Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks Matters

sonali~ By Sonali Dev

Like so many of you who are reading this, I inhaled books as a child. And I don’t mean that just in terms of volume but in terms of depth. I didn’t just read the books, I crawled inside them. I burrowed inside the characters like an insidious, hungry thing and flailed out my limbs to don their very essence like one pushes into a greatcoat with a broken zipper and breaks through the arm and neck holes in full ownership. I ate these stories up from the inside out.

My little whitewashed room in our hundred-year old Mumbai apartment took turns transforming into everything from the halls of Pemberly to the turreted common rooms of Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and St. Claires. I loved Oliver Barrett and Father Ralph de Bricassart long before my love found a flesh and blood boy to inhabit.

In other words, before I was in college, I, a bonafide brown-skinned Indian girl growing up in urban India thinking in English, had been a lot of white people. And then one day I picked up M.M. Kaye’s Far Pavillions. Until then the people I became in books had names like Jane and Maggie and Cathy. To find a heroine who was called Anjulie, even though she thought of herself mostly as ‘Julie’ was an event so significant, it might have altered the course of my life. Now, Julie was a princess and she was half white so I was grasping at straws really, but she lived in towns and villages I recognized and wore silks and chiffons. And even though my wardrobe was mostly denim, Julie was unarguably Indian and she was in a book and somewhere in my head, an impossible thing became possible.

Then came Vikram Seth and his Suitable Boy. And there was Lata, who was not a princess but just your regular Indian girl with a crazy, overbearing, close-knit family, and she fell for a brown-eyed boy while browsing poetry in a Delhi bookstore (sigh), and the way I had fit into characters before that shifted and became not about travelling to lands far far away but about exploring where I came from and what that made me. The possibilities multiplied in my heart. The stories that I had spun for as long as I could remember became things that might find their way onto the pages of books that might actually make their way onto bookshelves. Somehow in finding myself in a book, I found the knowledge that what I had to say might interest someone other than me. It made me matter.

There’s been a lot of talk lately on social media about wanting diverse books. #WeNeedDiverseBooks is a call to arms that is long overdue. And even though discovering characters with my skin color empowered me to pick up the pen, that isn’t the real reason why I’m so overjoyed that this hashtag has coalesced its way into existence. The real reason for me jumping on this particular soapbox is what reading books from cultures different from mine did for me by letting me crawl into bodies and minds that should have seemed foreign but never did. That’s the thing about books, they are the only painless method of stripping away our skin and unifying us at a level where all we are is human.

Unfortunately, this is possibly also the reason why even today when our world is a swirl of color our books are still overwhelmingly white. Because white has come to signify a blanket of uniformity and relateability in our books. And it is unfair to a point of being almost tragic because that moment of “OMG, that is exactly how I feel!” is not a feeling that should be restricted only to a colored person upon experiencing the travails of white characters, but it is a feeling all races should be able to feel about other races without making it about the race. And not just race, but sexual orientation, heck, even religion and every other label we humans use to differentiate ourselves from each other while continuing to live lives populated by the exact same emotions.

But no matter how much we tweet about it, no one is going to give us more diverse books unless we buy the diverse books already out there. It’s called supply and demand –yet another glorious aspect of the human condition. The reason there is so little diversity in books is that it is so easy and enjoyable to read within the comfort zone created by the un-diverse books so plentifully available to us. And until we read outside our comfort zone, we will never grow the confines of that comfort zone, and the powers that be will have no market to feed.  So go out and buy a few diverse books, read them, maybe you’ll travel to fantastic and heartbreaking places. Or maybe you’ll find that hearts break in much the same way no matter who you are. And just to know that, to feel that, it might be worth it.

Sonali Dev’s first literary work was a play about mistaken identities performed at her neighborhood Diwali extravaganza in Mumbai. She was eight years old. Despite this early success, Sonali spent the next few decades getting degrees in architecture and written communication, migrating across the globe, and starting a family while writing for magazines and websites. With the advent of her first gray hair her mad love for telling stories returned full force, and she now combines it with her insights into Indian culture to conjure up stories that make a mad tangle with her life as supermom, domestic goddess, and world traveler. Sonali lives in the Chicago suburbs with her very patient and often amused husband and two teens who demand both patience and humor, and the world’s most perfect dog.
Sonali’s debut novel, A Bollywood Affair, will be available from Kensington in November 2014. To find out more please visit her at sonalidev.com

43 thoughts on “Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks Matters”

  1. I agree completely. This is why I decided to begin my own book blog. I was so tired of people talking about the same characters and the same story lines, over and over again. And I’m especially tired of reading about white-washed characters. I figured that there had to be others who felt the same as I did. I’m glad I read this article. #WeNeedDiverseBooks

  2. Sonali, wonderful post! I appreciate diversity in what I read. I read a lot (ok, mostly) historical romance set in either Regency or Victorian era high society. Most of the diversity, when it’s there, is usually set in Colonial India and it’s usually the hero who has been immersed in the local culture. I enjoy these forays into other cultures, and I find my curiosity pricked. I have, due to what I’m reading, looked up facts of culture, especially in a historical context. I know more about the colonization of India and its impact on native cultures than the impact of colonization on native cultures of North America because of satisfying my curiosity. I may never use what I learn, but it enriches me.
    As for diversity in background, I agree with Virginia. In popular historical romance, background characters, when described at all, are written as white males. But even as early as the 1700s, immigrants and freed slaves owned businesses or provided services in Britain. This is never written into the story and yes, I do notice the absence.

    1. Kym,
      Your comment is so dead on. I just finished The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho and it’s a great example of a historical with non-white characters (Malaysian heroine and Indian hero) who are professionals in London in the very early 1900s. Just the most delightful book.

      I’d love recommendations of colonial books with Indian characters.

      Thanks for commenting,

  3. Really interesting and true. When reading it, I remembered when a goodreads friend, Ren, an indonesian book-lover, wrote about Dali (a character in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews), and about the wonder and joy to find an indonesian character in a book.
    It’s so true that we have to step outside our comfort-zone.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Marinella,

      It is delightful to find a character of your race in a book (or tv and movies) when you’ve been starving for it. It really does feel like being seen.

      I had one writer come up to me after the RWA Golden Heart awards in 2013 when I was a finalist and she hugged me and told me what it meant to see a book with someone like her on the jumbotron. It is a moment I’ll cherish forever.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

  4. Even I have mostly Harliquen books I enjoy different cultures that are written about. It does not matter if they are not of the culture or color that I am. Some of these books have been informative about how other cultures live and their differences from mine.

  5. YES. After the BookCon fiasco in May of this year and Ellen Oh’s #weneeddiversebooks, there’s been a lot more talk about this and I hope some real change is happening, in bookclubs and publishing houses. But we also need to write diverse books. Not just a main character who is a little brown (and then struggles with some trope like being the smart one or having a drug dealer dad or the alcoholic mom), but truly diverse characters and settings. Characters who don’t just walk onto a Caucasian stage to add a little color, to be the “red shirt” in our fantasy land or the funny, urban black friend in our romcom.
    A few years ago, there was a push for more women in fiction. Of course there was talk about how many main characters were women, but the posts also called for us to watch our secondary characters, watch the walk-on parts of the mechanics and dentists and bankers and policemen. They asked us to count the female faces in the background of our books because although women are 50% of the population, we’re something like 15% of background faces in fiction, almost invisible.
    I think the same concept needs to be applied with characters of color. One main character who has an ethnic last name is not enough. We need to look into the background, and make we haven’t got an all male, all white cast of secondary characters. Let’s widen the spectrum of color in our novels so the whole book is diverse, richer and broader and deeper than what we usually see.
    (As for Miss Jane, she was pushing the boundaries quite a lot for her time. She may seem very white and sedate now, of course. But especially in Northanger Abbey she brought topics like colonialism and racism into romance, something unheard of until Mrs. Gaskell came along.)
    But in my opinion, it won’t be as much the readers who change what is out there, but the writers. (Let’s not get into the bias in traditional publishing, so let’s just say if we write it, it will appear in a book. 🙂 IF we write diverse books, readers will find them. but if we continue to write the same things we’ve read and what we’re familiar with, we’re bringing up a whole new generation on the same narrow viewpoint.
    Writing diversely will make diverse readers, which will in turn make more diverse writers. But it has to start somewhere.
    Anyway, lovely thoughts on diversity in reading and writing and books.
    P.S. What do you think of publishing lines directing at one color, like Kimani? Do you think this is helpful or unhelpful in bringing diverse books to readers everywhere? I thought it was like literary segregation, perpetuating the idea that we need to read in our comfort zone, but some of my writer friends of color say they’re very supportive of segregated fiction lines.

    1. Hi Virginia, you are absolutely right when we write diverse, diverse books will appear on the shelves (virtual and real) and the entire cyclical nature of what we write and what people read will sort itself out too.

      As for the segregation in books. It would only be fair to use that word, given its history, if someone restricts the readership and says only people of a certain color can read them. But that’s not the case. Lines like Kimani, in my opinion, provide and grow a market for readers who are missing the experience of reading inside of their own culture. As I say in this post, there is great value to that, just as there is value to reading inside a different culture. The dream is for a day when all publishing (and the world) is a balanced mix of culture and color and ‘lines’ are just a roadmap to find what we are looking for. And as you said, we writers can help make that happen.

      Thanks so much for this excellent discussion,

  6. Beautiful! I really need to put more effort into reading outside of the comfort zone. I never really thought to do so. Thank you!

    1. Hi Heather, It’s not just you. We all tend to read in our comfort zone. I sometimes find that the first few chapters are kind of hard when I read in a different culture and then once my brain adjusts to it, it’s actually so great to find myself so immersed in it.

      Thanks so much for reading.


  7. “…that moment of “OMG, that is exactly how I feel!” is not a feeling that should be restricted only to a colored person upon experiencing the travails of white characters, but it is a feeling all races should be able to feel about other races without making it about the race.”
    Or sexual orientation or religion or even age. There is some excellent literature written for young people by authors of color. I use those books to teach my 10 year old students to be critical thinkers, to be empathetic, and broaden their book choices. And even though I’m part of a mixed race marriage and live and work in a diverse neighborhood, I don’t think I choose to read from a diverse enough perspective. Some of that is just my own ignorance. I read lots of historical fiction and from lots of other sub-genres. But, aside from your book, Sonali, what other authors of multi-cultural romance would you recommend?

    1. Hi Patty,

      Gosh, there aren’t nearly enough. There’s Shoban Bantwal who writes about the Indian diaspora and Suliekha Snyder who writes Bollywood romance that’s hot. Mingmei Yip and Jeannie Lin who write in the Chinese culture. My friend, Piper Huguley writes African American historicals. Dyanne Davis writes contemporary romance with African American characters. Sherry Thomas just wrote her first book based partially in China after all those gorgeous British historicals.
      I’m part of a group blog called sarisandstories.com and we are 7 South Asian authors who blog every week about being romance writers who are South Asian women. There’s always all sorts of recommendations there.
      Thanks for visiting!

  8. I love this post and feel like I came of age reading “A Suitable Boy” (it was THE book Hong Kong expats were reading in the mid-90s). I skipped studying for my final exams and instead burrowed away in the library reading “The Raj Quartet”. As much as we need diverse books for adults, I think it’s even more crucial to give that to our children. They deserve to grow up reading books that reflect the world, not just one small part of it. In any case, I cannot wait to read your book and have scheduled November around your launch!

    1. Susan! You are so kind! I haven’t read the Raj Quartet (I will now) but Suitable Boy is one of those books that I open every now and again to read one paragraph (because I just love the writing so much) and then I end up losing few hours because I can’t put it down.
      It has been hard finding books with diverse characters for my kids who are both avid readers. I wish they’d had more choices.
      Cannot wait to see you again.

  9. Thank you for this interesting post. I used to read from many cultures, but I have gotten rather lazy with my reading lately. Good reminder!

  10. Great blog entry, Sonali! I love the point about how heartbreak feels the same no matter where / when you are – it’s the universality of emotional journeys that makes reading such a joy. (Broken-zippered coat! What a gorgeous image.)

  11. Brilliant post. I especially loved the part where you said, “That’s the thing about books, they are the only painless method of stripping away our skin and unifying us at a level where all we are is human.” What a perfect way to capture one of the best things about reading and writing fiction.

  12. What a great post!

    My first book for Harlequin’s Love Inspired (Saving Gracie, 2/13) featured a Mexican immigrant heroine trying to strengthen her community through her school providing English as a Second Language training. The character of Gracie was directly influenced by my experiences growing up in Texas and on the Texas/Mexico border, where multiculturalism has always been a part of our history–see the history of the Six Flags of Texas. People from all over the world have shaped our culture and still do.

    Some readers actually didn’t take to the multicultural aspect, and let me know. But overwhelmingly, readers connected with Gracie and her independent spirit and the vibrant community around her. I’m excited that LI and readers alike have asked for her sister Gloria’s story and hope that I’ll be able to bring many more stories about the citizens of Port Provident to readers for years to come.

    Thanks for taking the time to share why multicultural books are so important in the modern romance market!

    1. Thanks for commenting Kristen,

      I don’t doubt there are many people who prefer to read what feels familiar, but I’m so glad more people were willing to travel outside of that with your characters. There is hope yet!

  13. Love your post, Sonali! What you said hits home. I have always been a reader, but reading the first book with a person of color as the main character…oh yes, the earth moved for me. And yes, gave me courage to write my own stories.

    Thanks for sharing!

  14. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post.

    Loved this: And until we read outside our comfort zone, we will never grow the confines of that comfort zone, and the powers that be will have no market to feed.

    Can’t wait to read your book!!! ;0)

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