BookCamp, #DiverseCanLit, and the 25-Book Pledge

On Saturday I attended BookCamp TO. BookCamp is kind of like Book Summit’s wild-child younger sister: less organized, less predictable, and with a lot more tattoos. 

While I attended really great sessions on events, freelancing, and internships (where I may or may not have gotten really rowdy and high-pitched; it’s a topic I have some opinions about), the most inspiring conversations for me happened at the session on diversity in Canadian literature and publishing, and on Twitter following the session. 

Led by Léonicka (apologies—I can’t seem to find her last name online) and Natalie Zed, the session aimed to provoke discussion on why Canadian publishing (including publishing employees, authors, and reviewers) tends to be dominated by white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied men.

Of course, the session didn’t solve the problem (nor did it aim to), but it was nice to at least see some acknowledgment of the dismal lack of diversity among the people who work in publishing and the authors we celebrate. We touched on why people tend to choose literature that reflects their own experience (and why that’s a lot easier for white, straight, able-bodied, cisgendered folks); why fiction written by women is often shunted into “women’s fiction,” while fiction by men is just “fiction”; and why authors from disadvantaged groups might feel uncomfortable submitting their work to publications that historically don’t publish much by authors from those groups—thus creating a perpetual cycle of “We don’t publish that kind of work because it isn’t submitted to us!” / “We don’t submit our work to those publications because they don’t publish us!”

I sort of wish the session hadn’t been in the first slot of the day, because I basically spent the rest of BookCamp thinking and Tweeting about it. In particular, I was wondering how much diversity my own bookshelf contains. I don’t really pay much conscious attention to the books I choose to read; usually when I pick a book it’s by an author I like, or it’s a “big” book that I feel I should know about, or I read about it on a blog and thought it sounded interesting. So I couldn’t really say off the top of my head how often I read a book by an author from a marginalized community.

Luckily, I started tracking my book-reading habits in late March via Goodreads. Here are the stats on the books I’ve read or am currently reading since that date:

-Total: 22

-Male authors: 9 (41%)

-Female authors: 13 (59%)

-Authors of colour: 4 (18%); three East Asian, one First Nations

-Female authors of colour: 1 (5%)

-Queer authors (that I know of): 1 (5%)

-Queer authors of colour: 0 

-Disabled authors (that I know of): 0

-Trans authors (that I know of): 0

Not a huge sample size, granted, but I can’t say that the period since March has been particularly unreflective of my usual reading habits. So yeah, there’s some work to be done.

If I were feeling defensive, I could say that since I don’t make a conscious decision to avoid authors of colour, queer and trans authors, and disabled authors, there can’t possibly be anything prejudiced about my reading habits. It’s not like I’ve ever said something like “I don’t want to read a book by a Muslim” (which, by the way, is something I actually heard when I was working at a bookstore). But there are a couple of problems with that argument: first, it actually does take conscious work to seek out authors from marginalized communities, since they aren’t published or promoted to nearly the same extent that authors from privilege are; and second, my unconscious is not somehow immune from the racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, heteronormative (etc.!) culture we all live in. 

Hence the 25-book pledge. Inspired by Harper Collins’s 50 Book Pledge, the idea is to commit to reading 25 books a year by authors who come from a different experience than you. I’m starting with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie, which might be cheating since I’ve been wanting to read it for a long time. Still, I think this challenge will not only open up some new perspectives for me, but also introduce me to great authors I might not have investigated otherwise. 

If you’re interested in joining the conversation, Tweet with the hashtag #DiverseCanLit. And here are some resources for locating authors beyond the Globe and Mail bestseller page:

Literary Fiction by People of Color (Goodreads group)

More Than 50 Books By Queer People of Color

Lambda Literary

Left out: the authors who know disability from the inside (some great stuff in the comments, too)

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