We All Deserve to See Ourselves in a Book
My mother told me that even before my twin sister and I were born, complications arose. The hospital in Rome was dirty and dark, and hospital staff were often neglectful, failing to address her most basic bodily needs. It was a painful time for her, being mostly ignored by these nurses and doctor. But, when they paid attention to her, they commented on her skin color. They commented on her dirtiness when it was the hospital itself that was dirty. Blinking lights, leftover meals from days ago, dust...so much dust. They did not know that she understood Italian - they spoke about her and around her. Yet my mother said nothing to them. She was thousands of miles from home, and when my father returned to the room they acted kind and attentive. Sometimes I wonder if I sensed the stress my mother endured, as I was always rather anxious, even as a child. There is a story in my family that when I was born, I held my breath and closed my eyes. The apathetic doctor and nurses insisted I was gone, yet it was my mother who said “No. Lei è viva.” ("No. She is alive") in her calm voice, which surprised them, since they thought she didn’t even understand Italian. I allegedly opened one eye and smiled. It was a triumph, yet it must have instilled something in me that's been there ever since.
I won’t go too deeply into the world I was in for so long. In short, I had a deep resentment for myself. I hated my skin color, of which others' expressions made me painfully aware. I often wished I was lighter. I passed, yes, but I recall the suspicion. The number of times I was commanded with disgust, “Tell me: what are you?” still makes me reel with nausea. I can't count how many times I was told I didn’t belong, that I was an outsider. A pest, vermin. I was even told these terrible things by people I knew, people who claimed to love me. It affected me deeply. I remember that at the age of five, I would go around saying rather morbid things. I was a lonely child - often bullied - and kept to myself.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, it was books and libraries that saved me. Yet, as I read the likes of everyone from Roald Dahl to Diana Wynne Jones, I couldn't help but notice that there are rarely any characters who look like me. Even now, as I near my thirties, where are more books by diverse voices? What about Caribbean writers? I love the fact that people know the names of Marlon James, Jamaica Kincaid, and Nicole Dennis-Benn - but does anyone know who Louise Bennett-Coverley is? She was THE storyteller, folklorist, and poet of Jamaica - a griot in many ways. I love how people know the likes of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou - yet they are not considered classics. Black classics, yes, but not universal ones.
Why is that? Maybe this is why I turn to folktales the most: I found myself there over and over again. The summers when my uncle would read stories from Tolkien’s work certainly contributed to that but I think it was because my mother would read folktales to us. Folklore showed me not only that diverse voices exist but that they are valued. (Give me trickster tales any day.) I brought up this personal story to show you how diverse reading serves the needs of all kinds of people, especially all kinds of children. It transforms and comforts us, and it brings about reflection to understand our world as well as others'. Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at Ohio State University, where she teaches children’s literature, says it best:
“Literature transforms the human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation.”
~Rudine Sims Bishop
To add to her quote, here are my two reasons why reading diverse books can change your life:
Exploring Identity as a Mirror and Window
Choosing a book that embodies the wider world can show the reader diverse yet also similar home living, environment, and societal structures. Reading books can teach us about different cultures - foods they eat, the music they listen to - where we can explore the familiar and unfamiliar, what makes us who we are. As a Jamaican and Italian living in New York City, I'm lucky to have a mother who makes stunning dishes - plates of pasta with Jamaican spices that complement each other so well. You'd never guess that spices like star anise and cinnamon powder can emphasize a classic tuna pasta. Or look into folklore - there are many versions of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty with different features - glass slippers, fur slippers, a golden star…yet it's still a story of a young girl who just wanted to dance at a ball.
Building Empathy and Understanding
There are stories that aren’t heard or that suffer from stereotypes. When we offer a diverse title magnifying the voices of marginalized people (especially with regard to gender, race, and/or sexuality), attitudes and conceptions are changed for the better. Actor and activist George Takei’s graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy showcases the horrific, relatively forgotten history of mass discrimination towards Japanese Americans during World War II, when many were forced out of their homes and jobs into camps. Reading the experiences of people in the Middle East through the eyes of Malala Yousafzai shows that education belongs to everyone. Or characters with disabilities who are often underestimated by people around them, especially by loved ones. When we fully engage in these stories, we build a true community of unity and inclusivity.
Other reasons why we should read diverse books include:
Some readers feel invisible, and they deserve to be heard, their stories deserve to be told. In a world that is in many ways divided, reading books that showcase different identities shows that there is more than one story. As Rumi said, “We are not a drop in the ocean, we are an ocean in a drop.”
It creates opportunities for people who struggle in a world dominated by bias.
We all deserve to see our experiences told accurately and empathetically.
I could go on. I hope we all take the opportunity to read more books. When I have the desire to return home, so to speak, I find myself drawn to books written by Caribbean and Italian writers. As a Library staff member, I insist on reading diverse books, especially as the call for diversity and inclusivity is growing - and for the better.
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! -- When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”
~Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice