A few years ago, I wrote about research that suggests literary fiction helps us understand one another. In making a concerted effort to read beyond the authors I typically read, I think now it’s not just literary fiction that helps us understand one another: it’s diversity of perspectives.
With my Andrea Reads America project, I’m reading women, men, and authors of color from every state in the US. Reading this way has made me realize how narrow a point of view I read previously (primarily white & straight, usually male authors), and therefore how narrow an understanding I had of the world. Even of myself as a woman. In both pleasure reading and reading for school, I read thousands of pages in which women didn’t even appear except to serve men. Prostitutes. Mothers who appeared to feed and pamper their sons. Adoring girlfriends and wives who were removed from the scene when the real action, the real story, the transformation of characters took place. Likewise, people of color rarely made appearances, and if they did, it was as inferiors, as people to be mocked, insulted, or feared.
As a woman I rarely saw anyone who looked like me doing anything interesting in the classics and the literary fiction I read. Women and people of color were secondary, powerless, and were often insignificant enough to be omitted completely.
As a result, I overlooked their perspectives.
My reading project has changed that. Intentionally reading a diversity of authors has brought those discounted stories forward. This has been a powerful experience. I’ve been exposed to perspectives that were easy to ignore without reading their stories. I feel heart-wrenching sadness, and oftentimes rage, on behalf of native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, and women.
The mothers are afraid to have more children, for fear they shall have daughters, who are not safe even in their mother’s presence.
— Life Among the Piutes by Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, published 1883
I stopped reading in disgust when the paper said that the police didn’t use clubs or pistols against the rioters. If that wasn’t a billy club that cop used on that colored man’s head, then I was stone blind.
— Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Merriweather, published 1970
Miss Celie, You better hush. God might hear you.
Let ‘im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you.
— The Color Purple by Alice Walker, published 1982
Bethel Jenkins, his mama, had raised no fool. Jenkins had sense enough not to wear his best suit or his best shoes down to the police station to see Michael Cronin. Clean and slightly threadbare — that was the best way to dress for talking to the white folks.
— River Cross My Heart by Breena Clarke, published 1999
It is not mine, she thinks, this blue and gold Indiana morning. None of it is for me. Between the flat land and the broad sky, she feels ground down to the grain, erased. She feels as if, were she to scream in this place, some Indiana mute button would be on, and no one would hear.
— The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf, published 2006
It was easier to let him keep on touching me than to ask him to stop, easier to let him inside than push him away, easier than hearing him ask me, Why not? It was easier to keep quiet and take it than to give him an answer.
— Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, published 2011
We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?
— The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, published 2014
The gift of art is that it opens our eyes to the reality that surrounds us every day but that we might not see. Fiction can show us the experiences people who are not like us, and hold a mirror for those who are. Fiction can awaken us. I am humbled by the stories I’ve read. They are not long-ago history. They are the very real backstory to our societal norms, and they are inexcusable in our past and in our present.