Thursday, May 29, 2014

ArmchairBEA Day 4: Beyond the Borders

It’s time to step outside your comfort zone, outside your borders, or outside of your own country or culture. Tell us about the books that transported you to a different world, taught you about a different culture, and/or helped you step into the shoes of someone different from you. What impacted you the most about this book? What books would you recommend to others who are ready or not ready to step over the line? In essence, let’s start the conversation about diversity and keep it going! 

Diversity is important for me. A banal statement, coming from a heterosexual cisgender white woman, but I have enough empathy to know that feeling underrepresented and invisible sucks. Not only does it suck but it reinforces all kinds of shitty "-ist" paradigms. I guess it comes out of my experience of being fat?

Back in 2009 (or maybe even longer ago), I decided to embark on the 101 Things in 1001 Days project. I think lists are a great way to push yourself to accomplishing things that are important to you; at the very least they keep you from being bored. One of the items on my first list, which is also on my second list because I didn't finish it, was to read every book on the TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list.

There are about 17 women on that list. About 9 or 10 of the writers are POC. The overlap of women and color on that list is even smaller: 3. (They are Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Zadie Smith. Yes, not even the late, celebrated Maya Angelou made the cut. Is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings too autobiographical to qualify?)

At some point during the list I started to notice the Old White Dude theme and so I decided to try to mix it up a bit. Here is my altered list, which I don't think I've shared on this blog before:

1. The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow
2. All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
3. American Pastoral, Philip Roth
4. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
5. Animal Farm, George Orwell
6. Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara
7. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Judy Blume
8. The Assistant, Bernard Malamud
9. At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien
10. Atonement, Ian McEwan
11. Beloved, Toni Morrison

12. The Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood
13. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
14. The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
15. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
16. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
17. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder

18. Call It Sleep, Henry Roth
19. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
20. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

17 / 20

21. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
22. The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron
23. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
24. The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
25. Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Patton

26. The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West
27. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
28. A Death in the Family, James Agee

29. The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
30. Deliverance, James Dickey
31. Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone
32. Falconer, John Cheever
33. The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles
34. Martha Quest, Doris Lessing
35. Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin
36. The Gravedigger's Daughter, Joyce Carol Oates
37. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
38. Please Look After Mother, Shin Kyung-sook
39. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
40. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair

12 / 20

41. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
42. Native Speaker, Lee Chang-rae
43. The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

44. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
45. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
46. I, Claudius, Robert Graves
47. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
48. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
49. Light in August, William Faulkner
50. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
51. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
52. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
53. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
54. Kokoro, Soseki Natsumi
55. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

56. The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead
57. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
58. Money, Martin Amis

59. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
60. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

17 / 20

61. Naked Lunch, William Burroughs
62. Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

63. Native Son, Richard Wright
64. Neuromancer, William Gibson
65. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
66. 1984, George Orwell
67. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
68. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey
69. The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski

70. The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi
71. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster
72. Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
73. Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
74. Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami
75. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
76. Rabbit, Run, John Updike
77. Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow

78. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
79. Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
80. Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates

15 / 20

81. The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles
82. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
83. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

84. Possession, AS Byatt
85. The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
86. Your Republic is Calling You, Kim Young-ha

87. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carre
88. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
89. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
90. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
91. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
92. Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence

93. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
94. Ubik, Philip K. Dick
95. Under the Net, Iris Murdoch
96. Villa Incognito, Tom Robbins
97. Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

98. White Noise, Don DeLillo
99. White Teeth, Zadie Smith
100. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

There are 18 substitutions I've made. Two of them were just one author's book for another based on what I could find at the time, but the rest were totally new authors. Here are the books I jettisoned:

A Dance to the Music of Time
Gone With the Wind
Gravity's Rainbow
A Handful of Dust
The Heart of the Matter
A House For Mr. Biswas
Pale Fire
Portnoy's Complaint
The Recognitions
The Sot-Weed Factor
The Sound and the Fury
The Sportswriter
To the Lighthouse
Under the Volcano

First and foremost, I decided to do away with any author repeats. The only repeat I kept was George Orwell, but even then I think before the end of this list I'll choose another book replace either Animal Farm or 1984. So that meant one book each by Saul Bellows, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, and Evelyn Waugh got axed. I also deliberately took Gone With the Wind off the list because there is nothing more unappealing to me than the American Civil War (sorry).

How to fill those gaps? First, I chose highly-acclaimed work by (East) Asian authors, a continent I felt was poorly represented (minus India). Those books included Native Speaker, Please Look After Mother, Farewell to Manzanar, The Namesake, The Buddha of Suburbia, Kafka on the Shore, and Your Republic is Calling You. I also added books I wanted to read but hadn't yet, but were considered classics (Sons and Lovers, The Jungle), and one book I thought had been unfairly excluded (The Name of the Rose).

As my list went on, I read other books too. Once in a while I would read one that was really good, so good I was surprised it wasn't already on the list (Cry, The Beloved Country and The Good Earth spring to mind) and I would go over the list with a fine-toothed comb to figure out which title I wanted to remove for the sake of its inclusion. I guess I could have just added it to the list to make it 101 books or 102 books or so on, but I want to keep it at list of 100 books.

My new list has more, but still too few, women (24 instead of 17), writers of color (15 instead of 10), and women of color (6 instead of 3), and there are still huge gaps when it comes to other issues, but it's a start.

I go through all of this work and deliberately search for stories about and by people who aren't Old White Dudes because the stories we repeat and tell ourselves are important. It creates the bulk of the social reality around us. Physical reality things, like gravity and evolution, can't be manipulated or distorted—there is literally no escaping gravity, and natural selection goes on every day—but social reality things like stereotypes, social norms, and gender roles are malleable and can be altered. A large part of that alteration comes from being exposed to new stories, and new kinds of stories, and often. There is a hidden, truthful reality about race and gender and whatever else, but first we need to undo the stereotypes and preconceptions that prevents us from accepting them. I keep linking to this but it's still relevant: We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative. This article only focuses on the representation of women but it works for just about any marginalized group.

The stories we tell create our paradigms. That has been made painfully apparent this past week. To insist otherwise is naive, and that's why diversity in fiction and media matters.


  1. I love this list and the fact that you altered it for diversity. And I re-read Beloved earlier this year and found a whole new appreciation for it. Amazing book!

    1. Beloved is a novel that I liked at first, and then the more I thought about it after I had finished, the more I had liked it. I don't know how soon I'll be able to re-read it, but it definitely deserves a place on the list.

  2. This is such a thoughtful post. I appreciate your changes to the list. It's so good to hear someone is breaking out of the Old White Guy bonds. I've set a personal challenge for myself to read at least 12 QLTBG books this year. How can I ask others to diversify and read more QLTBG if I'm not reading a substantial amount myself?

    1. It is a bit frustrating that you have to make a POINT of going to look for those alternative stories. There's definitely no shortage of people writing about these topics, after all...! But with QLTBG stories, I suppose, there was more ~moral outrage~ back in the day. It's definitely easier to write about those things now. Hopefully as time goes on, more QLTBG voices will become part of the English classics canon.

  3. I will read anything. I don't stick to one genre or author. So I have discovered some amazing books. Maus is a fantastic Graphic Novel. The Color Purple is stunning literature. The Color of Water is a great memoir. I highly recommend those. Thanks for sharing some of your favorites.

    This was an amazing list!

    1. I read The Color of Water in high school and really enjoyed it! And having now read Beloved and Their Eyes Were Watching God, I think I need to get The Color Purple to round out the grand triumvirate of Black women novels. In addition to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

  4. I can appreciate your diversity in reading so many books and many from other countries too. I personally don't think to diversify in my reading necessarily means reading any particular genre that may be seemingly overlooked more than others. I still go back to if any book makes you feel good and you can learn something from it than it's worth your time to read it. As for your "old white dudes" comment - that made me chuckle. I got to thinking and looking back over the books I've read since I've been blogging 2 1/2 years ago and most of them are by women authors.

    Holly @ Words Fueled by Love

    1. I liked that a lot of people wrote about genres-as-borders in particular. There is very little I exclude that way, so it would never occur to me to make genre any kind of border.

      I think I might have more women in my list of "read" books if I weren't following someone else's list. Or I'd *like* to think so, at any rate....

  5. Fabulous post, great list. I couldn't agree with you more about the need for diversity in fiction and the media. We need to push the media toward a paradigm shift away from the binary opposition thinking in which its so entrenched. I could really go off on a rant, but I won't. :)

    1. "I could really go off on a rant, but I won't. :)"

      But that's what blogging's all about!

  6. This is an amazing list. I have been really excited about the recent discussions on the web surrounding the hashatag #weneediversebooks. I am going to compare your list with my list and fill in. Thanks for sharing.

    I would love to hang out with Shug Avery from The Color Purple.

    1. I'm not quite satisfied with my list, but it's at least an improvement.I hope that TIME goes back and reevaluates their list for diversity/gender parity/etc.