I feel like I’ve come to diverse reading later than most. It was only after starting my Bookstagram account, working on a Book Festival, and my painful journey through graduate school that I’ve become aware of the issues of representation in books and publishing. I am grateful for this new awareness and proud of how I continue becoming more intentional with my reading choices. But lately I’ve come to a startling realization: reading diverse books is difficult for me! Sometimes when I see a work by a marginalized author or perspective, I won’t want to read it even if it sounds interesting. Horribly, there are some days when I think I don’t want to read diverse books anymore! In this post I’m going to explore why I think I am burning out.
MY EARLY READING LIFE
When I first started reading I obsessed over books by Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit, L. M. Montgomery, Judy Blume, Louis Sachar, Edward Eager, and many more. I started reading before Harry Potter books existed, if you can imagine such a world. I loved reading because it gave me a fun escape, an activity that pulled me out of myself.
By middle school I felt bored with “kid’s stuff” and ventured out of the children’s section (YA didn’t really exist back then). Some of the first adult fiction I remember reading included “The Princess Bride“, “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe“, “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood“, “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “The Lord of the Rings“. An odd list, but I was just picking up whatever was featured and popular.
Looking back it is now painfully obvious that 99% of the books I read were written by white authors and featured only white characters.
Despite the lack of diversity, I LOVED the books I read as a kid and young adult. I adored E. Nesbit’s Psammead (has anyone watched the BBC series?), giggled over Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s cures, and found my love of historical fantasy from Elizabeth Marie Pope. I am forever indebted to Lord of the Rings for introducing me to the world of high fantasy.
But I can’t ignore the disparity in my reading life and that it came at a huge cost to myself and others. I internalized many harmful messages from this reading experience, like how heroes/main characters can only be white. I also learned that people like me and experiences like mine are not supposed to be in books. I learned that U.S. culture expects people like me to be invisible.
MY READING LIFE NOW
To address this disparity I am more intentional about what I read. And it’s an exciting time to be a reader! There are so many books available now that I would’ve loved to read as a kid. When I first started down this path two years ago, my enthusiasm made me believe I wouldn’t experience any difficulties with diverse reading. Foolishly, I thought my reading life would be the same.
My wake-up call was reading The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo last summer.
Up until the Poet X, the majority of my YA experiences had been reading about white girls in nuclear families with situations and struggles completely different from my own. I vaguely remember plot lines centering around white girls trying to convince their parents to like their new boyfriend, not getting the homeroom teacher they wanted, or being annoyingly precocious in the classroom. These were always fun reads, but hardly anything resonated with me.
But with The Poet X my heart, mind, and soul went through a blender. My friend lent it to me because she loved it and thought I would love it too. And I did. But seeing so much of my own experience in the story made reading that book incredibly painful. Up until that point, I was used to being completely invisible in literature. I wasn’t prepared to be so moved and feel so heard through a book. It gave me the weird experience of wanting to keep reading and wanting to throw the book as far away from myself as possible. That continues to describe my experiences with diverse reads.
3 REASONS DIVERSE BOOKS ARE DIFFICULT TO READ
Don’t get me wrong, I love reading diverse books and I’m so grateful to see more diversity on our shelves. Reading diversely has been instrumental in my personal growth and I know I am becoming a stronger, more confident person because of them. But lately I find myself longing to retreat into my favorite BBC literary adaptations and never return. So what’s going on? Here are 3 reasons why I think I’m struggling with diverse reading:
Reason #1 – I expect reading to be a fun, feel-good activity
Until recently, I always expected my reading experiences to be comfortable. But diverse reads are not always fun and they make me uncomfortable more than they make me feel good. It is more common for me to sit with painful, conflicting emotions with diverse reads, and they don’t always provide a tidy sense of closure.
This doesn’t mean that the reading experience is bad, it’s just more complex and difficult than what I’m used to. In this sense, I think I have more growing to do as a reader and as a person. I need and want to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Although there’s nothing wrong with feel-good reads, diverse reads offer a valuable challenge that’s essential for my personal growth.
Reason #2 – Academic institutions don’t prioritize minority experiences or perspectives
In my K-12 education, white experiences were prioritized at the expense of other voices. In K-8 I remember my teachers reading only one book by an author of color that featured a non-white character (Bud, Not Buddy). Throughout 4 years of high school, we had only 5 books by non-white authors as required reading.
When I started graduate school, I thought I’d be entering more inclusive spaces. I now laugh at how naive I was! The vast majority of the texts in my MA program are also written by white authors. On most days it feels like the school’s leadership refuses to prioritize creating space for students of color in the classroom.
The institutions where we experience a decent chunk of our personal and professional development condition us to minimize or ignore anything outside of the dominant culture. I see this is a missed opportunity for students, educators, and our institutions. We are not taught how to sit with our differences or to prioritize sitting with differences, which means I must learn this on my own. And this is difficult, often painful work on the best of days.
Reason #3 – Diverse reads require more emotional energy
Lastly, diverse reading requires so much more energy from me. Sometimes it’s exhausting because I am delving into perspectives that require me to reassess how I understand myself or the world. This happens especially when I read something completely out of my range of experience.
Other times I am facing my own painful realities on the page. This is also tough to process, on multiple levels. Sometimes, just the feeling of validation after so many years of being taught assimilation and invisibility can be painful.
Diverse reading is a life-giving activity that engages my heart, mind, and soul. But it’s painful and exhausting work. So the emotional fallout after diverse reading can be brutal.
Have you had this experience? What do you think?