I may be opening a bit of a can of worms here, but I want to talk about how diversely I read and what has been bothering me. I don’t mean to offend anyone, please know that before I begin. I’ve grown up in a really multicultural and diverse socio-economic area, and I don’t care where anyone comes from, their religion, bank balance etc. I’ve been stalling for ages on even discussing this, for fear of backlash. I have already read several books by people of different races this year and enjoyed them immensely!
Again, please keep any comments respectful, as I really do not mean to cause offence.
I will admit, right now, that I read books mainly by white people. This isn’t because of any prejudice on my part… it’s because:
a) There’s more access to them.
b) Many of the books that I know are written by people of different races haven’t interested me. Not because of the race, just the subject matter. If it were written by a white person I’d skip it too.
c) I don’t go out of my way to find out the ethnicity of an author.
The access is an issue… It’s pretty freaking shameful how little there is.
To put it into an Australian perspective (since I don’t think I should even try speak from any other), I’ve been sitting here thinking if I could think of a single book written by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person who writes for adults… and I can think of only one author. I struggle to believe that there is only a single, solitary Aboriginal writer out there who writes books worth publishing. In fact, I refuse to believe it. Therefore, they aren’t being published, or they aren’t being widely distributed.
Oh, there’s books ABOUT Aboriginal people, I can think of plenty of those. But BY them? I can think of two, by the same author. TWO.
So, apparently, according to mainstream publishing, Alexis Wright is the only Aboriginal author in the entirety of this continent who writes for adults and can be picked up in a bookshop without much trouble. Excuse me, but fuck that for a bad joke.
I remember reading books as a child involving Aboriginal people, but mainly in servile roles or as your stereotypical “natives”. They were products of their time, being from the late 19th and early 20th centuries which had belonged to my grandma, and many are now very out of print (thank goodness). I also grew up learning the stories of the Dreamtime, which are the Aboriginal creation myths- I remember crying because the snake was so mean for biting the sun!
Knowing a person’s race wouldn’t ever put me off a book, but it wouldn’t make me want to pick it up specifically if I wouldn’t have normally. I haven’t read Carpentaria, for example, because the synopsis of it doesn’t interest me in the slightest, but I did buy a copy for my Dad a while ago because it’s right up his alley. But surely, if there is one Aboriginal writer, there are more, who would have stories that I’d enjoy. There has to be!
When it comes to the Booktube “Reading Diversely” tag, I can whip that thing, but I think it’s missing the point slightly. Yes, we can say we’ve read books SET in each continent or geographic region, but have we all read a book by someone who actually BELONGS to that region? And really, what use is there in placing an arbitrary quota on yourself? Is that really solving the problem, or is that just to help with white guilt? I want to read books because they interest me and have literary value, not because of the race of the author.
For example, I have read both Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe (hello, arch nemeses!). Yes, very different examples, but hear me out. Conrad speaks from a European man’s perspective on a region, Achebe’s from a local man’s perspective. I think reading Achebe’s work gives the reader a much deeper knowledge about the region and how the people lived their lives. Another example of this would be Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts vs. Kanthapura by Raja Rao, both set in India, with the former written by a white Australian and the latter by an Indian national- though, in Roberts’ defence, he did live there for 10 years after escaping from a Melbourne prison (nothing suss, right guys?). Yet, if you have read Heart of Darkness or Shantaram, you can claim to have fulfilled the African or Indian section of that tag. That, to me, is debatable.
I don’t believe that I could speak from an Aboriginal perspective, or from the perspective of someone in the Outback, or from India, or from Venezuela without an extraordinary amount of research and immersion into that culture. So why do people attempt it without fully immersing themselves in the culture and beliefs of the area or people they’re writing about? Sure, if the writer actually understands the culture and country extremely well, then by all means, write about it- but don’t when you’ve done little research. (The Anatomist’s Wife comes to mind here!)
Harking back to my rock star politician cousin, the time has come to say fair’s fair. I want to actively seek out Indigenous Australian writers during the next few years and read their works. This nation likes to conveniently forget their existence far, far too often and I want to buck that trend.
I do promise not to dance about it though. That, at least, didn’t get passed down genetically.