Multicultural Reading Suggestions

Zora Neale Hurston, beating the hountar, or ma...

Zora Neale Hurston.Image via Wikipedia

Since I spent yesterday lamenting my love/hate relationship with the AA section, I wanted to spend today helping people diversify their reading list. I will be the first to admit that the AA section of most bookstores is not overflowing with great literature. You may have to go to Amazon, Overstock, or a bookstore website to get the books I would argue are worth reading, but it’s worth the extra effort (I recommend the library, as well. They usually have great exchange programs with other libraries if they don’t carry the book you want).

The selections that I am going to give you are composed from two sources: books I’ve read and books on my to be read list. I encountered many of them through classes such as Native American Literature, Women in Literature, African-American Literature, and through my own stumbling attempts to find other works by authors of short stories I liked from class. I will give you a very brief overview of what each book is about (what I remember). Feel free to take up any suggestions, and add your own in the comments section. *Note: These list is multicultural in that several cultures are represented here. No other claims of multiculturalism are being made.

  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston: I’ve read this book for classes at least three times, from junior year of high school to Women in Literature, this one keeps cropping up, and for good reason. Maxine Hong Kingston is the child of Chinese immigrants, born in America. She’s also edited a Best American Short Stories collection and written other books. This is a memoir.
  • There Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: This is the only book on the list I’ve read more than The Woman Warrior. I’ve read this ins Great American Books, African-American Literature, Zora Neale Hurston Major Author Study, Women in Literature, high school–everywhere, and once just for fun. This has some of my favorite literary quote. If you have issues trying to read vernacular, it can be tough going in spots, but Hurston’s prose it beautiful.
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez: The story of a Spanish family (Puerto Rican, I think), whose daughters go through the identity crises brought up being raised in America in a different culture. The girls struggle to identify themselves and be acceptable to both their family and society.
  • The Godfather by Mario Puzo: Yes, I actually read this for a class. It is a novel about Italians and Italian-Americans, primarily in New York. Aside from some harsh language and violence, the story portrays the life of struggling immigrants, a little race relations in the poor areas of town, certain ideas that are associated with the Italian-American culture (loyalty and family), and the rise of mob/crime families.
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: I’m sure many of you have read (and loved) Jane Eyre. If you’re like me and wondered about the wife in the attic (and thought she was done a disservice in that book), you may be interested in Wide Sargasso Sea. WSS tells the story of that wife, from her upbringing in the Caribbean to the fateful fire in Jane Eyre.
  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdich: A Native American novel encompassing generations of a Native American tribe. It’s a complicated one to try to explain, but well worth a read. It’s interesting to follow the evolution backwards and forwards in time and see the impact of losing their ancestral lands and their quickly disappearing languages and culture. Erdich’s writing is lyrical and crisp.
  • Persepolis by Majane Satrapi: The story of a woman’s early life to adult growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution. Satrapi’s narrative shifts to her schooling in France as well. Told as a graphic novel in black and white, there are two books/parts to the tale. I bought the complete Persepolis. It’s a fast read and a rare look into a much maligned or misunderstood culture.

I’m going to have to break this up a bit. I’ll add more in the next post.

Happy Reading!

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My Love/Hate Relationship with the AA Lit Section

Like Richard Wright's novel Native Son, I Know...

I need to see more of this man in my bookstore, and not in the AA section. Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been moving this post further and further back in my mind because I didn’t know how to approach it or if my readership would understand exactly where I was coming from. However, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I’m not the only one who is being done a disservice here. At least I know I am being shortchanged. So, without further ado:

I have a love/hate relationship with the African-American Literature ( heretofore known as AA Lit)section in bookstores the world over. Whether it was Borders or Barnes and Nobles, or the used bookstore I found in the historic downtown district of my relatively small town, they all have a small AA Lit section somewhere. I am conflicted about this. There are pros and cons, in my mind, to “our” literature having its own section. I’ll go through the majors with you:

Pros:

  • I know where to find any book by, about, or “for” African-Americans.
  • I can see at a glance if a book by an AA author is in stock.

Cons:

  • If I don’t know the author’s race, I can spend a lot of time looking in the wrong places.
  • I can assume the bookstore doesn’t have a book because I don’t know the author is African-American.
  • Other races of people, as well as African-Americans, ┬ádon’t have the same exposure to African-American literature, as they have to seek it out in its separate section.
  • All African-American books are in the AA section, regardless of the genre of the work. In some cases, the AA section will include both fiction and non-fiction, history, sociology, books on writing, erotica, gay and lesbian literature, romance, thrillers, and cultural criticism.
  • I can’t explore the specific genre an AA author writes in without leaving the AA section and finding the appropriate section.
  • Other than the agreed upon classics (Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Color Purple, Invisible Man), Urban Literature (“Hoodwives of Atlanta, etc), Erotica by Zane, and commentary by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, the rest of Black/AA literature is glaringly underrepresented.
  • The AA section is usually in the back corner of the store, like a dirty secret.

It was recognized very early on that I liked to read. My mother and relatives always made it a point to buy/bring me books to read. They bought me books with little girls and boys on them that looked like me as well as the classic children’s books. I didn’t realize until I was older and buying my own books how hard it would be to find quality books by Black authors.

At first, it didn’t bother me that they had their own section. It made it easier to find Black authors if I wanted a specific book or author. But then, I noticed that the books were all the same after a while. They would stock a few that are inevitably chosen for high school or freshmen composition/English classes for the “African-American segment” of the class, a few that teen girls and popular fiction addicts would like (usually with adult themes of sexuality, infidelity, drug use/drug dealing, “pimping”, women using men for money, etc), and a few books by the default “Black leaders” of the day about how to progress. I stopped being exposed to new (to me) authors that I would like to read. I was relegated to Amazon to find a wider range of books by African-Americans. It was like they were telling me what I should be interested in reading by African Americans while making it difficult for anyone not specifically looking for AA Lit to stumble upon it.

I know that bookstores stock what they think will sell based up what has sold in the past, their relationships with publishers, the NYT bestseller list and probable book club/ school reading selections. But the placement of the books is in their control. I believe books should be placed by their genre, not by the race of their author. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should be in the same section as Augusta Gone. The Dew Breakers should be in the same section as The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Erotica by Zane should be in the same section as the Best Erotica of 2010 compilation. Some Toni Morrison needs to be rubbing shoulders with Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. I should be able to get The Broke Diaries and Prozac Nation without going from one end of the bookstore to the other. I wouldn’t expect Angela’s Ashes to be in a separate section for Irish-American Literature.

So, there. I’m calling bookstores out. I’m putting you “on front street.” I know you all are having big problems now that eReaders have cropped up and the magazine market took a nosedive. But I still believe in bookstores. I just want the bookstore to be a little more colorblind. When I debut my first book, I don’t want it shoved in the back corner in the Black Literature section, but upfront in the new releases, then eventually back in fiction…or memoir, depending which book I release first. Thanks.