Why we need mirrors in literature

by Radiya Hafiza

Calls for diversity in literature have been gaining momentum over the past few years but author Meg Rosoff’s comments on Large Fears, a story about a Black queer boy by Myles E Johnson and Kendrick Daye, show why we still have such a long way to go.

Rosoff claims “there are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them”. So Rosoff, where are they in the bookshops? Why is it that when I walk into Waterstones, Foyles or WHSmith I’m lucky if I can find one diverse author from the rows of shelves in the YA & Children’s section? And when we speak of diverse books for LGBTQ characters, why can I only find white LGBTQ stories? There is a reason Large Fears was self-published.

If we forget about representing more diverse voices in literature, be they LGBTQ or BAME voices, we can forget about a progressive, pluralistic society. We can forget about a society that prides itself on its liberal values, particularly freedom of speech because without supporting diverse literature, platforms for diverse writers will remain difficult to access. Where does this leave us? In the hands of white authors, traditionally male, middle-class and unaware of their own privilege.

Let’s repeat a long-known truth: the publishing industry is dominated by white people and the assumption is that only white people read. But literature has no limits; for Rosoff to say it doesn’t have the “‘job’ of being a mirror” is to deny the fact that many people read not just for entertainment or knowledge but for company, help, escape – the list goes on. One only needs to look through comments in various papers, Twitter, Tumblr, Goodreads and so on to see how books people relate to can save lives. Books (and indeed all art forms) remind us that we’re not alone, that there are other ways to live life; that it’s okay to not be “normal”. We need mirrors.

Being able to relate to characters in books doesn’t depend on physical or cultural likeness. But being able to see yourself in a book encourages minority writers and readers like myself to believe that we too can be heroes—not just a handy sidekick or stereotype to reaffirm white supremacy and patriarchy. Being able to see yourself in books reaffirms that our experiences are valid; that the world around us is made up of more than just white experiences.

Merely featuring an LGBTQ best friend/sibling or the token Black/Asian friend is not enough. White authors appropriating our experiences and cultures doesn’t help either. This was evidenced earlier this year when white poet Michael Derrick Hudson saw fit to take on the pen name Yi-Fen Chou in order to be included in a poetry anthology. As Jenny Zhang wrote then in Buzzfeed, it “was an act of yellowface that is part of a long tradition of white voices drowning out those of color in the literary world”.

Authors and publishers need to be aware of the need for more minority representation because to deny diversity is to deny the idea that all human beings are equal and deserve the same opportunities. Shutting the door on diversity will only inhibit the talent the publishing industry needs to survive and perpetuate the social hierarchies that make authors like Meg Rosoff feel they’re naturally entitled to speak over marginalised voices.

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3 replies

  1. We often always target film and TV networks for not correctly representing people of different races or sexuality. But the publishing companies are a large part of our media that often go unlooked in accounts for their lack of diversity. I am very unsurprised by Rosoff’s reply that placing more diversity in our books shouldn’t be an “agenda”. If you are white, you really don’t have to think about race that often. Everywhere you go, you will most likely see and be around people that look like you. And when you turn on the TV or read a book, it is safe to say that majority of these characters will be white. But if you are a minority, you have to accept the fact that in most places you are going to be alone. And most of what you watch on TV or read in most books will have white characters. That’s why its so important to have these stories with relatable characters of color, that people can truly connect with. When I was growing up, none of the media I saw included black people that acted like me. I often thought I had to play these ridiculous stereotypes I saw on TV just to represent my race. If I had read more stories and seen more shows with people who acted like me, I would have grown up so much more confidently in my own skin. Media representation is so important in all facets of the media including TV, film, books, ads, music, and art.

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