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Finding the World Through Reading

Not long after high school graduation, I moved into a little house with my boyfriend. It crouched behind an apartment block and didn’t have much to distinguish itself, except that in the eighteen months I lived there, I grew into myself. In the spacious kitchen, I learned to cook. I owned a good camera for the first time and shot photos in black and white. I planted my first garden and haunted the greenhouse that was a few blocks away.

I also found a box of books in the basement that shifted my world view completely.

By that time, age nineteen or twenty, I was already a writer. I’d written several novels in high school, all by hand in spiral notebooks when I was bored with the rest of life, or while I worked on my baby oil tan at 7000 feet above sea level as one did. During the time in that cottage on Iowa, I was writing short stories and sending them out helter skelter to magazines and getting a flurry of rejections back (and the odd polite scribbled note).

My boyfriend was in a band, and they practiced sometimes in our basement.  I found the box of books clearing things for the band. They were mostly forgettable, paperback mysteries and stained textbooks, but a small group of others electrified me: Soledad Brothers, [1] by George Jackson; An Autobiography by Angela Davis, Soul on Ice [2]by Eldridge Cleaver, and American Negro Poetry [3], edited by Arna Bontemps.

I had heard of Angela Davis, but only distantly. I was, however, a devoted writer of letters and had a slew of penpals in far flung places like Long Island and Texas, so the prison letters of George Jackson caught my eye. George was dead by the time I found his book, killed by a prison guard just a year after the letters were written. I gulped them down, drawn in by his writing, his anger, and the emotional love story between George and Angela.

A lot of it was desperately uncomfortable to read. It felt like he was writing about an entirely different country than the one I lived in.

And of course, he was.

I devoured down Soul on Ice, too, and all the poetry, connecting in particular with Georgia Douglas Johnson who wrote,

And who shall separate the dust

Which later we shall be

Whose keen discerning eye will scan

And solve the mystery?”

Many of the poems in American Negro Poetry are about disenfranchisement, about the other country those writers were living in, and reading them, absorbing all this material in a very short time, I felt shocked and ashamed that I hadn’t known anything about the divide, not really.

But I also felt angry that I, a massive and hungry reader, hadn’t read any black poets in high school, or novels.  I didn’t even know who the famous, important black writers were.

If that was true, what else didn’t I know?

So many things.

So many writers. I didn’t know Latin writers or Native American writers, or Asian writers of any ilk. No writers of color at all, as a matter of fact, at least none that I knew about.

It infuriated me, and with all the passion of twenty, I set about correcting the situation. I fell in love with poet Nikki Giovanni, read all of James Baldwin one summer, and another year gulped down everything I could find in the Native American canon after reading Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.  When I finally made my way back to school, I studied women writers and how they, too, were part of the literature I’d never been given.

This is not to say what a wise and heartfelt Enlightened White Reader I was. It’s to express my own particular journey, explore the reality of the fact that, to be exposed to any of those writings, I had to first experience a complete accident—I found those books in a box in a rented house. I was a curious reader so gulped them down, which opened my eyes to many things of which I was ignorant.

That’s really not how it should happen. By accident.

We cannot be truly educated if we’re only exposed to people just like ourselves. America is many countries, and as a writer in America (even just as a human being), I need to understand that America is not the only country on the planet that matters.

As a person of conscience, it’s important for me to pay attention to the lack of diversity in the world of books and entertainment, and I need to personally do something about it.  I need to be reading lots of books and watching lots of TV and films that are not written by the same small group of writers.

Maybe not all the time, but sometimes.

This has very much been on the minds of the members of Romance Writers of America, who are grappling with the glaring lack of diversity in the RITAs. It’s been an intense and painful struggle, but the same thing is happening in many different ways throughout the entertainment worlds and the political worlds.

One answer is simply educating ourselves.

The wonder is, the world has never been smaller.  I can expand my horizons by simply reading a book, or watching a film. It’s so easy to find material about people who are not just like me, who don’t live in the same narrow strata I do.

Education offers context for things like the daily news. Why is #blacklivesmatter such a big campaign? Well, if George Jackson was writing about it fifty years ago, and Georgia Douglas Johnson wrote about it a hundred years ago and now Angie Thomas writes about it in The Hate U Give [4], then maybe there’s a context for this is ridiculous and it needs to change now.   

Our world is divided and violent. My reading is a way to make a difference. All I have to do is listen.

If I read novels about ordinary Muslims in ordinary worlds, going about their day to day lives, I’m much more likely to see a woman in a hijab as a woman like me, rather than Someone So Different She is Probably Going to Ruin America, her brother just a guy, not the One Who Will Blow You Up.  If I read about African immigrants trying to make a life in the land of hopes and dreams, America, I might discover that I take my advantages much too lightly, and maybe I need to open up to immigrants a little more.

I learn that family is family, that we all long for the same things—belonging, hope, a chance to make something of meaning for ourselves, love.

If I read romantic women’s fiction like The Object of Your Affections [5]by Falguni Kothari and the upcoming Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors [6] by Sonali Dev, about Indian women in America, I’m going to begin to understand more about both American culture and Indian culture, and the very different ways of being an Indian woman in America, too.

There is no one cultural representation, of course. It’s impossible to read one book and extrapolate a whole culture from that. But that’s okay–it’s important to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Starting somewhere, continuing as possible, will go a long way toward inclusiveness. Every time I buy a book or talk about a book, it changes the publishing industry just that infinitesimal bit.

And really, you don’t have to get all serious about it, and make it a chore. Read in your genre and let the others go. One of my favorite books last year was Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows [7]by Balli Kaur Jaswal, which is not only about the Punjabi community, but also set in London. I connected to the story of a young woman looking for her place, and of older women telling stories to each other under cover of language classes to heal their wounds and offer community to each other.

Reading widely gives us insight and open-mindedness. More, it gives us open hearts, a commodity in short supply in our harsh, accusatory, divisive world.

Finally, in case you haven’t heard, Amazon has a lot of books in translation.  You can download a bunch for free in celebration of World Book Day, [8] but hurry, the sale is over by the end of today.

Do you have a story about reading something that changed your world view? Do you have favorite #ownvoices books to recommend?  Give me your favorites.


About Barbara O'Neal [9]

Barbara O'Neal [10] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [11], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [12].