on Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Out of sheer laziness and avoiding temptations, I decided to skip KLIBF this year. Unless of course, you physically drag me to go there with freebies included 😛 I’m just not a big fan with the word ‘book exhibition’… ‘book sale’ on the other hand… mmm… but I really need to control my physical book budget and maintain my own personal budget so please, understand why I can’t go.

Also, there’s a diversify literature campaign going on twitter by the fantastic Ellen Oh and being a book geek, I just can’t help it really but to involve with the discussions.

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As a born and bred Malaysian, I am proud to be living in a multicultural country and living in a diverse city of Petaling Jaya. Despite various controversies about underlying racial tension here (mostly due to political situations and you all know how that usually work out) and society pressure about identity conflicts, but things still work out normally for me. My friends is still my friends no matter whether they’re not ethnically the same as I am. Plus it is hard to be anti-diverse considering my family (especially on dad’s side) is a mesh of mixed marriages of sort and we’re all like big poster family of diversity. But I am not mixed. I am just half Malay and half Javanese which many don’t consider any distinction but I am proud of my Malaysian-Singaporean-Indonesian identity. My family is unconventional and diverse and we’re completely fine with that.

But whatever race you are, religion you choose, political party, sexual orientation etc, it shouldn’t distract you from the big picture of diverse global population and no matter how you try to police it or impose your own views against it, it is unstoppable. Plus, we’re all using internet and you can’t avoid diversity for so long.

English is one of the most common language used in the world so it is understandable why book industry should reflect this as a form of globalization as well. In fact, most chain bookstores in here cater mostly to English readers than any other language because of the practice from the British colonial era. International distributions was one of the market drivers for a lot of publishers especially in physical book market. Despite many thinking that ebooks kill book market, publishers still restrict a lot of countries against buying their ebooks because of the diminished physical book market in US and some other countries. Of course, they have to think about piracy as well.

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Why do people make it harder to buy ebooks through proper channels?

Its not a known travel fact but Malaysian bookstores are among the most diverse compilation of bookstores you might find yourself yourself stumble into. There are chain bookstores like MPH, Popular/Harris, Kinokuniya and there were specific bookstores that cater specific needs (Malay/Chinese/Tamil/Japanese/Iban bookstores, religion bookstores, science/medical bookstores, university bookstores, second hand bookstores etc). Although it can be rare, bookstores still exist in suburban areas and even more in around major cities in Malaysia.

But bookstores closures isn’t just another US issue as it happened around the world too. Borders Times Square and MPH One Utama were two of the local bookstores that was downsized by half than their own original size. Payless bookstore closed a few years ago and many more local bookstores struggled as rent became premium but  they do survive. Readers on the other hand have more cheaper options like seasonal warehouse sales, 1Malaysia bookstore, Bookxcess, Big Bad Wolf Sale and online bookstores are gaining ground as well offering books that normal bookstores might second guess about them.

What does that mean?

Well, it means Malaysian book market is adjusting and surviving. We’re the obvious market that nobody really consider about. Malaysians readers are diverse reading public. Despite all odds bookstore still exist and thriving within this niche market. Despite piracy and all, we are the example that book industry can survive by catering diverse customers and diverse population. In fact, local Fixi publisher won the London Book Fair International Book Industry Excellence Awards recently and that is something we all should be proud about and took for an example. Fixi had Malay and English pulp fiction line and also translation line and non-fiction.  Fixi’s success story itself depended mainly on diversifying itself against the local Malaysian book market like DBP, Karangkraf and Alaf 21 and it appeal to a lot of readers and new readers looking for something that doesn’t exist prior to a few years ago.

Internet made diversity more apparent and so was language use to connect each of us.  Globalization should not diminish cultural diversity – it should embrace it instead. It made distinctive cultures far away more approachable. In fact, within these three years my blog surprisingly attracted decent amount of page views… yes, I am aware I need a domain and stuff.

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and the list goes on…..

So, technically I am considerably a globalized diverse reviewer right?

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Whatever that is,  the fact still remains that being a diverse reader or diverse author or diversifying against the normal book trend doesn’t hurt anything except providing some more choices and variety. It just made one become more approachable and all. How long can bookstores survive on professional critic choice books or bestseller lists; which can be manipulated. How many more bookstores had to maintain market pricing by the usual book stripping habit? How many more fictions with near to similar theme seasonally flood the market? How many bookstores have to compete each other while basically selling the same thing by perceived traditional demand?

As for me, being a Malaysian who read almost exclusively in English, almost majority of the books I read in English are foreign books coming from all around the world outside Malaysia. I don’t want to discriminate myself by choosing only Made in Malaysia books and devour them as it is. Basically, that is an act of diverse reading right there.

While to some other, many would consider me classed under “Person of Color”. Although I’m neither Black and neither White. I’m not sure I am Brown either but I am tanned in varied shades from lighter to darker. Fact is, where I am, we don’t label each other by which shade we’re in so the concept of seeing human race distinctively by “colour” is foreign for me. You could say we’re colour-blind people when referring to another person’s ethnically. We tend to consider cultural differentiation by the groups norm and traditions as ‘ethnic’ rather than judging it by skin tone.  Like I am Asian but that is because I live in Asia. It is not my ‘ethnicity’. There’s 49 countries in Asia and as for the people, we’re definitely not alike at all. Also we’re not diversely perfect too. We still fought menial things about each other daily but Malaysians still love and tolerate each other for the differences we had.

But that is what diversity in people is. People with their own identity, history, culture, traditions, religion, sensitivity, norms, taboo etc. Authors shouldn’t white wash these things simply because its too much to handle. No matter how you tried to be vague and erase ethnic specificity for your main character -apparently popular reason was your readers need to superimpose themselves with your characters- it wont fix the issue of the dearth of representation among diverse population. In fact, I think it got worst in practice when you try to impose the Sue version of yourself into a character in a non-diverse story…

It is not just a problem faced in English literature but among localized literature as well. Having one diverse character among non-diverse fictional population is not a show of diversity. Just a show of special snowflake syndrome. Reverse of this also exist too. Of course, its uncommon to be the only White, Malay, Black, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan-Dusun, Minangkabau etc in real life situation especially when you’re travelling or migrating but in literature, you can have more flexibility to be diverse when creating characters. Give a reasonable reason why the main character must be the only non-white character in your book other than playing the hero card or filling in certain stereotyped archetypes.

One of the usual writing group I frequent often gave me me this whenever I tried to talk about cultural appropriation: its okay to not be specific as long as you can write what you want to write about them.

But looking  among YA novels, I found a shift in making main characters with brunette/red-haired. Because they are seen to be more special among the usual natural blonde and blue eyes main characters. I suppose it came from a lot of literature and history that painted certain colour of hair negatively while another positively angelic. I can’t understand that because where I am, we’re all dark brown hair folks. There’s different shades and texture of dark hair too. But its just melanin to me.

But why was singular hair colour in main characters can be seen distinctively special as a show of diversity in literature? I thought hair can be dyed in any colour so shelves like Brunette heroines, Blonde heroines and red-headed heroines honestly baffled me.

Was that the idea of ‘diverse characters’ that readers need? Differentiation by hair colours? It did nothing but maintaining the imagery that a characters need to be a version of standardized idea of physical beauty to be a main character. I know it was a form of escapism and there is nothing wrong with that but wouldn’t it be better if you can choose and be more than just the fiction version who you are and who fictitiously wearing different hair and eye colours?

I do escapism too. Almost all the time when I read POVs characters that was completely wasn’t physically the same with me and sometimes I like it but most of the time its because the characters themselves sometimes resonate with me either through the character’s actions or personality. In the end of the day, I was comfortable enough to read outside my racial profile and barrier as long as the character’s soul resonate enough to me. I guess, I am willing to think outside than just within the limitation of my culture, race and religion.

But I find it hard to regularly read more book that fit my own culture. Since I do write fiction as a serious hobby and still not for publishing, I do become more or less unmotivated when I start thinking about publishing itself. You see, it was more common to see Asian writers writing literary novels but its harder to see them writing genre books that I like scifi, romance and fantasy. I know it was harder to break through genre market especially when you receive the oft mention “that isn’t selling at the moment”. 

To me, it is optional to write about diverse characters. Nobody is forcing you to be diverse because most of the time authors do tend to appropriate someone’s culture badly and start to make it exotic to attract readers. I find that’s wrong and frankly unethical. Then again, I am a minority population in literary world as well. I tried to write more characters that fit my own self and identity but sometimes thinking like that is restrictive.

But at the end of the day, we the book consumers should have a choice and being diverse in writing and reading is a choice too and we should celebrate that.

Also, bookstores aren’t dying. Big chain bookstores are. You don’t need to arm yourself against Amazon or bookstore apocalypse and what not. Be diverse. Learn to accept individual interest. Accept variety readers around us. You don’t need to only sell bestsellers. Your own bookish charms will survive.

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The world around us is more vibrant than just the singular tune we follow from hype. Choose to embrace authors and books outside your world. I barely left my world as it is and I don’t regret that one bit. I love my own world and my family even I know that this world is big and bigger from the outside, still I wouldn’t live through to explore it on my physicality. While internet let me connect to the world, books gave my mind wings to learn new things and cultures and to appreciate more people where I couldn’t afford myself to. Let the characters, settings or the storytellers drive you through it. Let them be from UK, US, Iceland, Greece, India, China, Germany, Middle East, etc. Learn to read outside your comfort zones. Read authors others say you shouldn’t, unconventional authors, authors with different point of view in life, authors with disabilities, authors of various culture, authors that doesn’t fit into the rules of this society we live in. Well, whatever the censorship board my tell you, it is NOT a crime to read. Why shouldn’t we? Reading is an act of free will. They cant take away the things you’ve read. They are powerless against that. The troublesome thing is when we decided that for ourselves. Then they won by making you taking the choice by yourself without them forcing you to do it.

Accept the change. Diversify yourself.

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