A long, long time ago, I published a list of the 1,001 books you should read before you die, as decided by the BBC.
A few weeks ago, a new comment was left on this long-forgotten post, pointing out how western-centric it is and bemoaning the lack of diverse authors and literary offerings. Diversity in books is something I’ve been thinking about lately anyway, because of the trending hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks that I’ve been adding to on Twitter. And it’s something I believe in strongly.
That said, I do not do a very good job of reading diverse books. Particularly lately. But I’ve been watching what some of you are reading and saying on the topic (notably Karen over at One More Page who wrote an excellent post about this), making notes, and yes, ordering books from my vastly expanding, increasingly diverse TBR list.
I also spent some time thinking about why diverse reads are, in my opinion, vital. Here’s some of what has passed through my mind on the topic.
First of all, I’m an avid armchair traveler. I love to read books about different parts of the world and different cultures than my own. Aside from my enjoyment of experiencing cultures and time periods that I have no access to in my “real” life, I have learned so much from these experiences. I’ve learned about cultural practices around the world, beliefs and myths that are both different yet surprisingly similar across cultural boundaries. I’ve also had a chance to step into the lives of people whose cultural backgrounds, lives and worlds are ones that I could never experience or even imagine on my own.
Secondly, as a North American, straight, white girl, there are a lot of situations that I’ll never know first-hand. I’ll never know what it’s like to be racially profiled when I’m traveling – or just walking down the street. I’ll never know what it’s like to be disowned by my family because of who I love. I’ll never know what it’s like to struggle with feeling like my body doesn’t match who I am inside. Or any of the other millions of different variations on culture, life experience and being that exist in the world. And these are perspectives that, however peripherally, I want to share. Because as a human being, I am connected to every single author and character I come across, and I want to know what it feels like to live in their worlds.
Thirdly, I have a huge problem with stereotypical character representations (particularly negative ones). Not only does it reinforce bigoted assumptions that can form the bedrock of prejudice, but stereotypes also create a perception – among those who are not part of the group being represented, but even more worryingly, within the culture of those represented – that this is what it means to be “x.” Whatever the particular “x” is. No one is ever defined by just one thing – and a lot of the negative stereotypes aren’t accurate. It makes me incredibly angry. Everyone should be able to look to cultural representations (art, literature, film) and see characters they can connect to that make them feel beautiful and special, no matter what.
Some of my favourites:
Dance Me Outside by W.P. Kinsella – “The book contains seventeen stories narrated by Silas Ermineskin and is set on a Cree Indian reserve in Central Alberta and is about what happens in the lives of the people that live on the reserve.” – Goodreads.
I watched the movie before reading the book, and I completely loved both.
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin – “Bruce Chatwin—author of In Patagonia—ventures into the desolate land of Outback Australia to learn the meaning of the Aborginals’ ancient ‘Dreaming-tracks.’ Along these timeless paths, amongst the fortune hunters and redneck Australians, racist policemen and mysterious Aboriginal holy men, he discovers a wondrous vision of man’s place in the world.” – Goodreads
This was on the “recommended reading” list for one of my anthropology courses, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It was a paradigm completely, beautifully foreign to me.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – “The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the family. It is a rich and brilliant chronicle of life and death, and the tragicomedy of humankind. In the noble, ridiculous, beautiful, and tawdry story of the family, one sees all of humanity, just as in the history, myths, growth, and decay of Macondo, one sees all of Latin America.” – Goodreads
I, like many readers, gave up on this book a few times before I really got into it. But when I did… man. One of the most powerfu raeds of my life.
A Son of the Circus by John Irving – “A Hindi film star . . . an American missionary . . . twins separated at birth . . . a dwarf chauffeur . . . a serial killer . . . all are on a collision course. In the tradition of A Prayer for Owen Meany, Irving’s characters transcend nationality. They are misfits–coming from everywhere, belonging nowhere. Set almost entirely in India, this is John Irving’s most ambitious novel and a major publishing event.” – Goodreads.
As with all of Irving’s books, this one is written with incredible detail and features complicated, layered characters. Set in India, what really stood out to me (and fascinated me) about this book was the Hijra community. I hadn’t even heard of Hijras before I read the book, so I credit it with introducing me to them!
Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg – “Woman or man? This internationally acclaimed novel looks at the world through the eyes of Jess Goldberg, a masculine girl growing up in the ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ McCarthy era and coming out as a young butch lesbian in the pre-Stonewall gay drag bars of a blue-collar town. Stone Butch Blues traces a propulsive journey, powerfully evoking history and politics while portraying an extraordinary protagonist full of longing, vulnerability, and working-class grit. This once-underground classic takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of gender transformation and exploration and ultimately speaks to the heart of anyone who has ever suffered or gloried in being different.” – Goodreads
There’s really nothing else I can say about this book that the synopsis hasn’t already. Powerful, raw and real.
Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas – “Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas describes his poverty-stricken childhood in rural, his adolescence as a rebel fighting for Fidel Castro, and his life in revolutionary Cuba as a homosexual. Very quickly the Castro government suppressed his writing and persecuted him for his homosexuality until he was finally imprisoned.” – Goodreads
I read this book awhile ago so the details are fuzzy. What I do remember is its intensity – reading it was like a gut punch. It’s harsh, it’s stark and it’ll definitely make you glad you’re not in his shoes.
Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker -“Taken away from her mother by a ruthless slave trader, all Julilly has left is the dream of freedom. Every day that she spends huddled in the slave trader’s wagon travelling south or working on the brutal new plantation, she thinks about the land where it is possible to be free, a land she and her friend Liza may reach someday. So when workers from the Underground Railroad offer to help the two girls escape, they are ready. But the slave catchers and their dogs will soon be after them…” – Goodreads
This was read to me as a child, and was my first introduction to both slavery and racism. And while the details of the book have become fuzzy over the years, its impact has not. I also remember feeling pretty proud to be Canadian.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank -“In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, they and another family lived cloistered in the “Secret Annexe” of an old office building. Cut off from the outside world, they faced hunger, boredom, the constant cruelties of living in confined quarters, and the ever-present threat of discovery and death. In her diary Anne Frank recorded vivid impressions of her experiences during this period. By turns thoughtful, moving, and amusing, her account offers a fascinating commentary on human courage and frailty and a compelling self-portrait of a sensitive and spirited young woman whose promise was tragically cut short.” – Goodreads
I’ve written little blurbs about what this book has meant to me in countless blog posts, but I’ll say it again – this book probably had the most impact on me of any book I’ve ever read. It shocked me with the atrocities people are capable of and the strength and bravery it takes to find small joys in a world full of terror.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan – “Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.” – Goodreads
I read this along with The Hundred Secret Senses and The Kitchen God’s Wife. I found throughout that Tan’s writing has the ability to inflict almost physical pain on the reader but by the end of the book, to make them grateful for it.
I fell completely in love with both Taylor and Turtle. Though the book is based on some seriously intense and sad stuff, but what grows out of that is something endearing that will make you smile involuntarily many a time.
Eva Luna by Isabel Allende – “Conceived in an embrace designed to comfort a dying man, born to a servant and raised as a hired hand, Eva Luna learns quickly that she has a talent that belies her humble start: the gift of storytelling. As the years pass and her imprudent nature sends Eva from household to household–from the home of a doctor famed for mummifying the dead to a colorful whorehouse and the care of a beautiful transsexual–it is Eva’s magical imagination that keeps her alive and fuels her ardent encounters with lovers of all kinds. And as her South American homeland teeters on the brink of political chaos, and Eva’s fate is intertwined with guerrilla fighters and revolutionaries, she will find her life’s calling–and the soul mate who will envelop her in a love entirely beyond her mystical inventions.” – Goodreads
Allende’s writing…. *swoon* This was the first of her books I read… which lead to a binge. The House of the Spirits. Of Love and Shadows. Daughter of Fortune. A Portrait in Sepia. Paula. I read and loved them all.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel – “A sumptuous feast of a novel, it relates the bizarre history of the all-female De La Garza family. Tita, the youngest daughter of the house, has been forbidden to marry, condemned by Mexican tradition to look after her mother until she dies. But Tita falls in love with Pedro, and he is seduced by the magical food she cooks. In desperation, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura so that he can stay close to her. For the next twenty-two years, Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds.” – Goodreads
I read this after watching the movie and finding its hyperbole captivating. The emotions that manifested in physical symptoms (particularly the wedding cake… if you’ve read/seen it, you’ll know what I mean) seemed so fitting to me, particularly reading it as I did at an age where feelings were these uncontrollable forces that errupted within and around me with very little provocation. It’s a short, haunting read.
On my TBR list:
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyoyemi – “In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman. A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.” – Goodreads
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki – “Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.” – Goodreads
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi – “Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.” – Goodreads
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri – “Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan–charismatic and impulsive–finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America. But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind–including those seared in the heart of his brother’s wife.” – Goodreads
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz – “Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.” – Goodreads
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexi – “In his first book for young adults, bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by acclaimed artist Ellen Forney, that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.” – Goodreads
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan – “New York Times bestselling author David Levithan tells the based-on-true-events story of Harry and Craig, two 17-year-olds who are about to take part in a 32-hour marathon of kissing to set a new Guinness World Record—all of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of the generation of gay men lost to AIDS. While the two increasingly dehydrated and sleep-deprived boys are locking lips, they become a focal point in the lives of other teen boys dealing with languishing long-term relationships, coming out, navigating gender identity, and falling deeper into the digital rabbit hole of gay hookup sites—all while the kissing former couple tries to figure out their own feelings for each other.” – Goodreads
Some classics and popular faves I’m ashamed I haven’t read yet:
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – “Things Fall Apart tells two overlapping, intertwining stories, both of which center around Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first of these stories traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world in which he lives, and in its classical purity of line and economical beauty it provides us with a powerful fable about the immemorial conflict between the individual and society. The second story, which is as modern as the first is ancient, and which elevates the book to a tragic plane, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo’s world through the arrival of aggressive, proselytizing European missionaries. These twin dramas are perfectly harmonized, and they are modulated by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul. Things Fall Apart is the most illuminating and permanent monument we have to the modern African experience as seen from within.” – Goodreads
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – “Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.” – Goodreads
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie – “No book in modern times has matched the uproar sparked by Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which earned its author a death sentence. Furor aside, it is a marvelously erudite study of good and evil, a feast of language served up by a writer at the height of his powers, and a rollicking comic fable. The book begins with two Indians, Gibreel Farishta (“for fifteen years the biggest star in the history of the Indian movies”) and Saladin Chamcha, a Bombay expatriate returning from his first visit to his homeland in 15 years, plummeting from the sky after the explosion of their jetliner, and proceeds through a series of metamorphoses, dreams and revelations. Rushdie’s powers of invention are astonishing in this Whitbread Prize winner.” – Goodreads
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – “As children Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.” – Goodreads
I know there are so, so many more – both that I’ve read and loved and that I need to read. But these are the ones that first (or most strongly) came to mind. But because, as I mentioned before, I feel that this is an area of reading that I need to expand my horizons in, while I’ve enjoyed putting together a list of diverse reads, this post is more in the hopes that you guys will suggest some of your favourites to me, ones that you believe deserve to be on that 1,001 books to read before you die list. Or even just books you’ve come across lately that you feel deserve a mention! //<![CDATA[ var sc_project=10144299; var sc_invisible=1; var sc_security="82f610c9"; var scJsHost = (("https:" == document.location.protocol) ? "https://secure." : "http://www."); document.write("”); //]]>