Broadening the mind: Your top 10 fiction – Diversity Edition

Yesterday I was tagged in one of those “list your favorite books” posts on Facebook. I almost always get tagged in those, which is fine, because that is generally the one thing everybody knows about me, I read like a fiend.

About 5 years ago, I was reading something about women writers and I had a reading epiphany. I realized my own reading choices were skewed almost entirely to White Male (Straight or Cisgender-Heterosexual if we want to be specific) authors. My favorites lists were predominately the same (proof: there is a Facebook note from 2009 where I named 15 books that will always stick with me. I’m astonished that 3 of those authors were women, but I may have written it just shortly after becoming aware of the disparity.)

Over the last 5 years, I’ve had an ongoing goal of balancing my reading choices. Let me tell you people, it is HARD. Books by men get most of the publicity, most of the endcaps, they dominate the “if you liked…” lists, especially in genre, which is where I spend at least half of my reading time.

I developed a method of searching for new reading material. I searched for recommendations from feminist blogs, when I skimmed new releases from my favorite publishers, I marked the ones written by women as “to check first,” I used Goodreads to find “Women Authored” lists. When browsing at the bookstore, if I ended up with a handful of exclusively straight white male authored books, I’d put them back and start over.

I still read a lot of books by men, but here’s the most interesting thing about my efforts to diversify my list: the quality of what I was reading went up. Way up. Not necessarily because the women were better writers than the men, (although some of them most assuredly were better than many of the bestsellers I’d previously read,) but because I was consciously selecting material that was more reflective of my values. I was reading fewer cliches, more interesting characters, more complex storylines.

I became less tolerant of poor writing, poor characterization and lazy worldbuilding. (Where are all the women?)

A couple of years ago, I decided that when people ask for a book recommendation, I would point them in the direction of a woman author. My husband calls this “reading activism,” and I’m okay with that. Why? Because everybody knows about (and has probably read) Ray Bradbury. But how many have heard of (much less read) Sheri Tepper, Elizabeth Moon, Kage Baker, Kelly Sue DeConnick?

It’s bigger than that.

About 2 years ago, I realized that there were other voices missing from my lists – my reading choices were still dominated by White, Cisgender/Heterosexual writers. It was time to make another change in the way I found my reading material. This change has been much harder. Because while there are plenty of books by women being produced by large publishers and sold everywhere, there are far fewer stories of diversity, or by people who didn’t fall into the “white straight people telling gendernormative stories featuring mostly men” category.

Ah, now I had a challenge.

So… back to yesterday. I got tagged to produce a list. “Name 10 of your favorite books.” That’s pretty general, yes? I decided to make it more specific: “Name 10 of your favorite books in the last 5 years WRITTEN BY WOMEN.” I thought, “this will be cool. I have a list of fantastic, brilliant novels that everybody should read, but probably some people have never even heard of!

I posted my list. I got a couple of good responses and then WHAM! yet another variation of “but MEN!” Seriously? I should have expected pushback. I didn’t. The sad thing about it is, I posted a diverse booklist, but the conversation, once again, became about LOOK AT THEM MEN! derailing the point of the list.

In my mind, my list was going to spark off a comment thread that looked like this:

“Have you read [insert fab book by woman]?”
“Check out [another fab book by woman of color]!”
“I read this [fab book by lesbian author] last year, you should too!”

In my dreams. Instead I got: It should only be about the ART, not [insert reductionist viewpoint skewed towards the white male power structure here]! Oh and my personal favorite that I haven’t heard one million times already, another variation of: Well Frankenstein, yeah. What a fluke it was by a woman. We shouldn’t think about that.

Yes we DAMN WELL SHOULD!

Because how much writing are we missing out on if we only listen to the voices of the prevailing power structure? How many ideas? What challenges to our worldview? What messages are we internalizing if all of our “most influential works” are written by people who exist in our exact same demographic?

I’m not okay with that. You shouldn’t be either.

So here’s a new challenge:

List 10 books you’ve read and enjoyed in the past 10 years. Include at least 5 women, 3 people of color, and 1 person of non-binary gender and/or sexual orientation other than heterosexual. You may overlap these categories. Do not include any books written by  someone who is all of these things: White, Male, Heterosexual, Cisgender (which means people whose gender identity matches up with the one they were assigned at birth.)

Those are your parameters.

If you cannot complete this list (two years ago, I probably couldn’t have,) post a partial list – as few or as many books as you can. Even if it is just one book. Everyone needs to start somewhere. Accept the challenge to change your reading habits and report back in one year, because I’m really curious to hear what else in your life has changed once you adjust what you are feeding your mind. This challenge is not meant to shame, it’s meant to be another tool to help all of us be more aware of voices that are not just the same as our own. It’s good for us to leave the echo chamber. PLEASE feel free to forward, share, tumbl and/or tag at will.

Here’s my list:

Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor
The Speed of Dark – Elizabeth Moon
Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi
Wicked – Gregory Maguire
Chasing Utopia – Nikki Giovanni (poetry)
The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell
Stories of Your Life – Ted Chiang (collection)
Tender Morsels – Margo Lanagan
Fingersmith – Sarah Waters

If you are new at this, I will be back later to post a short story version of the list to help you get started. Ta!