On Reading Minority Writers (and being one too)

Something occurred to me recently as I was perusing my bookshelf – the majority of the books I own (and the vast majority of books I’ve read) were written by white men and featured protagonists that didn’t look like me. I didn’t feel any guilt because of this, it was just an observation of my reading habits but it did make me think about how I perceived myself. I decided to actively change this situation and started culling recommendations from some of my well-read friends. With the exception of my sister, most of my friends weren’t much help. Outside of perhaps a Murikami or a Marquez, we all seemed to have reading tastes dominated by white men. Being of Peruvian descent, I’ve read my share of Latino authors, but what about the rest of the world?

My first choice was easy as my ‘label mate’ at In Our Words Inc., Peta-Gaye Nash had just released a book of short stories titled “I Too Hear the Drums.” She’s a Jamaican born Canadian author who tackles Diaspora and the immigrant experience quite well. One story, The Incident, based on the event that triggered her move to Canada (the kidnapping of her child) is particularly gripping.

Next I read American author Matt Johnson’s Pym which is an intertext with Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, where an African American lit professor goes in search of the mysterious beings in Poe’s only novel. It’s a cool and funny novel filled with equal parts adventure and an examination of racial identity.

My local book club read Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes around the time of the book burning controversy . It was a very visceral and powerful book that gave great insight into a shameful part of human history.

I heard an interview on CBC’s Writer’s and Company with Sherman Alexie. It was funny, gripping, heartbreaking and inspiring and I decided I would read some of his work. I asked a friend if he had read any Alexie and he, more or less, said that First Nations writers didn’t interest him (and although we both loved Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden, that didn’t seem to count for whatever reason). I decided to read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which is a young adult novel about a boy who chooses to go to school outside of his reserve, where the only other Indian in the school was the team mascot. I loved it – I laughed, I cried, I gave it to my friend and he loved it just as much and has recommended it many times since.

It made me think, ‘what if people dismiss my work based on my ethnicity?’ If my own reading habits did not regularly extend to other ethnicities and cultures, would it be reasonable to expect other readers to be interested in mine? My novel is set in Mexico but the only novel set in Mexico that I’ve read is Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Malcolm Lowry isn’t Mexican. I’ve found some Mexican and Mexican-American authors and have now added several books to my ‘to read’ pile.

What books have you read outside of your reading comfort zone? If you have any recommendations (Mexican or otherwise), please share.

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