To Read Yourself Into a Book

If there is one event of internet rage that sticks out in my mind from the past year, it’s the controversy surrounding Meg Rosoff’s comments about diversity in children’s literature. I was actually on Twitter when events began unfolding, when a young adult author raised the alarm and expressed her disappointment that such views were being expressed by such a renowned author in the field. The offending comment, in case you missed it, was:

There are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them. You don’t have to read about a queer black boy to read a book about a marginalised child. The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what “needs” to be represented.

While there are many things that are frustrating about this viewpoint, what hit me most profoundly was the expectation for marginalised people – children, even! – to learn from such a young age to read themselves into texts that don’t represent them, to have no expectation of seeing themselves as they are in a book. The fact of the matter is that children from marginalised backgrounds¬†are already doing the work of bridging the distance between ourselves and a text by necessity. As a girl, I was a voracious reader. And if I didn’t learn to be able to see myself in the lives of white boys and girls, if I didn’t learn to bridge that disconnect between our respective lived experiences, then I would not have been a reader at all. That work was necessary because I had no other option. Actually, it took until last year, when I was reading Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay, for me to look up from a book and think ‘Wow, this actually speaks directly to my experience as a brown girl born to a middle class immigrant family in a Western country. I don’t think that’s actually happened for me before.’

Meanwhile, this expectation – which Rosoff had no qualms about placing on LGBTQ children and children of colour, often children who are facing significant struggles in a society that is heteronormative, cisnormative, and white supremacist – is something that privileged white children, especially boys*, get to live without. Privileged readers (and admittedly, most of us have some form of privilege), who have no need to seek out texts featuring marginalised characters, have the privilege of coming to texts with little responsibility to bridge distances between themselves and the character on the page, often because those characters look just like them. The bridging work that Rosoff lauds is not imposed on all of us equally – it is something that uniquely lands on the shoulders of young people of colour, queer youth, and often girls in more formal educational settings as well. But for the merits of this bridging work to be realised, for all young readers to be able to see themselves represented in texts while also being able to learn to bridge differences in identity between themselves and others, we need far more diverse books to represent all people. So that all children have the opportunity to both see a mirror of themselves in the books they read, and the opportunity to learn to bridge the divides between themselves and others.

But there is another potential pitfall here, to engaging in this bridging work as a privileged reader. A couple of weeks ago, I sat down to begin reading Redefining Realness by Janet Mock. As a young woman who is cisgender, and who had never read a book about trans issues before, I knew I had a lot to learn coming to this book. Which is why it interested me when I began to add quotes to Goodreads. I had a moment, when quoting a passage from the introduction, where I was debating whether to include a second sentence. The first sentence, which I loved and identified with, reflected a more universal experience. The second sentence put the first in the context of Mock’s lived experience as a trans woman. Being aware of my tendency to overpost and to make quotes as long as possible, in that moment I decided to post just the first sentence.

And although I know my intentions and recognise how small this moment was, something about it continued to bother me. Because, in the end, I treated a sentence that I did not identify with as superfluous, as meaningless to me. Because as beautiful as it is to identify with a book we’re reading (or something that we are watching or listening to), to connect with someone else’s lived experience when it is so different from our own lives, there is a risk of overidentifying with that experience and subsuming it into your own. Of failing to take care when you express your solidarity, not to step on the toes of those who have lived with the painful reality of that experience in full. This is the risk that is often betrayed by simplistic statements like ‘I don’t see colour’, like ‘we’re all the same, we all bleed red’, which ignore the particular experience of the person in front of us by imposing universality, and making ourselves more comfortable by negating difference rather than acknowledging and addressing it.

Navigating this tension, of recognising our common human struggles while truly honoring our differences, is an inherently fraught process. I don’t think that there’s an easy way to address it, no simple answer which will allow us to be perfectly considerate, to handle the stories of others, especially of marginalised people, with all the care they deserve. The work of bridging the distance between yourself and a text from someone with a different lived experience will often require drawing some connection between their experiences and your own, their emotions and your own. But like many things, it starts with deliberateness, awareness, and coming to these works with a sense of humility.

* I would argue that this dynamic exists, but differently, with regard to gender. Stories by woman and about girls for younger readers are more common but often devalued, by assuming that their subject matter is less worthy of study and could not be of interest to boys. There’s a wonderful post from Book Riot on the subject here.