Yesterday, while I was waiting for my final flight home from LAX, I decided I wanted to buy a magazine. That was silly, because I knew I would have lots of magazines waiting for me when I got home (I subscribe to Interview, Glamour, Latina, Essence, American Songwriter, and Nylon), plus all the online reading I have been starting to do (Narrative, the New Yorker, Necessary Fiction, YA Fresh), plus all the hundreds of books I want to read in general. But as I’ve been a bit disappointed with my reading, and as García Márquez is very tedious in a second language, I said, “What the hell,” and spent $6 (why are magazines on newsstands so damn expensive!?) on the Ficion 2009 issue of Atlantic.
I’m not quite finished reading it (I read all magazines cover to cover, except sometimes Interview, because I’m getting a bit tired of it and “society pages” really don’t interest me at all–I would like to do a post about magazines later), but I did get to the set of four essays on the topic of “national literature” and whether it exists. The four writers addressing the question of the place of “national literature” in an increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan world were Margaret Atwood, Joseph O’Neill, Monica Ali, and Anne Michaels. Unfortunately, the only of these authors that I have read is Atwood, but then again, most of the most helpful books I’ve read on writing are by authors whose novels I have not actually read. Funny how that works.
The essays were short, so they couldn’t really go in depth, but I was pretty disappointed with the lack of opinion or resolution in any of them. None of the authors really seemed to end with their opinion; most of the essays just talked about their feelings about how they fit into a lot of “communites” (Do I write as a woman? As a Canadian? As a writer? asks Atwood; Not all Brits look, feel, and act the same, Ali points out) and how that makes it harder to define a national literature. But I didn’t really think that was the point, really, and I think all four writers really missed the mark and missed out on an opportunity to talk about the way “genre” is defined today and how that helps and hinders the formation of a national literature. But, you may as well still go on and readBorder Crossings, because the essays are well-written, if boring.
So now I’m home and catching up on my blog reading, and I went over to one of my favorite blogs, especially when it comes to blogs about the world of publishing, Jacket Whys. One of the latest posts is about the amount of human models on YA books this year, and how few of them feature black models. I was so happy to see this addressed, as this was always something I noticed as a child. There was rarely a book that had a character that looked me, and almost never are there books about non-white characters that don’t have major plot devices revolving around the fact that that character is non-white. For example, you could never do the show “Malcolm in the Middle” (blue collar family with unexpected genius middle child) unless you also added that the family had just moved into a predominantly white neighborhood and had trouble assimilating, or if you had an episode where one character starts dating a white girl and has issues with it, or something. Those things drive me crazy. I have no problem if a white writer wants to write a white character, or if a non-white writer wants to write one. Write what you want; it’s your prerogative. But it always bothered me that a writer couldn’t just change someone to be black or Hispanic or Native American without changing most of the arc of the story. So many stories you read don’t have to be about white people; they just are because that’s the default. So many books I read as a child where I said, oh, that character could so be me! But no, the model has blonde hair and celebrates Christmas, so no. Damn.
Obviously, a lot of this problem is general hegemony and the fact that white is still the driving cultural force of our nation. Peggy McIntosh wrote this great essay years ago that I’ve read for classes, recommended to friends as reading, and just link to very often because it’s fabulous and often helps illuminate for white friends why it is “harder” for me to get by sometimes, even though I’ve been raised mostly white. Unpacking the Knapsack of White Privilege is an excellent, quick read that everybody should check out, regardless of their racial or ethnic background. I commented on Jacket Whys and linked to it and am still reading the other excellent comments.
However, I want to know what it is that could help facilitate a change in publishing. Of course more writers need to abandon the magical Negro and other stereotypes and write diverse characters, but since writing is only one part of the package that is a book, I wonder what else it is that keeps us from seeing more interesting protagonists and models on covers. Do we not have enough non-white editors and graphic designers? Do we lack models? Not working in the publishing industry, I can only go so far to make suggestions as to what we need. I’m confused as to the easiest way to solve the problem.
School Library Journal also published a fantastic article on race in literature. Read it, do.