A Reflection on My Year of Reading QTPOC Books

When I was looking back on the books that I had read in 2014, I realized that, despite the fact that according to lots of people’s standards I read very ‘diverse’ books, I had read more than twice the amount of white authors compared to authors of colour. I was pretty disappointed in myself, so I decided that to ‘catch up,’ the next year (2015) I would try to read only books by queer and trans people of colour (QTPOC). How did this go? Well, it was disrupted by me going back to school and being forced to read a ton by straight white dudes (erg) but I still made an effort to choose POC authors for my reading-for-fun books—when I had the time to read for fun, that is. I didn’t particularly try for any mix of different ethnicities, although I had a vague idea of mixing it up, so it was pretty interesting when I tallied the books up in this pie chart:

Pie Chart

I’ve never made a pie chart before—that was fun and easy! Anyway, not included here are some books by white people I had to read for school, and a few cheats when I just had to find out what happened in Saga and when I re-read Anne of Green Gables to comfort myself when I was super sick.  It’s interesting that I didn’t read many books by Latin@ or Middle Eastern authors.  I think cause I’m Canadian and the Latin American population here is so small compared to the US, books by Latin@ authors are harder to get here, and I just plain don’t hear of them.  Although I was totally blown away by a few that I did read.  But I have no theories about why I couldn’t find more Arab or Persian authors to read. As it was, I ended up reading a few books (one in French!) by the amazing graphic memoirist Marjane Satrapi, who isn’t actually queer.  If you want to have a look at everything I read, look here.

red azaleaI discovered a ton of awesome new (to me) authors last year that I’m excited to read more from: in particular, Anchee Min, Daisy Hernández, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Charles M. Blow, and Deborah Miranda. All of those are writers I only discovered through consciously searching for QTPOC writers. I pride myself on being kind of a queer book expert, so if I hadn’t heard of some of these authors, that must be really annoying for new QTPOC readers looking for books to reflect their experiences!  Of course, my cultural/racial background is a factor here, so maybe if I wasn’t white, I would be more likely to have heard of some of these great authors. Other authors I really enjoyed that I had heard of before but just hadn’t got around to reading yet: Daniel Heath Justice, Helen Oyeyemi, Vikram Seth, Ryka Aoki, Trish Salah, and Mia McKenzie. Google them and check them out! There’s a big variety of genre and style represented by that list (YA, fantasy, memoir, poetry, magical realism, fairy tale, and more!).

he mele a hiloI guess the biggest thing I took away from this reading project is that a lot of these books are hard to track down, even more so than LGBTQ+ books in general—which is pretty difficult at times, from my experience. Sometimes, I found books I wanted to read, but then found out that I couldn’t get them in Canada—at least not without buying them through Amazon. I can’t afford to buy most of the books that I read, and I don’t usually take a chance on buying a book by an author I’ve never read unless something has been personally recommended. Also, my preference is not to buy things from Amazon unless I have to. Sometimes, though, when I was trying to track down authors, Amazon wasn’t even an option to get their book! Especially when I looked for books written by trans women of colour. I went to the trouble of ordering a book by Dane Figueroa Edidi, which looked so awesome, off her website, but then discovered she doesn’t ship to Canada (or rather, anywhere outside the US). And, I only managed to read Ryka Aoki’s awesome novel He Mele a Hilo (A Hilo Song) by requesting it through inter-library loans at the Vancouver Public Library. Lots of people probably don’t even know about that option, and I bet other libraries might not be able to get it. If a book isn’t available at the public library, or even in Canada through other means, that’s a pretty limiting economic factor, one that’s especially crucial for trans women of colour readers.

bread out of stoneI noticed as the year went on that I was reading books that felt pretty different from what I was used to reading. For one, I had to read less Canadian authors than I normally do. When you added both POC and LGBTQ+ to the deciding factors, there just weren’t a lot of Canadian options (although I did read some books by old favourites of mine Dionne Brand and Shani Mootoo, both of whom fit the bill there). I also found myself reading a lot more non-fiction than I normally do. I’ve always considered myself a fiction person, but I read a ton of memoirs last year. Standouts were definitely Charles M. Blow and Daisy Hernández, who wrote amazing memoirs about growing up black and Latina—respectively—and bisexuality (among lots of other issues). Gorgeous writing in both of those books. I loved them. I wonder, though, is this a pattern where QTPOC are not encouraged to tell fictional stories, that it’s assumed the only stories they have to tell are ‘real-life’? I know this is definitely a problem with trans writers and the transition memoir format; Janet Mock’s memoir, which I read last year, definitely falls into that category. Cat Fitzpatrick explains more about that trend here (in relation to white writer Juliet Jacques’s Trans).

DREYDI also ended up reading a lot more men than I usually do: I read eight books by queer men of colour last year. I think that number of men is probably up from, uh, zero in past years. I even read a couple books by straight men of colour, Thomas King and Ta-Nehisi Coates, since everyone was talking about their books. King’s—The Inconvenient Indian—mostly reminded me about how lovely his fiction is and how I would have rather been reading that instead of his non-fiction. Like everyone else, I thought Coates’s was gorgeously written and powerful; the audiobook (read by the author) is great and I highly recommend it. But why did I end up reading books by men when I had set out to read books by queer women of colour? I don’t know, sexism. When you’re busy and you don’t have a lot of time to seek out and get a copy of a book, you pick up one that’s easy to find. It’s no coincidence that both Coates and King are thought of as spokespersons for their respective communities—an idea that’s problematic in and of itself—and they’re both men. I mean, that’s why their books are everywhere. That in itself isn’t a problem, but why don’t women of colour and their books hold those positions?

I feel like I learnt a lot last year reading through the lens of writers of colour. I don’t even know if it’s anything in particular I can pinpoint; it more feels like a slow expansion of my idea of what the world is like from different perspectives and a more nuanced awareness of my position in it. I feel like I learnt at the same time how different QTPOC’s lives—real and fictional—are and can be from my own, but also a lot of ways in which they can overlap. That feels pretty cool.

I think from now on I’m going to aim for 50 / 50 white and people of colour authors in my reading. What do you all think about that? Is that enough? Has anyone else tried a reading project like this? How did it go?

 

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and future librarian who holds an MA in English literature and is currently studying for an MLIS in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle, Book Riot and Inside Vancouver. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
This entry was posted in Asian, Bisexual, Black, Canadian, Caribbean, Dionne Brand, Fantasy, Fiction, Gay, Indigenous, latina, Lesbian, magic realism, Non-Canadian, Non-Fiction, Poetry, Postcolonial, Queer, Shani Mootoo, Short Stories, South Asian, Toronto, Trans, Trans Feminine, Young Adult and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to A Reflection on My Year of Reading QTPOC Books

  1. I’m aiming for 50/50 this year, too. I have so many conflicting feelings about this project. I should probably make a video about it. I mean, it was fantastic in many ways, but it did sometimes feel constraining and arbitrary, and it got muddled, and sometimes it felt uncomfortable and tokenistic. I’m glad I did it, but it has its issues.

    • Interesting! What felt uncomfortable and tokenistic? I can see if the project was just “one year of reading POC and then back to my old habits”that would be tokenistic.

      • I just wondered at times if I was picking up books primarily because of the author’s race, which wasn’t my intention. I also felt uncomfortable having to define which authors “counted” as PoC.

      • Right, that makes sense. Like, choosing authors only for that reason is really reducing their complexities as writers. I see that. Do you think you choose books by queer women primarily because of their sexual orientation?

        I felt weird about designating people as well. I mostly looked for self-identification clues, like if the author talks about their cultural/racial/ethnic background.

    • How would you feel about a straight person doing a year of queer books?

      • I think in theory I would be fine with it, but in practice I would probably roll my eyes at a lot of the discussion around it. (Straight coverage of queer books can be cringe-worthy, even when it’s from a good place.)

      • Oh yeah, I’ve read some of that! I think it takes a lot of self-educating to become familiar enough with a community to be able to write good reviews of a book about/by them. I feel like reading a lot of books by different groups of people of colour has helped get more tools for writing about those books on my blog actually.

        But then there’s the difference between reviewing and just reading. I know some authors of colour who don’t even want white reviewers to review their books, which is a legit choice. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read those books.

  2. Jaie says:

    I also tried to read more books by POC. I also had a difficult time finding the books. I’m in Philadelphia and we have a diverse population but the library doesn’t have nearly enough queer books for me, let alone QTPOC. I might do straight non-fiction and memoirs, there are shelves and shelves of those. I also struggled because I was trying to read 100 books and that goal took precedence sometimes. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Anytime! If you’re talking about your public library, you should have a look on their website and see if you can email someone to suggest titles for them to buy and to point out that the library’s collection doesn’t fit the diverse population. That’s the mandate of public libraries, so it sounds like they’re not doing their job!

  3. M says:

    You inspired me to track my reading last year and make sure my reading was at least 50/50. This year, I’m trying to read two books by POC for each book I read by a white person, since “people of color” is necessarily a much larger and more diverse category than “white people,” given that it means “everyone who isn’t white.”

    • That’s great that you were inspired to look at what you’ve read! I’m glad to hear that.

      One interesting thing Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME was about the creation of the category white and the diversity disguised within that. He wrote something along the lines of “it used to be Irish, Celtic, Slavic, Ukranian, Polish, etc and now they’re all ‘white’ “. I don’t really have anything intelligent to say about that, I just thought it was super interesting, the idea that white is falsely simplified.

      • M says:

        That is interesting, and a reason I really need to shake a leg and read Between the World and Me. I should pay more attention to ethnicities as well as races in my reading, for sure.

      • It’s quite a short read! Or, if you listen to the audio book it’s only about 3 hours.

      • That’s a fascinating point he raises. I’m Irish/Polish/British and my partner is Croatian/German. All of our ancestors are “white”, in that they are light skinned, but all have different cultures, religions, languages and histories. In fact, many of our relatives would have been trying to kill/subdue/invade/convert each other in previous generations. 😉

      • Yeah, I think his point is, emphasizing that obviously POC are on the very short end of that stick, that the categories black and white are a disservice to everyone and mask human diversity.

  4. Pingback: Link Round Up: December 21 – January 10 | The Lesbrary

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