A few months back, I got into a heated discussion with a friend on the importance of diversity in literature. She was trying to make the point that a character’s skin color, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., doesn’t really matter and that readers will resonate with a character no matter the differences. I thought her argument was BS. And I told her as much in a nice and polite way.
I know there are naysayers, who believe that society is so focused on being politically correct and people who feel that we get offended so easily. I have friends who think like this. “It’s just a book,” they say. “Don’t try to stuff your views down our throats.”
I want to shake sense into these people, but that wouldn’t really do much for the discussion. So I tried to come up with some valid arguments.
Listen, whether you agree or not, diversity in literature is important. That’s a fact! It can’t be unproven. On an unconscious level, people looked for themselves in books (or any form of media really). When I was in high school, I went through a lot of emotional and psychological up and downs that I kept to myself. You know what saved me? Reading. And not just any book would do. I read books about characters who were going through similar problems as myself. I connected with the characters who struggled to piece together who they really were, because I was struggling to piece together who I really was. I read books with African-American protagonists, queer protagonists, protagonists who were suicidal, protagonists who didn’t feel as though they fit in with the world around them. I honestly don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for books like Annie on My Mind, The Hazelwood trilogy, Empress of the World, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and many, many, many other books. The characters in these books looked like me, sounded like me, thought thoughts similar to me. In short, they made me feel less alone in this world.
And sometimes I read about characters who I had nothing in common with. It made me emphatic and sensitive, which contrary to popular belief is not a bad thing! It made me realize that people are suffering all around the world. It made me think that, no matter what differences I have with a person, there is something that we can find common ground on. These books made me want to be a better person and bring a little less suffering to this world.
These books need to be publicized and celebrated like any other book. These books need to be placed in the hands of children who so desperately need them. One thing I learned from working in an elementary school last year is that many children are only being exposed to books in the school. We need to do our best to expose kids and teenagers (and adults too) to these books. I’m not sure who I mean when I say “We”. Though I think I’m talking about everyone in the community. We need to champion these books and the authors that write them. And we need to demand publishers put out stories featuring a Hispanic or a gender-fluid or a depressed or disabled main character. Or better yet, we need stories featuring main characters who are a combination of these identities because people are defined by more than one characteristic. And when we have books featuring these characters, we need to pass them out and hope that they touch the right person.
At first, it may not seem a big deal that the main character in an award-winning, best-selling novel is African-American or Asian or asexual or transgender or disabled. But that main character may become the hero to someone who really needs a hero. And if you’re that person who can’t find themselves reflected in a book, keeping looking because I know somewhere out there, someone has written about your experiences, your feelings, your emotions.