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IBARW 3: 50 books by POC

This is a post for Intl. Blog Against Racism Week.

My terms, definitions, and disclaimers.

50books_poc is a community for people trying to read 50 books by POC in a year, be it from IBARW to IBARW or a calendar year. I had half-heartedly committed to it when it was announced during IBARW last year, but upon doing my 2007 book write up, clearly I needed to make a more active effort (13 books by POC and 33 with POC protagonists out of 131 books read in 2007, only 6 by POC between August and December).

Why count?

I read 57 books by POC this cycle, counting rereads and books I didn't write up; officially on the comm I'm at 52. At first, the focus on numbers numbers numbers felt odd and antithetical to the way I usually read, but it serves a purpose. You see, when I didn't pay attention to the numbers during 2007, it was so easy to put off reading books by POC, to let aversive racism run its course.

For me, it's easy to read white people. It's even easier for me to read books about POC by white people than it is to read books by POC. It's still easy, even after spending the past three years actively trying to be anti-racist. Much of this is because three years trying not to be racist doesn't magically erase 24 years of racism and living in a racist society—growing up, most of the books I read were by white people, most of the books assigned in school were by white people, most of the books my friends read were by white people. As a result, almost all the books that were recommended to me were by white people, almost all the authors I was familiar with and liked were white, and almost all the authors my favorite authors recommended were white.

Making an effort and not counting meant letting inertia take over: I would feel like reading something familiar and comfortable, and that meant something by a white person. It's hard to undo 20+ years of reading habit. It took counting to get me off my ass.

How I counted

I basically counted anything by POC, with the exception of manga/manhwa/manhua. I know some people in 50books_poc are counting manga/manhwa/manhua and some aren't; I personally am not because it's not like I need an incentive to read more! In case it needs to be said, I do count Japanese people as POC, but since manga is one genre by POC that isn't underrepresented in parts of the world, I don't feel the particular need to publicize it in particular. Plus, as I'm sure everyone has noticed, my LJ is pretty good about promoting manga even without a challenge!

On the other hand, I may include manhwa and manhua next year, since my consumption of both of those is still pitifully small. I want to support the growing manhwa and manhua industries, particularly because the countries producing them are countries that have suffered under Japanese imperialism in the past.

Finding books

As noted, before I started this project, the vast majority of my reading was centered around white authors and white characters. I'd been doing a little better by reading more books about POC, but by and large, I was still reading white authors. When I started, I had a general list of authors to look up, but most of them were authors I had heard of through English class. (While I fully support reading more literary books by POC, I am personally very fond of my genre stuff.)

I spent the past five years getting the majority of my book recs through LJ, but because I joined LJ before being involved with anti-racism, many of the communities of people I knew best are predominantly white. It also doesn't help that fandom is predominantly white. Changing this has been a work in progress for me: many people on my flist are also trying to read more authors of color, which means more recs for me; I've been reading many more POC on LJ; and I've both been trying to change the spaces I hang out in and trying to find new spaces to hang out in, ones that actively welcome POC.

Reading is a huge part of my life, and changing my reading habits meant changing many of my other habits as well.

Here are some of the things I did:

  1. Asked LJ for recs, depending on what I was in the mood for.

  2. Browsed through people's write ups on 50books_poc.

  3. Told my librarian that I was looking for POC authors. This worked for me because my librarian also runs one of my knitting circles (normally I would never talk to my librarian), but if you are less anti-social than me and have a local library convenient for you, make friends with your librarian! Mine was awesome and would send me recs, put things on hold for me, and in general keep an eye out on books she thought I would like.

  4. Bookmark interesting books your flist and/or blogroll writes up. This worked more as I tailored my flist to anti-racist people and comms.

  5. And finally: randomly browse through library shelves.

I didn't find as many books I liked through the last method as I did through the first few, but it was also the most interesting method to me. The problem with the first few methods is that it depends on other people; if they read mostly white authors, that's what you're going to get. And given the way institutional racism works, if you're in Europe or the US, white authors are going to be published more, promoted more, talked about more, given more shelf space, and not confined to a racially-specific section in a bookstore. Even in Asia, there are sections in bookstores for translated books. Guess whose books get translated most? Guess why so many people, even in Taiwan, read Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code, in English or in Chinese? Guess why mostly books by white people or books promoted by white people get talked about worldwide, whereas other books are "regional"?

Paying attention to the names on the shelves made me think a lot. Often, I felt like a complete skeeze—I looked at author pictures and read their bios and tried to strike a balance between finding POC authors and missing POC who weren't as visible, particularly when it came to identifying Latin, Native, and multiracial authors. I picked up books where the author had an Asian-sounding last name, only to find that they were white and had married an Asian. I realized just how many Native, multiracial, and black authors I was missing because I couldn't tell their POC-ness from their names. I also ended up looking at a lot of book covers and realizing that I was probably missing a lot because of how often characters of color get whitewashed on covers.

This makes it sound very difficult. But leaving your comfort zone is difficult, and changing your defaults is even more so. Once I got started, keeping up got easier and easier. Finding one author meant finding their website meant finding authors they liked, reading non-fiction meant ever-expanding circles of bibliographic notes, actively committing to reading more POC meant noticing books by POC when I was in Borders or the library.

Changing my defaults

I had a lot of mental blocks against reading books by POC. I didn't want to read things that were too depressing, I didn't want to think about racism all the time, I didn't want to think about how the author was portraying [issue at hand] all the time.

I still don't want to read books that are all about gangs and oppression and teenage pregnancies and oppression and senseless violence and oppression. I know many of those stories; we are fed them via the news all the time, Darfur and Tibet and illegal immigrants and welfare queens, scary communities of color who take and take and take from bleeding-heart white liberals, and the point of view is still white.

What I found instead were books about people resisting oppression, books about anger and finding your voice, books about scrappy girls of color who have been told "no" all their lives suddenly saying "no" back to the world and kicking lots of ass (literal or metaphorical). And yes, some books were about incredibly depressing circumstances—Andrea Smith's Conquest is not about rainbows and bunnies—but more importantly, reading them still made me feel better because they were giving words to things I hadn't fully thought out or giving me models of resistance via their characters or via the very act of writing.

What I hadn't expected was the joy. That brought home just how accustomed I was to being written out of all my favorite narratives or to being limited to narratives about tradition-enslaved women with bound feet. It was greatest for me with the Chinese characters, particularly if they mentioned Taiwan, but almost invariably, I would start reading a book and think, "They are not all white! The POC do not all die! OMG! They have to deal with sexism and racism and yet they go and have fun and have families and lives! People like meeeeee!" Or I would read non-fiction and get so excited about the commentaries on race and racism that I wanted to run out and shove the book into everyone's hands.

Sitting at my computer wishing for stories for girls of color or writing posts for LJ is one thing, but having a book in my hand, reading other people's words in print, that had a power and a validation that made me feel like I was back in seventh grade, reading books that were shaping my worldview and my own experience. Only this time, the books weren't telling me that girls could do stuff too (but only white girls, only pretty girls, only thin girls, only nice girls, only athletic girls) or that swords and magic were for scrappy white teenage boys, but that there was still room for me.

Now that over half the books I'm reading are by POC, there's a real difference. White isn't the default any more. While I theoretically knew that "I don't want to think about racism" is a privileged excuse, since something that's all white is already racialized, it was much harder internalizing this until I had changed over to read more POC. Now, when I do fall back and read white authors writing all-white worlds, it doesn't feel like the norm anymore. It feels like it's missing quite a few someones. And while I love emo white girl YA, it now feels like a genre, not the face of YA.

Sometimes changing the default was easy. There's a lot of POC YA being published right now, and browsing through the YA shelves in the library would almost invariably leave me with armfuls of books to read. There's a growing number of POC authors in romance as well—Marjorie M. Liu, Nalini Singh, Sherry Thomas, L.A. Banks, Beverly Jenkins to name a handful—and almost all of them have extensive backlists, along with pre-established lines for POC romance readers. Reading non-fiction by and about POC also yields tons of books, and going through their bibliographies leads to even more.

Sometimes changing the default was hard. I was hoping there would be a pool of POC SF/F authors out there unknown to me, but after talking to people and going to Wiscon's panel specifically dedicated to reccing less well-known POC SF/F authors, I think I know most of them, especially the ones published as SF/F. Scanning library shelves and bookstore shelves anecdotally confirmed the relative dearth of POC SF/F authors. Still, in the past few years, I've been steadily hearing of more story sales and book sales within the SF/F community, not just in the literary fiction community (I support POC in literary fiction! Only sometimes I want to read about completely made-up worlds with solid world-building).

Mostly, despite having many urges to flop down with emo white girl YA (one of the genres of my heart) and being occasionally motivated by watching my numbers go up, I read a lot of books. Much like the process of reading made me feel like a teenager again, the process of discovery did as well. A lot of it, especially my POC in YA reading, was like discovering SF/F or romance or manga for the first time: picking things up for a pretty cover or a neat back cover hook, finding duds but also finding things that very few other people I knew had read and passing them along.

- sanguinity's experience
- my POC in YA post, with recs
- keilexandra has an Arbitrary Compilation of Books by/about POC taken from scanning her library shelves: Part I, Part II, and YA edition
- denim_queen noted that the 180 books read meme going on a while ago was very white and made her own list and then posted an even larger list
- the POC book list that came out of aforementioned Wiscon panel

Books read, 8/8/07-8/4/08

1. Carl Chu, Chinese Food Finder: The Bay Area and San Francisco, Aug 8, 2007
2. Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, Aug 11, 2007
3. Blair Underwood with Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes, Casanegra, Oct 8, 2007
4. Brenda Dixon Gottschild, The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool, Oct 22, 2007
5. Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era, Nov 18, 2007
6. Randa Abdel-Fattah, Does My Head Look Big in This?, Dec 31, 2007
7. Melissa De la Cruz, Blue Bloods, Jan 6, 2008
8. Sharon M. Draper, The Battle of Jericho, Jan 12, 2008
9. Cynthia Kadohata, Weedflower, Jan 12, 2008
10. Angela Johnson, The First Part Last, Jan 27, 2008
11. Caridad Ferrer, Adiós to My Old Life, Feb 2, 2008
12. Shaun Tan, The Arrival, Feb 2, 2008
13. Kevin Young, Jelly Roll: A Blues, Feb 6, 2008
14. Cathy Park Hong, Dance Dance Revolution, Feb 8, 2008
15. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa's Renaissance, Feb 8, 2008
16. Angela Johnson, Bird, Feb 13, 2008
17. Justina Chen Headley, Nothing but the Truth (and a Few White Lies), Feb 14, 2008
18. Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, The Shadow Speaker, Feb 20, 2008
19. Justina Chen Headley, Girl Overboard, Feb 21, 2008
20. Angela Johnson, A Cool Moonlight, Feb 23, 2008
21. Lori Aurelia Williams, When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune, Feb 27, 2008
22. Frankie Manning with Cynthia Millman, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop, Mar 1, 2008
23. Nalini Singh, Visions of Heat, Mar 2, 2008
24. Marjorie M. Liu, Tiger Eye, Mar 3, 2008
25. Marjorie M. Liu, Shadow Touch, Mar 5, 2008
26. Marjorie M. Liu, The Red Heart of Jade, Mar 6, 2008
27. Toni Morrison, Beloved, Mar 6, 2008 (reread)
28. Nalini Singh, Caressed by Ice, Mar 8, 2008
29. Marjorie M. Liu, Eye of Heaven, Mar 9, 2008
30. Atul Gawande, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance, Mar 11, 2008
31. Marjorie M. Liu, Soul Song, Mar 11, 2008
32. Sunny Yang, Hanbok: The Art of Korean Clothing, Mar 13, 2008
33. Marjorie M. Liu, The Last Twilight, Mar 14, 2008
34. Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Mar 15, 2008
35. Atul Gawande, Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, Mar 18, 2008
36. Lee Kyung Ja, Hong Na Young, and Chang Sook Hwan, Traditional Korean Costume, Mar 22, 2008
37. Melissa De la Cruz, Masquerade, Mar 26, 2008
38. Alex Sanchez, Rainbow Boys, Mar 27, 2008
39. Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, ed., So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, Mar 30, 2008
40. Kirin Narayan, Love, Stars, and All That, Apr 2, 2008
41. Iksop Lee and S. Robert Ramsey, The Korean Language, Apr 4, 2008
42. Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo, Apr 14, 2008
43. Sherry Thomas, Private Arrangements, Apr 17, 2008
44. Yan Geling, White Snake and Other Stories, Apr 25, 2008
45. Octavia E. Butler, Adulthood Rites, Apr 26, 2008
46. Cherry Cheva, She's So Money, May 1, 2008
47. Octavia E. Butler, Imago, May 3, 2008
48. Alex Sanchez, Rainbow High, May 3, 2008
49. Shin Myung-ho, Joseon Royal Court Culture: Ceremonial and Daily Life, May 4, 2008
50. Kashmira Sheth, Keeping Corner, May 7, 2008
51. Neil de Grasse Tyson, Universe Down to Earth, May 9, 2008 (reread)
52. Octavia E. Butler, Clay's Ark, May 10, 2008
53. Sherri Winston, The Kayla Chronicles, May 18, 2008
54. Neil de Grasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandries, May 28, 2008
55. Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, May 30, 2008
56. Anchee Min, Empress Orchid, Jul 17, 2008
57. Kim Sunee, Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Food, and the Search for Home, Jul 20, 2008
Tags: books, books: meta, ibarw, race/ethnicity/culture

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