A note on #readingwomen–and other underrepresented authors

As noted, I am a fan of the push to #readwomen2014. Now that VIDA has released their Count for 2013 (a breakdown of how many male or female writers are published or reviewed by leading literary publications), it’s clear that calling for change in concrete terms (such as quantity of reviews and reviewers) can indeed be effective, and considering the way the #readwomen2014 hashtag has taken off, I am very excited to see the numbers–for book sales as well as for VIDA’s count–this time next year.

But I would be remiss not to mention Roxane Gay’s count, brought to my attention again in a recent essay by Aimee Phan. In 2012, Roxane and her graduate assistant combed through book reviews in the New York Times–just the Times, because it took an enormous amount of time and energy to research–to see how many non-white writers were reviewed in that extremely-difficult-to-get-reviewed-in publication. Their results:

We looked at 742 books reviewed, across all genres. Of those 742, 655 were written by Caucasian authors (1 transgender writer, 437 men, and 217 women). Thirty-one were written by Africans or African Americans (21 men, 10 women), 9 were written by Hispanic authors (8 men, 1 woman), 33 by Asian, Asian-American or South Asian writers (19 men, 14 women), 8 by Middle Eastern writers (5 men, 3 women) and 6 were books written by writers whose racial background we were simply unable to identify.

If you need a visual, she provided a pie chart that makes the point astonishing clear. Aimee Phan’s article elaborates on the problem–reviews can play a critical role not only in publicizing a book but showing readers [at least one way of] how to read it. If writers of color aren’t getting reviewed, then they aren’t getting read as often or as well.

The bulk of my reading these recent years have been wallet-friendly free Kindle classics–my already-read-by-women-2014 list heavily features 19th century lady authors–but I really love new fiction. I love reading a book that was written in the now, and I love reading a book that is accompanied by a little splash of publicity, so I can share the experience of having read it with others. When I am looking for a brand-new book to enjoy, deliberately choosing books written by women comes easily and naturally to me. Deliberately choosing books written by writers of color sometimes requires more work on my part, as the abovementioned statistics plus my own media intake cottoned by privilege make it less likely that I will come across publicity for these books.

All the more reason, then, to share with my few readers the books by writers of color that I have loved in the last year or two.  If these books aren’t being reviewed, then let me tell you about them so that you’ll want to read them. If you’ve read them, then let’s talk about them.

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve raved about this book before, but since there were several commenters in a recent Toast thread who claimed that they hadn’t yet started the book due to its imposing size and subject, let me tell you what I told them: it is great fun to read. It is thoughtful and painful, but it is also engaging and accessible, with sex and romance and enjoyable snapshots of intellectual (and pseudointellectual!) life and more. (Also, as I was writing, this post in praise of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie appeared in my feedreader. She is deservedly on fire)
  • I am going to include Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi because I re-read it in the last year, and because I pre-ordered her forthcoming book Boy, Snow, Bird the second I heard about it. Her books tend to dwell in abstract, archetypal themes that are well-suited to the folklore and fairytales she draws on. Mr. Fox‘s narrative skips gleefully between mid-20th century and once-upon-a-time, and between Europe and Africa. She genderswaps characters when she feels like it (I particularly enjoyed the finishing school for husbands); the fluidity of identity is part of her point.
  • A Tale for Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I don’t usually enjoy when writers write about writing, but I do when Ruth Ozeki does. Like me, main character Ruth finds writing painful and foggy and frustrating, and she gets lost down rabbit holes of Googling for answers, but she can’t stop because when you get there, you can create something that has a measurable impact.
    I also often recommend My Year of Meats, which is a treasure box of textual and imagery gems. I’m so glad she introduced me to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, and I often think about her Midwestern host family pouring two liters of Coke over a roast and her Japanese assistant preparing a light batter out of the kudzu that has conquered Mississippi.
  • Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith. This is a book of poetry but as I noted on my Books By Women post, I read it like a novel. I got interested in her work by way of this lovely simple reflection on living paycheck to paycheck, but the overall arch of the book is one of nostalgia.
  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorakor. You have most likely enjoyed at least one (but probably several) series of books starring a young person who realizes his or her latent magical powers and goes off to some kind of school to learn how to use them. That happens to Sunny, but her story takes place in Nigeria, and her magic is a rich mix of ideas I recognize from other magical fiction and some I recognize from research for my voodoo tour in New Orleans. This is YA fic and a fast read.
  • The Geometry of God by Uzma Aslam Khan. A Pakistan paleontologist and his granddaughter who finds a key fossil in the identification of an ancient whale species struggle to pursue their scientific passions as the Creationist party gains power.

Special mentions: I read The Book of Salt by Monique Truong (which Aimee Phan mentions in her essay) quite a few years ago, but it is one of my all-time favorite novels and was great fun to teach in class. Unrequited love and the loneliness of being an expat in Paris, cooking for Gertrude Stein! Gorgeous, gorgeous descriptions of cooking and communicating across cultural lines. I also taught Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat in that class; Danticat, like Oyeyemi, started writing fully-grown books at an insanely young age, and just about anything you pick up by her will be lovely and lonely and moving. Breath centers the struggles of a young ex-pat woman with her overbearing mother, her national identity, her eating disorder, and her sexuality–conflicts inseparably connected.

Another few special mentions. Today is International Women’s Day, the hashtag is all about celebrating women writers, and as Roxane Gay’s count shows, woman of color are being reviewed less than white women and less than men of color. But I know a fair number of my peers are interested in science fiction and speculative fiction, so these novels by gentlemen of color are worth mentioning. You’re into the genre of young people discovering latent magic or the mystical powers of the universe unseen by the average human? So what if instead of young people they are older black ex-cons and ex-addicts trying to correct the mistakes of their past, and they band up in a rich man’s house to do paranormal investigation, and then they have to save the world? I don’t know, Big Machine by Victor Lavalle is hard to explain but I ate it up. If you love Poe except for the racism, you might get a kick out of Pym by Mat Johnson. To be frank I didn’t love the execution of this book as much as I love the premise, but it does pose a tragihilarious answer to the mystery of what happens at the end of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. And if you’d like a searching, philosophical take on the zombie apocalypse or just want to read about New York City in ruin, you might enjoy Zone One by Colson Whitehead. I never miss a chance to rave about Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, an alternate history which imagines midcentury culture if the elevator had been considered America’s crowning technological achievement (with all its metaphorical resonances of rising up) instead of the automobile. That’s the kind of Big Idea book I will never come up with, and it is well-written and extremely teachable to boot.

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