Response: What Does the Term Diverse Mean to You?

On Wednesday, Naz @ Read Diverse Books posted “What Does the Term Diverse Mean to You?”. I’m bumping the review I had scheduled today to write a response to his post, as I’ve been thinking about it a lot these past two days. I highly recommend you read his original post if you haven’t done so already. He breaks down what he means when he uses diverse, a popular word in the book world whose meanings and uses are not often closely explored.

Naz makes three points about diversity in his post (which he makes clear are his own opinion, and that we don’t really have a universally correct way to use the term):

  1. That diverse/diversity are particularly Western terms
  2. That we shouldn’t refer to individual people or books as diverse
  3. That when he says ‘read diverse books’, he means read books “that represent the variety of voices traditionally marginalized and underrepresented in the (Western) publishing industry”.  I.E. ‘Read diverse books‘ =/= ‘Read a diverse book’

I immediately agreed with his third point. Where I got stuck was why we shouldn’t call individual books (that may be found, for example, on a ‘list of diverse books’) diverse – I didn’t understand why it might be okay to say ‘read diverse books’ but not ‘read a diverse book’. However, I did understand and agree with Naz’s point about using diverse collectively. I agree that diversity comes when you have a variety of stories together. I understand that only reading books about, for example, white trans boys would not be ‘reading diverse books’ because those books are not very diverse from one another. Therefore it’s important to say ‘read diverse books’ in the collective sense that Naz defined. When you’re reading diversely – when you read diverse books – you’re reading books about many different people and experiences.

As I reflected on how I use the term diverse with regards to individual books, I initially thought I used it to refer to a book that gives voice to someone who experiences the world differently from me, i.e. a character who is not a cishet, white, ablebodied, English-speaking, Canadian female. In my case, this definition includes a lot of books that feature traditionally marginalized voices. Those characters are ‘diverse’ from mainstream literature. Therefore, what harm would I be doing in saying ‘This book is diverse’? When I looked back at Naz’s post last night, I saw the answer to my question. The key issue with my definition is the word differently.

Some people may use the term to mean “different” or “other,” but we shouldn’t be using it in that context or mindset because it renders exotic the experiences of marginalized communities. And as long as we keep seeing their stories as other or foreign, then we will struggle to move past the term “diversity” and into fair and equal representation. The goal should be to make “diversity” obsolete, at least in the publishing industry, and aim for all stories to be valid and valued, not because they’re “diverse” but because they reflect our world and explore universal truths.

I spent a lot of time arguing back and forth with myself about these points. I do this so I can make sure I really understand why I might change my mind on something. Suddenly, Naz’s argument clicked for me. Diverse shouldn’t be interchangeable for ‘gives voice to an experience different from mine’. That’s how I was using the term. The problem with that is, as Naz writes in the quote above, the exoticizing of others’ experiences. I didn’t think I was doing that. But, I’m finally starting to understand that just because I don’t intend to exoticize experiences, doesn’t mean I’m not. Sure, I can say that’s what I mean by diverse but using that term in that way also means I’m inherently exoticizing others experiences. Am I understanding this correctly? I managed to arrive at this conclusion by working through the following thoughts: I also agree that in a perfect world we wouldn’t have to use the term diverse – publishing would represent all the wonderfully varied experiences of people around the world. But…this is where I still get a bit hung up. We don’t live in a perfect world right now. We still have to push for those stories to be told or to be read.To me, I imagine it’s a bit like how we shouldn’t need coming out videos. Nobody should have to make a statement of their sexuality in order to be a positive role model or live as their real self – but with the way society is currently, those videos can be very beneficial to (for example) a young kid struggling with their own sexuality. Then I worry, is my kind of logic part of the reason we can’t move forward?? Am I actually embodying what I would rather abolish? Ahh headache. Maybe I’m finally starting to understand that this may be a more subtle distinction than I realize. And that brings me back to the top of this paragraph 😛 Suddenly, I thought I understood! Because diversity is a given in our world, because we want “all stories to be valid and valued, not because they’re ‘diverse’ but because they reflect our world and explore universal truths” (qt. Naz), this term should be made obsolete.

I went back to look at my review of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, because I knew even when I published that post that I used diverse in an awkward way, when I really should have used different terminology. Funnily enough, I did use diverse in the collective way without consciously intending to, as I said all of the stories in the book are diverse… Here’s the paragraph where I talked about diversity [newcomments in square brackets]:

All of Oyeyemi’s works demonstrate diversity [Here’s my use of the term in a collective sense – her books all feature diverse characters, as do the stories in this collection], and these stories feature a varied cast of characters. Just as she did in White is for Witching (which features an interracial lesbian couple),   the ‘diverse’ aspects  of the character’s feel natural and almost incidental (not in a bad way) to the story [This whole sentence could use a rewrite, to indicate simply that the characters are not defined by one aspect of their identity]. Sexuality and racial identity are not used as token diversity markers [I think this usage is okay]. But, the stories would not be the same without these aspects of identities. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is, Oyeyemi has found the balance between writing diverse characters who are only their diversity and writing diverse characters who are wholly separate from their diversity. [Whoo, now I can cringe at this sentence 😛 What I am really trying to say is that Oyeyemi writes human characters with realistic identities, and doesn’t just write diverse stories for the sake of diversity.]

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. This was a tough post for me to write, because I know I’m new to this discussion and I’ve probably still got some things wrong. What you don’t see here is the 1,000 words I deleted as I went in circles trying to make sense of everything 😛 I was nervous about posting this because of that, but I know I can’t overcome my own misunderstandings and learn and improve without engaging in dialogue so I’m taking the plunge! Please let me know if you think I’m off track. Have I totally missed the mark with my comments on inherent exoticization? Are there are other factors we should take into consideration? I’d love to hear what you think about diversity and the use of the term diverse in the book blogging realm.