Why we should diversify our reading habits

Reading in Colour

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Movies and TV shows such as Bookmarks, Catching Feelings, The Princess Weiyoung, Tune in for Love and Queen Sono are just a drop in the ocean that is Netflix’s diversification. 

One of the merits of the many months of sheltering-in-place and social distancing was the availability of time to binge-watch Netflix. Netflix seems to be positioning itself as an inclusive streaming platform, which is something to be celebrated.

Netflix, however, is not alone in its steps toward diversification. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd, many individuals, celebrities and organizations have come forward to take a stand against racism and acknowledge their failures, systemic or otherwise. Over the past three months, there has been a much louder rebuke of racism and bolder demand for social change. 

It is a shame that something so tragic, so horrifying, had to happen for people to begin to open their eyes. But even before Floyd’s murder, more conversations about diversity were beginning to happen. Floyd’s brutal killing amplified the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. The resulting cry for inclusive representation is most urgent and desperately needed now. 

A study carried out by BookNet Canada called Demand for Diversity: A Survey of Canadian Readers quoted one of their interviewees, who likened reading diversely to a menu in a restaurant. When publishers present a wider array of books to bookstores who in turn present them to customers, they give readers an opportunity to try out new items on the menu. Increased selections mean increased visibility for underrepresented groups, including visible minorities, LGBTQ+ folks and people with disabilities or those who are differently abled. 

Another interviewee was quoted in the BookNet Canada survey, arguing that an author’s ethnicity should not matter, and so they read according to their interest and not where the writer is from. Selecting books should indeed be based on subject matter and not the author’s race or ability. 

It is, however, a well-known fact that some groups are underrepresented in books and as authors. We have a responsibility to right this wrong, to give voice to those who have always been left out. If we make efforts to read books that portray our world as it truly is, then, hopefully, someday, our society will get to a place where we can simply focus on subject matter.       

Jael Richardson, the founder and artistic director of the Festival of Literary Diversity, uses a similar metaphor in an article about diversity in publishing. She writes, “if someone came to you and said, ‘I only want to eat grapes for the rest of my life,’ wouldn’t you suggest they try pizza or a samosa or sushi?” That is the idea behind Reading in Colour. It is a call, a beckoning, urging readers to be more intentional when selecting books. 

Reading literature from various groups and on diverse subjects enables readers to broaden their understanding of themselves. Seeing other cultures and worldviews in books familiarizes readers to different ways of being. It normalizes the idea of being different and gradually enables people to better connect. Reading in Colour is about seeing others and seeing ourselves in others. It is about learning other cultures, other belief systems and of other places through literature. Reading in Colour is an act of love and an opportunity for each of us to make a small contribution in an effort to establish more acceptance. 

Valerie Chelangat is a Kenyan-Canadian writer. She loves Winnipeg but struggles with the winter. She gets through the season by reading any books she gets her hands on and drinking too much tea.

Published in Volume 75, Number 02 of The Uniter (September 17, 2020)

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