The problem with representation in literature

Illustration by Alan Gardner

According to NPR, in 2016 minority literature only accounted for about 22 percent of all published children’s books. In 2009, it was as low as 9 percent.

A lack of diversity among authors leads to a lack of representation of characters in books, leading to few stories students of color can relate to which makes it hard to motivate them to read.

The Washington Post published “The Long, Steady Decline of Literary Reading,” which found in 2015, 50 percent of White people were likely to read compared to 29 percent of Black people and 27 percent Hispanic people. The biggest driving factor to motivate reading among either race not only deals with education, but also empathy. Can people empathize with what is happening throughout a given text regardless of culture?

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a speech at the Ted Global convention in 2009 titled “The Danger of a Single Story” where she addressed how one novel presents people of color poorly becomes the narrative of an entire culture.

Adichie uses her Nigerian culture to explain the media, including books, has a way of making society believe “authentic African” happens to be one who is starving and does not have middle class privileges. This perpetuates stereotypes and makes it hard for writers of color to be published.

Society has made small changes since Adichie gave her speech.

We’ve seen people advocate for diversity in the media — specifically movies, TV and music — and finally, there has been some push for diversity in literature.

For example, VCU offers several English courses that promote diversity and educating students on cultures outside of their own, such as African-American Women Writers, African Literature, Queer Literature and Caribbean Literature. These all help to diversify the English department in order to be welcoming to students from all backgrounds.

Writers should remember writing Novels is more than just grabbing the reader’s attention and telling a story to entertain — novels are tools to discuss the political and social climate.

Elif Shafak, Turkey’s most famous female writer as of October 2017, has published multiple award winning novels and editorials whose themes revolve around life in Istanbul, mysticism, feminism and freedom of speech.

Shafak appeared in a TED Talk convention in 2010 where she gave a speech titled “The Politics of Fiction,” where she highlights empathy towards others and comments on the power of fiction.

“When we are reading a novel, we leave our small, cozy homes behind and meet people we have never met before and perhaps have been biased against,” she said.

Students from all backgrounds should be able to see their culture represented in literature. Great fiction allows readers to experience cultures outside of their own, but this isn’t possible without a more diverse range of authors.


Sierra Ayonnie, Contributing Writer

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