10th July 2020

Culture / Featured / Faces In The Crowd Book Exchange

If People Are Stories, Why Doesn’t Mainstream Literature Reflect the Faces in the Crowd?

1 5 mins 7

FFaces in the Crowd is a book exchange group who's purpose is to share books that reflect on race and identity. They circulate and celebrate the works of ethnic minority authors, opening up our reading to more inclusive literature. To join the exchange select a book from your bookshelves that explores race in some way, and email the exchange at facesbookexchange@outlook.com.

Last year the Publishers Association’s major survey of the UK’s publishing workforce revealed that “significant progress” needs to be made to publish more diversely. Only 11.6% of respondents identified themselves as coming from ethnic minority backgrounds. In spite of the breadth of stories and human truths told within our societies, the body of mainstream literature in the West does not reflect these voices.

This year has brought unprecedented change to each of us. With the abundance of time experienced through the pandemic, real life stories in the news, many of which tragically has nonetheless always occurred, began to receive attention on a global scale. One event that demanded immediate action was the murder of George Floyd on 25th May. The killing of George Floyd marked a moment where systemic racism and its brutal reality was horrifically exposed, causing conscious individuals to actively engage through a renewal in critical thought and action.

The tragedy of George Floyd led the focus towards issues surrounding racism in many ways. Discussions told through various forms have opened. Broadcasting, journalism, social media and activism have echoed crucial conversations and sentiments. For some, these discussions have brought urgency to the imperative combat and unlearning racism. For many, they have marked a poignantly painful process of witnessing a public narrative waking up to pre-existing truths that have lived and burned throughout history. More stories of racially charged injustices have been brought to light since, adding more depth to our perception of those lives affected.

How can we expect to create a diverse understanding of all the people who make up our society if stories are not shared and told inclusively?

Lia Gomez-Lang

How can we expect to create a diverse understanding of all the people who make up our society if stories are not shared and told inclusively, if every romance novel exhaustively satiates Shakespearean ideals, and every detective comes in the form of a middle-aged white man in tweeds?

The centering of stories around whiteness has been normalised to the extent that it often goes unnoticed by the general public, and it is only when we turn to address the crowded bookshelves that we realise how monotone they really are. There is an opportunity to engage with this and reassess which books we choose. Publishing houses are at the forefront of this issue and have a responsibility to incorporate diverse voices into everyday narratives. A new body of writers, The Black Writers’ Guild, have called on all major UK publishing houses to introduce sweeping reforms to improve inclusivity in all levels in the hopes that major change will be implemented. Crucially, our reading around race should not be limited to tales of pain and suffering. The tapestry of lives told through stories of all shapes and sizes can be explored and understood, and specificity should be brought to each of them. There is much work to be done in transforming mainstream publishing towards inclusivity, but as individuals, we can steer our own reading.

The centering of stories around whiteness has been normalised to the extent that it often goes unnoticed by the general public, and it is only when we turn to address the crowded bookshelves that we realise how monotone they really are.

Lia Gomez-Lang

We are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. To highlight just a few wonderful, evocative, illuminating books……In Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie epigraphs her story on war and love with the words of Chinua Achebe, “Today I see it still – Dry, wire-thin in sun and dust of the dry months – Headstone on tiny debris of passionate courage”. As the narrator of Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (2011) sits on the Metro, she imagines herself as Gilberto Owen, a Mexican Harlem Renaissance poet who lived some 80 years before. Amabele Desir, the protagonist of Edwidge Danticat’s novel The Farming of Bones (1998), envisions nightmarish tales told by a nameless Sugar Woman who comes to her in her dreams – and so the list goes on. With identity nothing is one-dimensional. Multi-faceted, each story weaves between lives, generations and manifestations of humanness, allowing us to empathise, connect and learn.

Stories have the capacity for exploring the nuances of identity and lived experiences. Our understanding of worlds outside of our own requires an emotional inclination. Why should we bring empathy to our reading? The Booker Prize winning author Bernadine Evaristo writes ‘we know that people who read fiction are more empathetic because they are well-practised in stepping into the shoes of fictional characters who are different from themselves’ in her recent article ‘Literature Can Foster and Express Our Shared Humanity’. Evaristo expresses a need for opening ourselves to more stories and deepening our understanding of each other. Fiction helps us learn through its openness and there is a lot to be learnt from this moment in time.

Culturally diverse stories have been limited through mainstream publishing and space must be made for them. ‘Faces in the Crowd: A Book Exchange’ has been created to share inclusive literature in the hopes that we can do our bit to engage with this moment. To find out more about the exchange email facesbookexchange@outlook.com or follow @facesbookexchange.

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'Faces in the Crowd' is a book exchange group created to share books that reflect on race and identity. They circulate and celebrate the works of ethnic minority authors, opening up our reading to more inclusive literature. To join the exchange select a book from your bookshelves that explores race in some way, and email the exchange at facesbookexchange@outlook.com.

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