24 Feb Hermanos y hermanas
The Internet was up in arms yesterday after Tempest Bradford published a piece challenging readers to not read white, male cis writers for a year. The complaints soon piled in the comments section. Some people focused on the use of a Neil Gaiman book as an illustration (though Gaiman later said he supports the project) while others decried the project would “narrow” the reading experience rather than expanding it.
This, of course, is an assessment which lacks nuance.
It is not unusual for readers to “narrow” their reading experience. If you have ever taken a class on a specific literary subject (say early 20th Century Canadian Literature), or have formed part of a book club which had a certain theme (for example a month dedicated to exploring only the works of a specific author), you have narrowed your reading experience. We routinely narrow our reading experience when we read mostly or only a category, such as romance or even a sub-category, such as hard science fiction. We also attend movie marathons on specific subject matter or decide to read all the finalists on the Hugo ballot.
Though I have not taken any formal literature classes I have designed my own “mini” reading experiments by reading, for chunks of time, only 19th century fiction, only romance fiction, only science fiction by African writers or writers of African descent. Currently I’m only reading James Bond books because I want to contribute to an anthology on this subject. It’s my month of Bond.
Such efforts, of course, have not “limited” my understanding of literature as a whole. By perusing certain subject matter in more detail – such as Gothic novels of the 70s – I have a better grasp of literature, certainly a broader understanding of books.
Limiting your reading to a specific category is not an exercise in censorship, as many have claimed. It can, however, enlighten you towards different modes of storytelling, voices, styles and even themes you never considered before. It is an exercise, one meant to be undertaken for a specific period of time. Bradford mentions a year though you could obviously do it for a month or a season.
At this point, however, I’m not interested in discussing with non-POC writers whether they think this exercise is good or bad. You go ahead and do what you want. What I want to do is address POC writers.
I suffered with the issue of decluttering my brain for a long while. It was so full of Star Wars, Transformers toys, Dune and other American narratives that I had no idea who I was as a writer. I literally had no voice. I would write about travelers going into a British tavern for a fantasy quest without ever having gone into a tavern or visited Great Britain. Or I’d write about people in Boston in winter though I had no idea what snow looked like.
Though every writer struggles to find her identity, I think it was extra difficult for me to distance myself from a number of narratives I had absorbed as “natural.”
In time I have come to be more sure of who I am and the stories I want to tell. This does not mean I have completely abandoned American pop culture: I’m a big Lovecraft consumer, for one. However, I am clearly not the same writer I was before. I believe I’m much better.
Therefore I think it would be very beneficial for POC writers or would-be writers (and also critics) to adopt some mode of Tempest Bradford’s challenge. Whether it’s a year or a month or a season. The subject matter would be calibrated to one’s interests: when I was trying to figure who I was as a writer I spent a good amount of time reading Latin American writers to see how I did and did not fit within their context, for one.
In conclusion: I am writing this for POC writers. To let you know that if you’ve been struggling the issue may be that you need a change of perspective for a while. Finding your voice is not an easy task but this exercise may be a valuable tool, allowing you to declutter your brain.