Hello guys !
This post has been brewing in my brain for a few weeks now. If you don’t follow me on Twitter and haven’t noticed the shift in my blog’s focus lately, I am a self-proclaimed diversity advocate (or try to be as much as I can). It’s pretty recent and I have never been happier with my reading than I am now. I’ll give you a backstory on how this happened.
When I first started blogging, I wasn’t aware of the importance of representation in books, I didn’t even know it was a thing that existed and that we need more of. Then a few months in, posts started popping up in my WP reader and my Twitter timeline about diversity, diverse books, #Ownvoices books and how important all of these things are. So, as I started reading about this, I realized that I read all the same books, with the same characters, written by people who have, more or less, the same experiences (on a wider scale) and it hit me. I, by definition, I’m a diverse bookblogger, so why wasn’t I boosting voices like mine? Voices that aren’t heard enough. Voices that aren’t nearly as loud as they ought to be.
In july, I wrote this post called “My Diverse Reading -or Lack there of” where I basically pledged to reading more diversely. From then, I started adding books that I wouldn’t have read otherwise to my TBR. I started with one or two a month, until where I’m at now where I naturally reach out for them, I don’t even need to think about it.
With the talk about representation, came the talk about *accurate* representation, because a lot of books do it wrong. A lot more than you realize. Some we’ve all read and loved. That’s how problematic books were born.
A problematic book is a book that does the minority/ies it includes wrong. It could be things that can very easily be overlooked just like it could be blatant, screaming bigotry. In addition to that, those things are never called out or challenged as wrong and hurtful.
For the purpose of this post, we’ll call the diverse character Div and she’s a brown Muslim girl.
This is when a book includes characters from minorities. But not really, they’re like an afterthought. What I mean is that Div is there to check the box for diversity in a non-existent checklist, or to follow the trend (fyi, diversity is NOT a trend, if you think it is, you should read up). Div has no dept, or no real show of her identity in her behaviors and mannerisms. Other than the fact that the text says “Div is a Muslim” nothing proves that she really is. The easiest way to recognize it is to try and replace Div with a non-Muslim character (PoC or Indigenous by a white character, disabled by an able-bodied, etc…) if that changes nothing to her words and actions, that’s a bad sign. It should ring some bells.
In my opinion, this is a very easy one to recognize because the character is killed off in most cases. You ask me: How a character can possibly be a plot device? It’s when said character helps further the MC’s quest and not by being a badass companion. No. Div either dies to serve as a motivation and a slap in the face to the main character or she has something major happen to her that inspires the MC to be a better person, do better, and have a better life (re: Me Before You). This is not okay because something -literally anything- else could be a motivation, why not have something from the MC’s experiences be life changing? And leave Div alone to thrive and kick butt.
The use of slurs
Slurs are called slurs for a reason and they’re not for you to use. Especially if you’re not part of the minority the slur is directed at. Even if the word has been reclaimed by those people. They can use it. You can’t. The thing is, they’re not a monolith so if a person has accepted the word, another might still get -righteously- offended by it. And even if they use it for themselves, you using it can still be offensive. So the best approach is to not use them at all. No N word, no Q word, no F word, no R word, no slur word. Not ever.
Things specific to certain groups:
This is definitely not an exhaustive list, just some examples to get you started.
Characters of Color/Indigenous characters:
- Cultural appropriation. And by that I mean writing a book inspired by a certain culture where you’re choosing and picking what you like and completely distorting it (Re: Rebel of the Sands). Like say, having a creature be called Jin when it’s nothing like Jins. Or, face and body tattoos inspire from different indigenous tribes that are normally charged with cultural or even religious meaning but that, in the book, are used very wrong (Re: Nevernight).
- The all so popular “Div is Asian”. Asia is a continent. Is she Chinese? Japanese? Korean? Indian? Pakistani? Give me a country, not a damn continent.
- The use of “savage” to describe a people that’s -more often that not- inspired by Indigenous people. Those same people are usually antagonized and portrayed as the bad guys who go around slaughtering everyone (Re: The continent). All the while, the white savior trope is well and thriving. Please no, enough of that nonsense.
- Also, saying Div looks exotic or describing her using food is no good. She’s not a spice, she’s not food, she’s not a forest, she’s not exotic. That’s just cringey, ridiculous and shows lack of vocabulary. Here’s a helpful link with adjectives to describe skin color.
- Let’s say Div is bi/multiracial don’t use half-X, half-Y. Or worse, using percentage. Ever. She’s a full person and is fully part of both -or all- ethnicities, not half anything.
- “Div is pretty for a brown girl”. Yikes. Just no. Div is pretty. Period.
- Color blindness. Unless the character is born literally color blind. They *do* see color, whether you like it or not. So using that in a book to make a character of color’s struggles illegitimate or even cancel them is just bad. Really bad.
Mentally or Physically disabled characters:
- “Div suffers from X”. She doesn’t “suffer” from anything. You can say “Div has X” or “Div is a character with X”. Both are better alternatives.
- A very popular, very widely used practice is using the name of actual disabilities as hyperboles to get a point across, or for dramatic effect. Saying Div is a psycho or that she’s blind, deaf, hysterical, schizophrenic, bipolar, OCD, and the list goes on, when she actually isn’t. Something that we shouldn’t normalize anymore.
- Saying -or even implying- that any kind of disability ends a person’s life is very harmful. And that if they don’t endanger themselves by defying said disability they are not living life to the fullest. Can you see the flaw in that kind of thinking?
- Making someone’s disability about someone else’s life. Having them act differently, showing how it is a burden. All of it is wrong. ALL. OF. IT.
- When the disabled person has some kind of superpower that renders the disability irrelevant and like it’s not there. This just shows laziness when it comes to properly researching so the book is “working around it”. Having superpowers is fine, it’s great even, just make them unrelated to the disability.
Characters from the LGBTQIA+ community:
- •”For a gay guy, Div’s brother was pretty straight” This implies that gay people have to behave a certain way, say certain words to fit in the box you have constructed for them. But they do not. Sexuality has nothing to do with behavior.
- Implying that whatever sexuality a character is is just a phase. Because it’s not. They can be questioning their sexuality but none of it is a phase, don’t be that guy that says “it’ll pass”.
- Using the wrong pronouns for a character because you “choose” to call them depending on the genitals they were born with. Especially when it comes to Transgender, non-Binary and Genderfluid folks. Respect the pronouns they’re comfortable with.
- Aro/Ace erasure is real and thriving, don’t fuel it. Aro is Aromantic-spectrum, so if you say that no human-being can live without a romantic partner, you’re dehumanizing them. Don’t. Ace is Asexual-spectrum, and if you say that not having/wanting to have sex is abnormal, you’re harming them. Don’t.
- Saying that a bisexual girl isn’t really bisexual if she’s dating a boy and same goes for a bisexual guy who is dating a girl is biphobic. Period. They’re bisexual for a reason, dating “the default” doesn’t make it any less true.
- Sexuality or gender being a plot-twist or a spoiler. Yikes. If that’s the case, then something is wrong because it shouldn’t be. A person’s sexuality or gender is nobody’s business so even if it’s kept secret until the middle of the book, that doesn’t make it a “plot-twist”.
I am not talking about problematic Muslim representation because I go into it in this post about the Importance of Muslim Representation in Books.
Talk about the problematic elements:
We’re not asking you to hate it all of a sudden, we all have problematic favorites. As a reviewer, you just need to talk about how it’s problematic. Does it have racist content? Transphobic? Islamophobic? Ableist? Anti-semitist? The worst thing to do in cases like these is to ignore it or pretend like you haven’t seen or heard anything. You have a responsibility towards people who trust your reviews to tell them if a book can potentially hurt them. And please don’t say “it’s just a book”, we all know they’re more than that. And I’m sorry to break it to you, but one sentence in a 600 words review won’t cut it either and if you don’t really know what to say I have a solution…
Boost marginalized voices
Link to reviews that go into detail about how that book was problematic, especially if they’re #Ownvoices (Marginalized folks talking about their own marginalization). That’s really important. Your platform can be really helpful in making their voices louder. As I said link to the reviews, retweet them, talk about them. Any way is good to get the message across. And what’s really really important is, never ever, talk over them…
Be an Ally
Which goes hand in hand with what I said last. Being an ally is mostly boosting voices and listening. Educating yourself and helping in educating others. All over social media, people from minorities get harassed and bullied for speaking up so stand up for them if you can. And educating people, repeating the same things over and over again can be very exhausting so if it’s something they’ve educated you about before, jump in and educate, they will be grateful for it. One thing to never do when someone says they’ve been hurt by something is to say “but X told me that it’s okay, *they* weren’t hurt”. Good for X, but that changes nothing and doesn’t make the hurt any less present.
Don’t recommend the book
I know this might be hard but as long as problematic books get recommended and make the top of bestseller list, they’ll keep on being produced. What does that tell the publishers? It tells them that that’s the content that sells, that’s what readers want, and they’ll keep on giving it. While if we take a stand and show how we cannot support them, it will stop it cold. We need to care about real people more than fictional people, we need to show empathy. Because if you’re privileged enough to never be hurt by books, know that others aren’t as lucky and that you need to be there for them.
If you’re an author, do your research
Do your homework, friends. If you’re determined to write about an identity that isn’t yours, research it really well. Look online, get books from the library, talk to people, be sure to get the experiences as close to reality as possible. And once your work is ready, invest in Sensitivity readers, you won’t regret it. They will be your representation editors and help you spot things you might have missed and unpack any potentially internalized biases that might show in your work. This is better than the alternative. Which is hurting real people.
This was my -very long- two cents about problematic books, a little guide that I hope might help some get the hang of it. I know it can seem daunting, believe me, I know. I’m still learning and have a long way to go. And I’m eager to learn too. Because accurate representation matters. And we need it.
That’s it until next time.
Do you read diversely? Do you want to read more diverse books?
What do you do when confronted to problematic books?
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.