Each year, I make it a point to read as diversely as possible. I started making a point to do so when I realized one year that I was only reading classics and only reading those that took place in the 19th century. Since then, I make sure I’m reading books from different genres, different themes, and varying time periods. I’ve been mostly successful at meeting this part of diversity in my reading.
Where I have lagged in creating diversity in reading has been ensuring that I am reading about people of varying cultural backgrounds. Most of my books center around people of American and European backgrounds. While I enjoy these books, I always feel that I am reading only part of the human experience by not exposing myself to situations individuals face in other cultures.
So why don’t I choose books that are notable for portraying lives in other parts of the world? It’s not as if I don’t have a choice; we have authors from the past – Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Alex Haley- to the present – Jhumpa Lahiri, Rohinton Mistry, Amy Tan that specifically talk about these people’s struggles. The South Asian genre in particular has become very popular in the US, thanks to the success of Jhumpa Lahiri in mainstream American publications.
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My problem I have with much of the literature devoted to a certain culture is the uniformity in the themes. The themes are always always connected to race or culture. While I understand that many minorities’ lives are shaped by race & cultural values- particularly if they are living in a new environment or are living in a a region where politics are surrounding that issue- that is not the only issue these individuals face. I realized this more as I have grown up. When I was younger, I identified myself a lot by my Indian culture. That was a central part of my identity. Nowadays, Indian culture, while still important to me, is not how I first identify myself to others. I first describe myself by interests – reading, writing, TV, Toastmasters- and struggles – job, finding a companion, questioning if I made the right decision. In another words, my identity is shaped by my personal preferences and values that have nothing to do with my skin color.
Similar to me, everyone’s identifies themselves based on different things, not just race. Yet, you never see these varied definitions of identity come across in many non-American/European literature. I’ll use the South Asian genre as an example. Anytime I go to the bookstore and encounter a book written about or by a South Asian, the description is frequently about an immigrant leaving India, going to another country, and facing issues with reconciling their culture with the new one. For once, I’d like to see a book about a South Asian and the storylines is around his or her issues with emotional issues unrelated to race/culture and more to do with his/her personal experiences/struggles.
It’s not that I want to deny how the role that race/culture play in a person’s identity. My main issue is that my making this the only thing to identify a minority person’s storyline, we are limiting the viewpoint and boxing an entire race’s experiences. What I love most about the literature I have read that has been primarily about American/European experiences is that they go deep into the individual’s mindset, really showcasing human psychology and motivations. I’d like to see more of that level of analysis and detail in books in which protagonists are people of color.
Perhaps there are books that are like the ones I have mentioned I’d like to have. If there are, the publishers have to do a better job marketing these.