We Need Diverse Books

I was one of those kids who went to the library every weekend and engaged in the heady transaction of converting a bag of books I had read into a bag of new books I had not yet read. It was a form of magic that didn’t help my grades but did keep me out of most other trouble. I wasn’t terribly picky; I’d as soon devour Nancy Drew as Sherlock Holmes, Anne of Green Gables as Tarzan. My experience with movies was fairly similar, except that I wasn’t allowed to watch grown-up stuff, despite reading Stephen King books at probably too delicate an age. And comic books? I loved them when I could get them, and traded Marvel cards until my mom found out and confiscated them all.

But in retrospect, one thing stands out: I loved reading about female characters. Go figure, since I’m a girl. At the time, when reading about boys, it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t do all the same things they could. When I played pretend with my (mostly male) friends, I didn’t accept the role of damsel in distress and let them fight over me; I was a Strong Female. I was Kitty Pryde, or Psylocke, or Catwoman. If that character didn’t exist in the game, I made it up. I was a girl Ninja Turtle, not April. I was Princess Toadstool but with fireballs or ninja training. My Barbies kicked Ken more than they kissed him.

It wasn’t until much later that I started to realize how pervasive misogyny could be; how so many women strangely ended up being plot devices; how so few movies had awesome women that I wanted to pretend to be; how dudes who would happily play X-Men with me as kids started giving me the side eye for reading the comics. I found myself dressing more like a guy so I could keep doing the things I’d always loved. I bought into the misogyny and was embarrassed by my own gender. It took a long time to climb out of that hole and wash off the stink.

The next layer of grime I uncovered was a cultural blind spot, due to the lack of awesome Hispanic women for me to admire and emulate. I’d grown up living with or near my big Cuban family, but everything I read was white, white and more white. Again, as a kid, it didn’t bother me because I didn’t notice. It didn’t occur to me that it was strange, in the same way that I assumed everyone ate rice and beans with every meal and roasted a pig for Easter. And my dad was white, so it wasn’t as if I was totally excluded. I wasn’t really seeing my experience reflected, but hey, I was looking to read about new things, different things anyway.

Except those different things got pretty same-y after a while. Instead of feeling like my horizons were being expanded, I felt like a tourist who’d traveled the length and breadth of a world that didn’t have a place for me, and I was ready to go home. I took some classes where the teachers encouraged us to write from our lives, our cultural heritage, and my knee-jerk response was that no one wanted to read about that. It felt like pigeon-holing, like if I did that then I was digging myself another pit to fall into when what I really wanted was a house, a castle, a whole universe without limits.

And yet, I finally realized that I had already pigeon-holed myself, I had already limited myself, by buying into the notion that my differences were a problem rather than an opportunity. I was writing the same bland stuff that I’d lost interest in reading. I was burying the parts of me that made me unique instead of polishing them and showing them off, all because, my whole life, I hadn’t seen myself reflected in the media I was consuming. And since I wasn’t there, I assumed it was because no one wanted to look at me, except as an oddity, and who wants to be treated like that?

When I saw the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign taking off on Twitter, it made me happy, and sad, and angry, but mostly excited that people were talking about it. It made me think about my own life and how it’s led me to a place where I try to write stories about all kinds of people–mostly non-white, mostly female, sometimes queer. People like my friends, and my family. People like me. And I hope that means someday, some little girl will grow up feeling proud and powerful, knowing that she isn’t strange, or shameful, and that she most certainly isn’t alone.

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