)
Help Me Diversify More
PS. If you have any books to recommend, please do so in the comment section below! You get extra points for diversity of authorship or content, but I am open to all favorites!
Shahnaz is an adventurer, foodie, bookworm, and horse-lover. She is a freelance writer based in Portugal as well as the co-founder of an eco-tourism project. Alumni of the World Economic Forum and the University of Pennsylvania. Shahnaz has lived in Geneva/Switzerland, Philadelphia/USA, La Paz/Bolivia, and New York/USA.
http://casabeatrix.pt/shows the adventurous spirit of Shahnaz and her husband, François. First, they traveled the world working on farms to hone their skills, and since 2017 have been in Portugal. They bought an old farm in 2018, and are turning their biggest dream into an unforgettable farm / nature / disconnect-to-reconnect experience we’d love to share with you.
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
You’ll get links to your web site, books, and share your words with our readers.