Why do I read diversely? Performative reading and virtue-signalling

The conversation surrounding reading diversely has become a prolific one, subject to much scrutiny. Reading diversely affords us insight into the dynamics of different groups of people and cultures, whose experiences in life, vary in ways small or large from our own. From it, we are able to get a better understanding of different peoples from different walks of life. We are able to understand better the struggles that others face and how they move within the world. This in turn nurtures within us (or least, it should do) empathy, compassion and tolerance of others.

Its because of this that many readers within the book community (myself included) actively seek out diverse literature, including books by black authors, Asian authors, LBGTQIA+ authors, indigenous authors and of late, Muslim and Palestinian authors. Its for this reason that I myself am trying to establish a series on my Booktube channel @LochanRead Book Reviews dedicated to discussing BAME books (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic books). So with all these upstanding intentions, why has reading diversely become so problematic?

Award-winning Homegoing author, Yaa Gyasi whose second novel, Transcendent Kingdom has been shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, wrote a piercingly strong article for the Guardian newspaper1 entitled;

“White people, black authors are not your medicine”

Read full article here!

In this article, Gyasi is mainly referring to white readers, but her arguments can also be easily applied to other types of readers. She speaks about how her debut novel, Homegoing, a transgenerational story that begins with the separation of two Ghanaian sisters, “climb[ed] back up the New York Times bestseller list in response to its appear­ance on anti-racist reading lists.”

These anti-racism lists started surging in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of former police officer, Derek Chauvin in May 2020. The event was met with worldwide indignation and led to conversations in the U.K. about the paltry representation of black authors within the publishing industry. This conversation was headed by, among others, the likes of Bernadine Evaristo, Malorie Blackman and Benjamin Zephaniah.2 Suddenly books by black authors were topping bestseller lists whenever you looked, including Gyasi’s Homegoing as well as other acclaimed books such as Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.3

Gyasi in her article laments the renewed interest in her 2016 debut novel, as its success can be attributed to the “articulation of pain.” Its as though many readers only care about reading diversely when tragedy strikes and thus seek out these diverse narratives in those situations as though they were a type of medicine.

“So many of the writers of colour that I know have had white people treat their work as though it were a kind of medicine. Something they have to swallow in order to improve their condition, but they don’t really want it, they don’t really enjoy it, and if they’re being totally honest, they don’t actually even take the medicine half the time.”

The same goes for the recent interest in books by Palestinian and Muslim authors. It seems like the social media platform, Instagram, is awash with info card posts proliferating Palestinian reading lists, in response to recent devastating events in East Jerusalem. Earlier this month, armed Israeli police officers stormed Al Aqsa mosque on the first day of the holy month, Ramadan, following an attack by the political resistance organisation, Hamas.4 Other reports of ethnic intolerance include the mandate by the Israeli government to evict Palestinian families from their own homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.5 As with the reaction to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protest, many readers have again responded by diversifying their shelves, but this time with books written by Palestinian and Muslim authors, thereby signalling their upstanding morals but in fact treating these narratives as a medicine that must be taken in the wake of Palestinian oppression.

As well as this, many argue that reading diversely carries no real weight compared with the practical hands-on work of protesting, making donations, signing petitions and vocalizing your opposition to the displacement and violence towards ethnically repressed groups. I agree with this sentiment and the view that reading diversely has in some way become a performance for many readers. Whenever I share one of those eye-pleasing info card posts on my Instagram story (the likes of which are becoming rampant on the platform) sometimes posts featuring topical reading lists, I have to ask myself; Have I taken the time to fully understand the issue at hand before taking to social media about it? Did I read the entire post before sharing it? Am I only sharing these posts to prevent being called out by others regarding my silence on the matter? Have I taken any other practical steps to aid in this issue besides sharing an info card post or a book recommendations list? Confronting these questions has made me see ways in which I am giving into to performative activism and though I probably won’t stop sharing info card posts, I’m trying to be more conscious of the virtue-signalling attached to it.

Like Gyasi notes in her article, reading diversely can become corrupted by well-meaning readers into something perverse that resembles taking medicine. It can also contribute to framing the lives of marginalised groups from a lens of constant pain, especially if tragedy is the only occasion for advocating certain books. However, reading diversely isn’t inherently disingenuous. I still advocate the proliferation of diverse reading lists, because as mentioned in the outset, reading diversely can foster an attitude of empathy. Also, confronting one’s own ignorance in this way has far-reaching implications in terms of truly effective allyship.

But personally, the reason why I read diversely has to do with inclusion. We all know that the literary world is still predominantly whitewashed in nature, despite the progress made by other ethnic groups within the industry. This means that like myself, many readers are rarely afforded the opportunity to read books that represent their lives or that they can fully identify with. I love reading fiction, including escapist fiction such as fantasy or magical realism. It’s so easy to completely detach from the world and get lost in those immersive novels, but even then, most of the protagonists that we read about are white, straight, cis-gendered men and women.

My recommendations are intended for everyone, but I particularly want to reach fellow person-of-colour readers. I want to share with them inclusive books that they might be able to identify with. Of course reading is a political act, but reading alone cannot be solely relied upon to champion activism. I still maintain that reading diversely is a valid way of raising awareness of important issues and should not be altogether discredited. But the feeling I get when I read narratives that reflect my own cultural identity and the unique experiences I face is the main reason why I read diversely. Its also this feeling of being ‘seen’ within the books I read, that impels me to seek out other minority ethnic and sexually diverse books that might benefit typically otherized readers.

What are thoughts on reading diversely?

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1. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/mar/20/white-people-black-authors-are-not-your-medicine

2. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/15/black-writers-guild-calls-for-sweeping-change-in-uk-publishing

3. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/10/black-british-authors-uk-book-charts-blm-bernardine-evaristo-reni-eddo-lodge-waterstones

4. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/10/dozens-injured-in-clashes-over-israeli-settlements-ahead-of-jerusalem-day-march

5. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/11/sheikh-jarrah-residents-speak-out-on-israels-forced-expulsions

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