Saturday, January 9, 2016

On Not Not Reading Men

#Readwomen, #weneeddiversebooks, #diversifYA, #WITmonth--these are all hashtags I have used and supported. But while I am highly in favor of reading more women, more minorities, more books in translation, and more books by and about representatives of any marginalized or underrepresented group, lifestyle, or experience, I am not in favor of excluding any group. Any group. And, yes, that includes white, straight cisgender men.

I'm writing about this now because I've cared about and noticed this issue for a long while, but I did not feel that I was qualified to speak up. Why? Because my skin is as pale as paper. I benefit from white privilege. I also benefit from being a young, thin, feminine-looking woman. My Jewish religion and ancestry, LGBT sympathies, and other more controversial opinions are not written on my white, green-eyed face nor evident in my long brown hair or the clothes tailored to my thin-to-average female body. So while I have experienced discrimination and harassment, it's been so many orders lower than what so many other people have experienced that I don't want to negate the feelings or experiences of those who have been through much worse.

I still don't. So, although I do not agree with K.T. Bradford's decision to stop reading men or many others who have made similar declarations, I respect their right to their own reading choices and reasons (and I totally want to read all the books on their lists!). I might have continued to silently disagree and say nothing online, until I read this post by Cieran Oliver, a transgender man who points out that a focus on reading only women, intentionally or unintentionally, excludes transgender men and other transgender and nonbinary genders.

His story touched me so much not only because he made a point that I had been feeling but struggling to articulate, but also because his post demonstrates the pernicious effects of exclusionary rhetoric. This person felt that he had to hide his identity as a transgender man in order to credibly write a novel--a work of fiction!--about lesbians. He writes that he felt "I clearly didn't deserve to tell a story that for a large chunk of my life, reflected it in some ways." If we're going to talk about needing fiction written by representatives of the minority being represented (an idea I don't agree with, but recognize the thinking behind), this was someone who had lived as a lesbian! Who better to tell this story? But because he no longer identified as lesbian, he was made to feel like a "traitor," and like he had to "'earn' the right to write about lesbian characters" by dressing and acting female, even though that wasn't true to his own identity. How messed up is it that people are being made to feel this way?

I found out about the #weneeddiversebooks movement at BookRiot and got really excited. When I started my Twitter account in early 2015, I used the hashtag often. I loved the idea of a community built around the idea of promoting diverse books and encouraging the publishing community to publish more diverse books. However, when I attended #WeNeedDiverseBooks panels at both the Baltimore Book Festival and Shore Leave Con this year, I was surprised by some of the opinions I heard. While I heard panelists discussing why diverse books are important and explaining their own identities, this veered into a discussion in both places of why white people should not write books about diverse characters. To me, this seemed counter-intuitive. One transgender male panelist said something like (I'm paraphrasing here), "A fairy dies every time a cisgender person writes a trans story." There was clapping, so this sentiment obviously has some support. A black female panelist said, in response to a question from a white female audience member, that (again, paraphrasing), "White people should just get out of the way and let minorities tell their own stories." I want to respect these opinions. This is coming from a place of people who feel marginalized and who resent other people gaining praise for telling their stories without experiencing the harassment associated with that identity. I get that.

But do we really want to live in a world where we are pigeonholed into writing only about our own experiences? Isn't this what started the problem of not enough diverse voices in the first place? If white straight cisgender men are the people who are getting published the most right now, and obviously we want to change that, but if that's a fact, then do we want to tell them that they can only write white straight cisgender male stories?

For me, the magic of reading is being able to see from different perspectives. The magic of writing, I believe, is similar. How much could one learn from having to immerse one's self in the world of someone who is different from you? Wouldn't the resulting empathy be a deposit toward a greater global understanding of diversity? There have been, for example, studies that suggest children who read Harry Potter and sympathize with marginalized groups in that world, like "Mudbloods" and house-elves, have more sympathy and empathy for marginalized groups in the real world. 

Once upon a time, I attended an event with Junot Diaz, one of my all-time favorite authors. An audience member asked him a question that surprised me. His answer is one I have taken to heart. The audience member asked something like, "How do you feel about non-Dominicans reading your books?" In back-and-forth, it became clear that she considered this a non-legitimate audience for Diaz's books, and expected him to be upset by it. Instead, once he understood the implication of her question, Diaz responded that there are two kinds of readers for his books, those who feel like "insiders" i.e. Dominican-Americans in this case (although I considered myself an "insider" to Diaz's books as a sci fi/fantasy fan) and enjoy reading about themselves, and those who feel like "outsiders," and enjoy learning about another culture. Diaz stated unequivocally that he appreciated both types of readers.

Although maybe the fact that these attitudes initially surprised me show that I have a long way to go in terms of developing more empathy for other marginalized groups, I still disagree with the principle that one should only read books from marginalized groups or should only write books from the perspective of one's own group. I can tell you right now that my opinion about nearly anything is not the same as that of any other white Jewish female, simply because we happen to share those markers. I know that the perspective of one lesbian or one black woman or one Latino-American man is not the same as that of another lesbian or black woman or Latino-American man. As long as we're making leaps of empathy, why not leap across boundaries of gender and race and religion and sexual orientation?

Excluding any one group, even if it is white straight cisgender men, has a ripple effect in unintentionally excluding other groups, like transmen. Furthermore, excluding this group based on race, sexual orientation, and gender sends the message that it is okay to exclude a group of readers and writers based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation etc. Is that a message that anyone who cares about diversity wants to send? I'm not saying that you shouldn't make your own reading choices based on whatever criteria you want. If you want to spend a year reading Afro-Cuban authors, more power to you. I'm talking about, as a movement, let's try not to spread or preach exclusion. Read women. Read trans. Read diverse. But leave off the "only." Leave off the "I'm not reading X."

I've seen that others, like Biblibio, have been inspired by Oliver's post, and included transgender and nonbinary genders in their movements. I'm hoping that there are others out there who feel similarly to me, but I'm also hoping there are people out there who feel differently, but would be willing to engage in a civil dialogue to explain their opinions. I'm stating my opinion here, but I am also looking to learn and grow. This is not the last word on this subject.

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