Own Voices Global Reading Challenge: Mid-Point

We are officially a little over half-way through this year… and what a year it’s been! I’m not sure about you but I can’t wait for it to be over and take all the crazy it’s been stirring away with it.

There is one thing keeping me excited about the remainder of this year and that’s continuing my Own Voices Global Reading Challenge. We’ve still got a lot of ground to cover — Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Oceania are still left, and I’m currently reading North Africa. But before we wrap up the year, I want to take a moment to reflect on the challenge so far.

A recent library haul with two selections for North Africa.

As I said in my introductory post about this challenge back in January, I created this challenge because I noticed a glaring lack of diversity in the stacks of my local library. Not only were a wide range of Americans not represented on the shelves, but there was virtually no global perspective, no voices that weren’t American.

I made this challenge to stretch myself to read from voices all over the world as they told their own stories and shared their own experiences, or made new worlds and stories that were informed by their own unique perspective.

When I came up with the Global Challenge, I realized that I was reading extremely white and extremely Western — specifically British and American. I was reading in a vacuum, because it was all I knew. I felt my reading was progressive — I went to a liberal arts women’s college and studied feminist literature, for crying out loud.

If this challenge has taught me anything, it’s that I could be doing so, so, so much better. Not only could I be reading actually progressive things that teach me more about the world and the people in it, but I could relate to, understand, and feel seen by stories from people who didn’t live in the same place as me, look like me, or even speak my language.

I had gotten everything so wrong before. I wasn’t progressive for reading women who were situated in the world like I was, who looked like me, who said the same things I believed. In fact, I had closeted myself so heavily, that I stopped enjoying reading because every book felt exactly the same as the one before it.

When my eyes were opened by the early months of this challenge, I was ready to go full-throttle. I was reinvigorated with a love of reading and ready to eat books alive in my pursuit to find pieces of myself in every corner of the world. Needless to say, I missed the mark again.

Yes, we read to feel understood and to feel less alone. We cherish books that make us feel seen and validated, with characters who struggle and triumph in the same ways that we do. We like to see ourselves in the heroes, to imagine ourselves triumphing just like the hero does in the end. But when we read with the aim of finding something we can personally relate to, we stop reading for growth and start hunting for validation. If you can find personal things in the story you’re reading, that’s awesome and great and will probably make that story more meaningful to you, but that’s just the side-effect of good reading, not the goal. We should read to learn, to grow, to expand our minds and hearts, to develop our compassion and empathy, to change the world in some small way. If you only read books that reflect your face back at you, you’re not reading. You’re Narcissus dying on the bank of the lake because you’re too busy admiring yourself to see what’s going on around you, to see all the other beautiful and amazing things that exist in the world.

That’s what this challenge is about. It’s about putting down the mirror and taking a good hard look at the world around you and appreciating other people unconditionally (they don’t have to have a piece of you in them to be valuable).

With that said, here are a few things I’ve noticed about the world while I’ve been looking around at it with this challenge:

  • The United States is never the hero of the story. American patriotism and American Dream have brainwashed us into thinking that American is best, American is freedom, American is right. Plenty of books on library shelves by American authors reinforce this, and as a privileged American, many do not feel inclined to investigate the truth — there is too much to lose if it turns out that this was all an elaborate masquerade, that your happiness and success were built off someone else’s pain and loss. This challenge has opened me up to realizing how privileged I was to believe the lie blindly, and how privileged I was to never have face the truth in my own life. So many stories either explicitly called out the impact of American “foreign policy” and culture, or implicitly suggested that maybe the land of the free and home of the brave is allowed to be that way because of the murder, theft, and destruction of so many other cultures, peoples, and nations. Whether it was exposing the duplicity of the American government in dealing with Native American populations, the racism and oppression and reign of terror carried out against Black Americans, the capitalist greed of the American government in toppling popular social and political movements in South and Latin America — so many books I’ve read this year for this challenge have made me go back to the drawing board with what I know about American history. This work is absolutely crucial in understanding the past and moving into the future.
  • Being able to access stories from non-American and even non-Western points of view, or not, is about way more than a language barrier. On the surface, it seems like a simple thing: it’s just English-language privilege keeping Americans from being able to access any book that is not written in English. I’ve had a tremendously difficult time finding books for this challenge, and yes, one of the biggest blockades is language. I don’t speak any other languages because I’m privileged to live in a country that favors my native language, and in a world that also largely favors my native language. Finding books that were written in another language but are available in English is tricky, so for the most part, I’m reading only the books that were popular enough to be translated to English and distributed in America. Half a second of consideration should throw up a red-flag, dear reader: what kind of story do you have to tell to get your books on shelves in America? Probably not an anti-colonial story, or an anti-imperial story. Probably not any story that paints America in a bad light or would make American readership feel uncomfortable in any way. Probably a story that, in some degree, safely goes along with American ideals of capitalism, the benefits of Westernization, is pro-war (or at least not anti-war), that doesn’t expose the greedy, racist, and murderous side of American history and culture. This is something to consider any time you find a book by a non-American author in an American bookstore or library. Everything that is put on shelves is vetted. There are stories that American publishers want to put in English and put on American shelves, and there are those that they do not. Think of all the stories we’re missing because of this, how many pieces of truth we won’t know because we don’t speak the language.
  • On the back of that point, it is nearly impossible to find books from other cultures and continents that are not trauma focused in some way. Finding stories about joy in other countries is like finding the fountain of youth. Again, dear reader, do you see the red flag? What reason might American publishers have to make sure that the only stories American readers can access from other regions and countries are traumatic ones? The cycle is complete. Publishing these stories reinforces the idea that America is safer, more utopian, and more wonderful than these other countries where people are murdered, abused, separated from their families, impoverished, and virtually erased by evil, faceless anti-democracy governments. Trauma stories not only trick readers into thinking that these things only happen in horrible “shit hole” countries and not in America (did you click the links?), but also create xenophobic and racist ideas in the American public. We start to think that these victims might become the perpetrators if we let them come to American Dreamland, that because of their religion or skin color, this is destined to happen to them and that they can never know joy, happiness, or peace, and so we have no obligation to help them, or even view them as people like us. It’s sick and dehumanizing. Let me let you in on a little secret: People in Nigeria can fall in love; women in Nicaragua can obtain full-time employment and work in a high rise and relish an afternoon in the sun under an orange tree; Indigenous Americans experience coming-of-age and all the awkwardness the same as any white boy. People are people, all over the world. Being in America doesn’t entitle you to any more emotions, joy, or love than anywhere else in the world. Thinking that Americans are exclusive, naturally better or safer or more well off than the rest of the world is not only utterly ridiculous and untrue, but also denigrates and denies the experience of many Americans for whom that isn’t the reality because of systemic oppression — because America can be just as wicked to their own people as they are to people in other countries. Jasmine Guillory, current queen of the rom-com genre, wrote about this recently in respect to Black fiction, but I think the same holds for reading from any group that isn’t your own. People who are not Americans are not defined by their traumas any more than Americans are, they are not less than Americans, they are not better suited to deal with evil than Americans are. They are human beings, and they are capable of the same complexity, beauty, and joy that any American is. Believing any different is ignorant, racist, and xenophobic. There are stories of joy and wonder being written all over the world, we just aren’t willing to (or allowed?) to see them.

Needless to say, this challenge has changed things for me. It’s changed the way I think about other cultures and religions, changed the way I see my country, changed the way I think about my position in the world from my privileges, but most importantly, it’s made me a lot less willing to be complicit.

I’m eager to see what else changes as I progress with this challenge, and as I move into places that I am even less familiar with than I was with the areas I’ve read so far.

I’m not writing this to air out my white American guilt, but to share with transparency the things that I’ve uncovered about the world just by incorporating at least two books each month from other places in the world. I walked into this challenge wanting to see how like other women in the world I was, and while I have found personal resonance and connection in the stories I’ve read, the real power of this challenge was in shifting my worldview, something I didn’t really anticipate (but should have!). I’m finding my weaknesses and my biases, my racisms and my stereotypes, the ways that I put people in boxes and exclude them either overtly or unconsciously.

That’s where the challenge is: not in finding myself in other people, but finding my ability to be compassionate with, understand, and honor other people unconditionally; to unlearn all the behaviors and ideas that America has filled me with since I was a child that are toxic and hateful; to learn and grow so that I can be sure that in the future, these wrongs can be righted and another generation won’t fall victim to the dichotomy of hate and violence that has made America the place and people that it is.

So dear reader, I hope you’ll stick with me as we wind down the year. My wrap-up of North Africa will be posted in a few weeks!

Until next time, dear reader, I’m wishing you a good book!

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