My favorite writers are mostly (but not exclusively) women. When I was a kid, I wanted stories with girls in them. It was always all about the girl, for me. I loved the Prydain Chronicles for Eilonwy, not Taran. I loved Princess Leia, not Luke. As I see it now, I was hungry for girl heroes and, lucky me, I found them easily: Pippi Longstocking, Harriet the Spy, Meg Wallace, my books were full of them.
When the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag started trending on twitter, it offered a vivid picture of what it would be like if you were a kid with that hunger to see yourself in books but couldn’t find anybody like you. What if you are a girl who loves other girls but there are no stories about that at all in the library? What if you are a black kid who loves sci fi and every hero in every book you read is white? I don’t know what that feels like, but I can imagine. Junot Diaz has written about it, talking about how vampires don’t have any reflection in the mirror: “if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. …Part of what inspired me was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
We want and need to see ourselves in stories, of course, and at the same time reading gives us access to other selves and other lives. George Orwell had the great line (though he was talking about style, mainly) that “good prose is like a windowpane.” Not only a mirror reflecting ourselves, but each book a window with a view outside ourselves. A great writer lets us in, and if we as readers do our part and enter the story with our whole hearts, that is as close to being someone else as we will ever get.
But sometimes people really, really don’t want to understand what it might be like to be somebody else or to lead another life. For example: a lot of white people are getting really angry that black people are angry about Ferguson. Maybe we can never know exactly what happened leading up to the moment when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death, but we can and should know the America in which it happened, where young black men (or boys, like Tamir Rice) are getting shot (or choked, like Eric Garner) with terrifying frequency for doing not much of anything. If you really don’t understand the anger in Ferguson, you aren’t following the plot.
I understand the default white person position where racism doesn’t really seem like a thing, because that is the starting point for all white people. Maybe in school we learn about slavery in the United States, or the residential school system in Canada, or the Holocaust in Europe – an assortment of unthinkable atrocities dished out in history class – and everybody says how bad it was and it feels like the Terrible Past but we’re all cool now thank goodness. That’s a comfortable way to feel, and nobody living in the world today should feel that comfortable about the way things are. Since I’m throwing quotations around, here’s one from David Foster Wallace: “I had a teacher once who used to say good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
I can’t get over that line. I think it’s so true. If you were following the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag, you could see over and over people talking about how books saved their lives – the books that reflected them, the books that comforted them. But if you are, say, a white girl with every kind of good fortune growing up on the west coast of Canada, then you don’t need books to comfort or reflect you. I needed them to disturb me, to unsettle me, to offer windows into other selves and other lives and other realities. I needed them to wake me up and show me the world.
Junot Diaz talks about mirrors, George Orwell talks about windowpanes, and Kafka famously offers that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Honestly, I read mainly for fun. I don’t think to myself, “hmm, I need an axe for the frozen sea within me” – I just want to be drawn in and entertained. But if I had to list the books that have stayed with me the most, they would be the books that have disturbed me, that changed my thinking – the books that acted like an axe on my consciousness.
The truth is that we can’t ever know what it is like to be somebody else, to live another life outside our own skin. We can’t know anybody and we can’t truly be known – that’s just the way it is, being human in the world. When I hear white people shouting all this angry defensive stuff that boils down to the laughable-if-it-weren’t-so-horrible “no, YOU’RE racist!” I think that this stupid shit is what happens when white people refuse to believe that we don’t know, can’t know, and insist on the primacy and rightness and universality of our own narrow perspective. That insistence, that knee-jerk refusal to enter someone else’s story, to turn away from the lying mirror and look out the window, is where bigotry and hatred and resentment all begin. I think, probably naively, that these people need to sit down and read, just read about lives that are not theirs, written by authors who know differently.
It’s lonely and scary – not knowing and not being known. Empathy is knowing we can’t know, but trying anyway to share ourselves and to know others as well as we can. For me, this basic striving to know and be known has always come down to love and books. I’m sure there are other ways, but those are my particular fixes.
We Need Diverse Books has gone from a hashtag born of deep frustration to an incorporated passion-driven non-profit that I dearly hope is going to change the (white) face of publishing, and which you can check out (and support) here.
A story is a changeable thing and can be what you need it to be – whether a mirror, a window, an axe. It can show you yourself in the way that only those who love and know you best can ever show you yourself, and it can pry your heart wide open, let in the air and the world outside, shatter you, if you need to be shattered. Sometimes we do need to be shattered.