For the first time ever, I kept a track of the fiction I read in a year. I can’t even remember why I decided to do this in 2015 to be honest, but as the end of the year came around and ‘Diverse December’ was launched, I’m very glad I did. For anyone not aware of it, ‘Diverse December’ was a movement started on social media to encourage avid readers to choose more books by WOC (writers of colour) and BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic) authors. Such was the interest and support for this, that the originators of this great idea designated 2016 ‘Read Diverse’ year. If you’re on Twitter you can follow the hashtag (#ReadDiverse2016) for recommendations from readers and general links to articles of interest to anyone who cares about the under-representation of WOC and BAME writers in press reviews, at literary festivals, on the longlists of major publishing prizes, etc. The Booker Prize shortlist certainly made strides towards wider inclusion of minority writers in 2015, and I’m currently about halfway through the winning book by Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings).
Growing up in Northern Ireland and attending a girls’ (Protestant) grammar school which taught the British Curriculum, I had no exposure to diverse literature whatsoever apart from white authors who wrote about India, eg, E M Forster. In fact, Irish (as in from the South and/or Catholic) writers were not even included on the ‘O’ level and ‘A’ level syllabi back in the 1970s and 1980s. Thankfully, I made up for both these omissions in later years, firstly by self-study, later by taking an Open University degree followed eventually by a Masters in Irish literature in English. It was through the Open University course, ‘Literature in the Modern World’, that I was first introduced to Indian, African, Afro-American and Caribbean writers and poets such as R K Narayan, Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, and Derek Walcott. There was an absence of Arab writers which may have been down to lack of translations, a situation that has certainly improved since the 1990s.
So, have I done enough lately to redress the balance of diversity versus ‘mainstream’ white, Western authors in my yearly reading choices, and to veer away from those favourite, safe, and invariably white/British authors? Well, here are my personal reading stats for 2015 in which I’ve categorised the authors by gender as well as ethnic origin and split the books into novels or short story collections. I’ve used ‘books or novels’ because there are a few memoirs in the mix.
Total number of books or novels in 2015: 39
By women: 26 (67%)
By men: 11 (28%)
By both women and men (anthologies): 2 ( 5%)
By WOC and/or BAME total: 11 (28%)
By women WOC/BAME: 7 (18% or 64% of all WOC/BAME)
By men WOC/BAME: 4 (10% or 36% of all WOC/BAME)
Short Story Collections: 6 (15%)*
*I have read tons of short stories online and in journals, but note to self: buy more short story collections! I haven’t recorded poetry read here, but the same applies.
I could go on for ever with the statistics, eg, 42% of the books by women were by WOC or BAME authors and 36% of the books by men were by WOC or BAME authors, which beats my overall percentage of books by men which was 28%. The crux of this little experiment is that whilst I’m more inclined to choose books by women of colour or from a BAME origin, 28% of my total reads coming from diverse writers is not enough. There is a little leeway on the statistics with the two short story anthologies, but I noted only 2 writers of diversity across the 40 stories included in those, so I’m ignoring that anomaly.
The two books I’m going to manage in January are both by male writers – the Jamaican Marlon James’s ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ (riveting but long) and the Jordanian Hisham Bustani’s, ‘The Perception of Meaning’ (have to write a review of that one). So, #ReadDiverse2016 has started well enough and my goal for the rest of the year is to make sure that for every book I read by a white author, I will choose one for the TBR pile by a WOC/BAME author. I may not manage 39 books in 2016 and I’m not one for rushing a good read, so 2016’s list may be shorter, but I do hope to increase that figure of 28% to 50% come December.
What about you? Have you read any books lately that tick the box for #ReadDiverse2016? All comments are very welcome.