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Why literature needs more minority authors

Lena Moral Waldmeier

Recent graduate

Jakarta  /  Mon, July 30, 2018  /  01:19 pm
Why literature needs more minority authors

Increasingly, bloggers and academics alike are emphasizing the importance of reading books by minority authors. (Shutterstock/Olga Konakova)

Increasingly, bloggers and academics alike are emphasizing the importance of reading books by minority authors. While a number of definitions such as "people of color" or "BAME" (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) have come under criticism for their generalizations, for the purposes of this piece, minority authors in the literary field refers broadly to anyone who is non-Caucasian and/or non-cis gendered male.

Top universities across the United Kingdom fail to establish an inclusive academic scope as illustrated by the student petition seeking the English department at Cambridge to "decolonize" their reading lists. Similarly, a campaign to “Decolonise Our Minds” was initiated at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Whether in academic or casual circles, a kindred backlash is to be expected whenever the suggestion of making a conscious effort to be more inclusive is voiced. It can be aptly portrayed by students at these elite universities, who would argue that minority writers should not be privileged in such regards but rather that a piece of work should be judged based on its merits rather than the heritage of its author.

This age-old argument completely misses the point that minority authors are in fact minorities within the literary field because they do not have the same opportunities as those afforded to more privileged members of society. The 2015 report by Spread the Word illustrates how overwhelmingly white, middle-class and male the community remains, while ethnic minorities feel pressured to write in cultural stereotypes in order to appeal to western audiences. Such authors are frequently overlooked by publishers and agents alike while works in translation incur further costs and arguably are more difficult to publicize internationally.

These exact assertions were made by Lionel Shriver in response to Penguin Random House’s goal to diversify its authors and staff to better reflect UK society. However, readers also have a responsibility to be aware of these biases and the importance of reading a greater diversity of authors.

While the story itself may not revolve around the authors' unique background, it will inherently reflect a different style of communication and give a “tiny glimpse into the otherness of others” as stated by Tahmina Anam in her review of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Read also: Interview: Kamila Shamsie talks about 'Home Fire', minorities and terrorism

It should be noted that there is nothing explicitly wrong with reading books based on the jacket summaries or reviews, however, an awareness that white male authors continue to dominate the literary field is required and for there to exist a genuine equality of work, readers and publishers alike will need to make a deliberate effort in supporting marginalized members of this community.

Among the groups and outlets that recognize the value in the voices of minority authors, illustrated by the annual list of POC/BAME must-reads by The Guardian, The Telegraph, Bustle etc., there remains a region that is severely underrepresented, namely, Southeast Asian writers. While a number of published authors in this sector have either been born in or emigrated to the Global North, there is undoubtedly a sincere lack of Indonesian writers that are read internationally.

Indonesia has a long history of oral storytelling, while during the 1600s books were more available in China than in Europe as a result of mass printing. The former boasts such masterful works as the Buru Quartet series by Pramoedya Ananta Toer or the more recent, Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan.

ASEAN itself could have a role in the promotion of its diverse range of authors as exemplary illustrations of the immense capacity and variety this region has to offer. Asia is home to a highly literate and engaged society that during periods of history was far more advanced than areas of the Global North. According to Petra Broomans and Ester Jiresch, countries such as Holland and France have historically overlooked ethnic minority authors, possibly because of “writing skills” or “marketability” prospects. The ones who were successful in breaking into the literary field tended to be highly educated and possessed geo-linguistic ties with Europe due to the former colonies.

Diah Ariani Arimbi, dean of the Faculty of Humanities of Airlangga University (UNAIR) argues that female Indonesian authors are able to execute their own self-definition process through the representation of Muslim women in the country, thereby allowing them to exercise control over their own “lives and bodies”.

The inclusion of literature that remains on the periphery of the field is essential to the portrayal of underrepresented members of our society.

Across Southeast Asia, this literary space is one for expression and growth that goes beyond mere words. It is an opportunity to give a voice to the oftentimes overlooked communities in the world and to amplify their sentiments worldwide. It is about returning the power to those who have repeatedly been undermined by colonial regimes and authoritarian leaders alike.

There remains fairly little written or explored of this topic even in the academic literature, however, there is a clear growth in individuals who are cognizant of these disparities and endeavor to promote diversity in the authors they read. The goal is not only to support the reach of these books but also to challenge the echo chambers in which all of us, to a certain extent, spend our daily lives.

If we only read books by authors who have had the same experiences as us, or who have grown up with the same forms of verbal and non-verbal communication cues, we limit ourselves in the opportunity to learn and discover alternate realities, and isn’t that part of the reason why we begin to read at all?

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The author is a recent graduate. She is starting a new blog at http://www.lenamoralwaldmeier.com/ and an Instagram account @thebalidog.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.