At the beginning of 2016 I set out to read only women of colour for a year and I had no idea how much of an impact it would have on me.
I started this challenge because I wanted to further my knowledge of different cultures and educate myself about how to see beyond my white privilege, by giving eyes and ears to different voices. In October 2015, when I was doing my annual month of reading only horror books, I realised that none of the four books I read were by writers of colour, and so I had a look at my bookshelf and was appalled by the lack of diversity there.
As a person who is passionate about women’s writing and women’s stories I decided to raise the bar on my challenge and to make it my new year’s resolution not only to read books by writers of colour but to make it just books by women of colour, to read the stories they have to tell, to see the world through their eyes.
I wasn’t sure where to start, to be honest. I had read the awesome suggestions by For Books Sake but I wanted more; I wanted a list to last a whole year, so I sent an email round to everyone at Foyles to gather some suggestions.
I was overwhelmed by the response and after a week my inbox was overflowing with emails from people from all the shops and departments. I was touched and very proud to work amongst such wonderful and knowledgeable people. And so I wrote all the suggestions on little pieces of paper, threw them all in a bag and picked one at random whenever I needed a new book to read.
Though I was pleased that reaching out to colleagues had been so successful, I was also aware that other people who would like to do the same as me would not have as many rich recommendations or such an easy time locating these types of books.
The fact is that unless a bookshop actively chooses to curate displays with books by writers of colour (which some booksellers do very well) you won’t find a great variety of these authors in the bestseller highlights and new releases, whether in bookshops, newspapers or magazine articles.
It would be an understatement to say that 2016 had its ups and downs when it came to diversity and equality, not only in world news but within the book industry. Arguments raged on about cultural appropriation; statistics published by the trade magazine, The Bookseller showed that only 6 in the 500 books on the bestseller charts were by a British writer from an ethnic minority; and World Book Day and World Book Night failed to include a single BAME author (Black Asian and Minority Ethnicities). As Nikesh Shukla writes about the World Book Night list ‘Having BAME writes will encourage more BAME readers to become givers or to take a book, but also it’ll show that, on lists, we belong just as much as everyone else.’
On the other hand, books such as the Man Booker Prize winner and Foyles Book of the Year The Sellout by Paul Beatty, the highly anticipated new Zadie Smith Swing Time and Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant have sold by the thousands, which goes to show that if publishers, reviewers and bookshops back these books and authors they’ll find British readers are hungry for a wide range of literary voices.
As an avid reader I had the best reading year in a long time. I embarked on this journey unsure of where it would take me and I loved it so much I’m determined to do something similar for 2017. I took a ride on a roller-coaster of emotions, from laughing at the witty writing of Lola Shoneyin, crying at stories of human survival by Kris Lee and Yaa Gyasi, feeling warm and mesmerised by Hiromi Kawakami’s love stories and confused and alive with Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s tale of sexuality and embodiment, but my greatest struggle came in October when looking for horror. As hard as I tried I could not find a book in print by a woman of colour.
Though Graveyard Shift Sisters, Women in Horror Month and Nightmare provide extensive lists of books and short stories, I haven’t been able to find the books in print, which was the point of my exercise. Many books that were published even as recently as two years ago are already out of print. But although I didn't fulfil my desire to read horror in the month of October, I focused on the fantastic array of speculative fiction out there.
By taking on this challenge I have been to Japan, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Cape Town, North Korea, South Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Canada, North West London, Harlem in New York and many other wonderful places, I have been shown around by locals, rather than visitors who write guide books, and let me tell you, it was one magnificent journey.
As a white woman I don’t claim to now understand the struggles and life experiences of women of colour, but I am certainly more aware of my privileged position in our society and I hope to use it to keep fighting for a more equal world.
As the person writing this blog, I think it’s imperative to acknowledge that this is just a reminder for other people like me to challenge themselves to incorporate writers of colour into their book piles and to make their lives richer for it. I do not in any way want to take up the space of fantastic people who speak from experience on the subject of diversity and discrimination, some of whose writings I have been introduced to in this last year. If you are looking for a great place to start I would recommend Nikesh Shukla, Brown Girl Reading, Media Diversified, Black Girl Nerds, The Asian Writer and For Books Sake, though there’s a lot more out there for me to discover still.
Why not challenge ourselves to make a difference?
I am going to make sure to write more staff picks for these books, I am going to continue to look out for diverse choices when it comes to my next read, I am going to give these books to friends and family and champion the diversity of our world and the written word. Are you with me?
My new year’s Resolution for 2017 will be to include books by men of colour and LGBTQI authors in my reading list too.
Leave a comment below if you’d like to share your suggestions for my 2017 reading list.