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Nonfiction November: Diverse viewpoints in Non-Fiction

November 20, 2014

Nonfiction November: Diverse viewpoints in Non-Fiction

 

Those outside the traditional global power structure bring new perspectives to non-fiction as they do to fiction. Generally we read nonfiction because we want “objective” knowledge about subjects. We read books by diverse authors because we want to know about how people think, feel, and act, in cultures unlike our own. The majority of them are people of color, those who are descended from the people who have been dominated by Euro-American power. Can we assume that their accounts are “true”?

Objectivity is absolutely essential for knowing the hard facts of our globe and to make decisions that will aid in humans long-term survival. In the twentieth century, it was virtually worshiped as the only path to certainty.  But it is not as trustworthy as we like to think.  Objectivity is full of its own biases when trying to understand others. Its insistence on distance and neutrality has aided dominant groups to distance themselves from the pain we are causing others. Colonialism, at home or abroad, has been the power to define and control. Outside experts, overwhelmingly white males, got to say what was true about other cultures.

More recently we have realized that there are other important ways to knowledge, some of them are certainly more valid than others. In the late twentieth century, people of color and women from various backgrounds began to enter academic disciplines. They entered popular culture as experts. In doing so, they brought with them the histories of people whom historians of peoples who had been dominated by others, peoples who had traditionally had ignored. In the USA, African American History and Women History were quickly followed by the histories of other groups. The histories written by those within cultures can contradict what outsiders have claimed. The introduction of their histories resulted in the “Culture Wars” in the United States and elsewhere because traditionalists were threatened by the stories of those whom they had been taught were inferior. For example, in American history, white southern historians, using the documents left by white slaveholders long claimed that except for rare exceptions, African slaves were happy in their bondage and did not have the capability to live as free men and women. Only when, African Americans joined the ranks of historians and unearthed other documents, did our understanding change.

Often the histories written by women and people of color followed all the traditional academic rules about footnotes and documentation, but offer now understanding of events. Two of my favorites are To Joy My Freedom, by Tara Hunter, about black women in Georgia after the Civil War, and Unbound Feet, by Judy Yong, about the Chinese women in San Francisco in the twentieth century, the same community where she grew up. The book review that continually gets most readers on my blog is another book by an insider, Women and Gender in Islam, by Leila Ahmed. She is Oxford-educated Egyptian woman who has carefully researched the history of her topic from the emergence of her faith to the present. Sensitive to the diversity within Islam she discusses its positive features for women as well as about those within the Muslim world who would silence and control them.

Kim Scott is an Australian Indigenous writer, best known for his prize-winning novel, Dead Man’s Dance, about early Australian/European interaction. Working with an Indigenous woman to write Kayang and me and Me, he explores the ways in he and she differ in their paths to knowledge and whose version is “true.” I highly recommend this book for anyone trying to think through what diversity means about how we view our worlds.

What we seldom admit is that diversifying our reading is about challenging who has the authority to say what is true. It is to challenge the assumptions of superiority of white, usually male experts. This is not to say that outsiders are always wrong in their writings about people of color, of course, but theirs should not be the only or the privileged accounts. The views of insiders should always be part of larger story.

To read fiction or non-fiction by people of color and others who have been oppressed can be threatening and guilt-producing. Or it can be a glorious step into unknown worlds full of individuals and communities that can give us new insight into ourselves and into those with whom we share the globe.

I am always eager to find more good non-fiction by people of color. What can you suggest?

Recently Aarti @ booklust and

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