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A Blog About Culture

Recognition, Situation, Identity, Reality

I was driving through the Poconos with my car radio stuck on “scan,” hoping to pick up a station – any station – that would come in clearly. I was looking for classic rock (Pennsylvania has the best variety on their classic rock stations), but happened to tune in to an NPR broadcast. It was an interview with a bookseller, Elizabeth Bluemle, who insisted on the importance of examining prejudices against children’s books with colored characters on their covers.

Check out the podcast here: NPR, How To Sell Diverse Books: A Bookstore Owner’s Advice.

Bluemle underscored that “diverse books” do not need to feature racial issues. They aren’t always “heavy, serious books:”

Mainstream stories of kids having all kinds of adventures and different genres of literature.

She added, “I think there are so many books published about issues that the consumer culture has developed this idea that books with brown faces on the cover are going to be heavy, serious books. And while those books are very valuable and important and wonderful books to read, they also don’t describe the entire experience of human life in this country.”

I want there to be books about normal adventures and encounters people face, stories in which cultures add context – not necessarily frame a story about conflict, injustice, or racial issues. A novel with a main character who is of a minority ethnicity might not be able to escape that, but I would at least like to see an environment that focuses more on how that character responds to it, how he maintains an everyday existence, rather than the constant ache of unfairness, anger, discouragement, and uncertainty that already permeates so many of the texts (including news and social media) that we read daily. 

At the same time, I do not want to be transported to a completely different world. I don’t want exoticism, or the otherization of tradition disguised as well-intentioned democracy. I don’t want to pick up a book and feel like I won’t be able to relate. The other day, I met a teenager who was reading The Other Side of the Sky, a memoir of a girl from Kabul, for his high school summer reading requirement. I didn’t really have any interest in the book because although I’m sure it would be an adventurous story, and the author, Farah Ahmedi, deserves admiration for her bravery during such a trying time – I felt that it was too hard for me to relate to my own experience. I want normalcy. (Although I should say that I’m aware that I haven’t even read this book, so who knows what I would really think of it if I did.)

I did find the aforementioned normalcy in the book The Householder, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, but I didn’t really like that novel because it was a coming-of-age story and I don’t like those. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it when I read it several years ago.

Recently, I picked up Samrat Upadhyay’s The Royal Ghosts at the library. The back cover says, “These stories brilliantly examine not only Kathmandu during a time of political crisis and cultural transformation but also the effects of that city on the individual consciousness.” I haven’t started reading them yet, but I’ll let you know how it goes when I do. I am hoping to find stories steeped in rich, Nepali culture that comment on those cultural changes while also giving a taste of real life. Those of you who know me personally may also know that I wrote my masters’ thesis on changing cultural markers of Nepali identity during recent transformations, so I’d be interested to see how The Royal Ghosts might interplay with my ideas on that.

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