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Why you should care about the colour of your bookshelf

White books on white bookshelf
Written by M. Amelia Eikli

Have you ever proclaimed that you love reading everything? Take a closer look at your bookshelf and you might just find that you’re reading 50 shades of white. Mixing it up won’t just give your shelves more colour; it will make you a better writer, too.

When accused of not reading diversely, the kneejerk reaction of many is to defend themselves, to say, “I don’t care about the author, just about the work.” This is a mistake – and a misunderstanding. No one is suggesting that you consciously choose to read only white authors. But the bias of the publishing industry over the past 300 years makes it far more likely that you have read books by British and American white men than other demographics.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with these books. My writing life would have suffered if I hadn’t been exposed to Dickens, Lynch or Nabokov. It has less to do with skin colour than it has to do with a writer’s background and experiences. These authors see and explore the world from a white Western male perspective, and reading only these stories will cut you off from great nuance and understanding of the world.

Being a good writer is about seeing complexities, connections and truths. It is about developing an empathy so deep that you can show it in reverse, enabling your readers to identify with your characters. The more perspectives you expose yourself to, the deeper your understanding of the world around you will become, and the better you will be at creating worlds of your own.

Care about the shades and nuances

Develop a conscious relationship with what you read and by whom. Read books in translation that aren’t just Scandinavian crime fiction. Look for authors that are different to you. Read women authors, LGBTQ+ authors, authors with disabilities, authors who are younger than you and older than you, and from different sociocultural backgrounds than you.

Suggestions:

  • The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall
  • Purge, Sofi Oksanen

Care about who’s telling the story

What do Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Secret Life of Bees and The Help have in common? They all feature African-American characters written by white authors. If we read to better understand the world around us and the experiences of others, it’s easy to see that reading about diverse characters is not enough. Look for books where the authors themselves come from a different background than you, and therefore have an insider’s understanding of the complexities they write about.

Suggestions:

  • The Ungderground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
  • The Colour Purple, Alice Walker
  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Don’t think in black and white

A trap people often fall into when talking about reading diversely is thinking that you should read more black authors as opposed to white authors, more female authors as opposed to male authors, and so on. But the world does not operate in binaries, and the best way to embrace it all is to explore. Explore the differences between African-American authors and authors from a variety of African countries. Explore Asian and Middle-Eastern authors, and authors of different gender identities, sociocultural backgrounds and ages.

Suggestions:

Spin a globe and pick a country at random, google what authors from that country you can find in translation. Ask for recommendations on forums and pages dedicated to specific life experiences. Read broadly, ask questions.

Challenge yourself

For a week, a month, a year, read diversely. Look for the stories you haven’t heard told before. Your writing will thank you for it. So will your heart.

Photo credit: iStock.com/Auris

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