Through the past publishing year, I have written extensively about the importance of representation and visibility in literature. I started this column with the goal of encouraging readers to step out of their comfort zones and incorporate diversity into their book selections.
As I wrote in September 2020, “Reading in Colour is about seeing others and seeing ourselves in others.” In order for this to happen, we must consciously select books that portray society in its rich diversity. Reading diversely enables us to develop empathy for others who may be different from us.
As my column comes to its conclusion, I want to emphasize the importance of representation. It shows readers that there is more than just one way to be. It reminds us that people of every race, color, gender, sexual orientation – whether able-bodied, disabled or living with chronic illnesses – count. Every single voice matters.
When we explore unfamiliar cultures and experiences through literature, differences can shift from seeming strange to becoming beautiful and interesting. Reading normalizes lifestyles, beliefs systems, traditions, cultures, varying abilities and so on.
Elif Shafak, a Turkish-British novelist, said at a TED Talk that stories can encourage our differences to evaporate. She said “when we are reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone and start getting to know people we have never met before and perhaps had even been biased against.”
Diverse reading habits aren’t just important for adults but are also absolutely necessary for children. Books demonstrate to children that there are different opportunities available to them. It shows them that they can be whomever they want, however they want. It is crucial that they see themselves represented in books, because reading is one way little ones begin to accumulate knowledge.
It is my hope that, through Reading in Colour, you have been inspired to expand your reading habits.
As my parting shot, I’m going to outline several initiatives that promote representation in literature, which are mostly Instagram accounts, because I kind of live there. These are just a few accounts I think would be great to follow, as they talk about diversity in books and the importance of representation:
@middleeastbooks belongs to a reader who frequently lists books by Middle Eastern authors.
@erinanddanisbookclub is an Indigenous book club.
I dream of one day living in a better world, where preaching inclusion and diversification will no longer be necessary. I want to live in a world where everyone’s voices are celebrated and represented enough so that simply picking up a book based on subject matter alone would not result in some voices being silenced. Some day, hopefully, we will get there. But in the meantime, we must make a conscious choice to seek out different voices and opinions.
Valerie Chelangat is a Kenyan-Canadian writer and bookseller. 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 22 of The Uniter (March 18, 2021)