The Biggest Question About "Diverse Books": Diverse To Whom?

Illustration for article titled The Biggest Question About "Diverse Books": Diverse To Whom?

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and campaign have sparked some amazing conversations recently. There was a panel at BookCon (which summarizes), a roundtable discussion at Book Smugglers, and a BEA Panel (which Cecilia Tan summarizes.) And one participant brings up an excellent question: Diverse from whose point of view?

Talking to Book Smugglers, M. Sereno says:

I confess I’m not very comfortable with the word “diversity”, because whenever it comes up I hear myself asking: “diverse to whom?” I mean, “diverse” is often used as shorthand for “different from the mainstream”, or “something one doesn’t see every day”, yet that usage as I often see it in conversations on Anglophone SFF has its problems — what is the mainstream? Who is this person for whom these things are diverse? Using the majority white western experience as a referent renders invisible the daily lives and experiences of people outside this frame. I would say it is a term that makes sense to outsiders of “diverse” cultures, but is often really odd for insiders. Or, another way of putting it: “diverse” applies to things outside your view of nearness. For instance, I know many people who use this word would apply it to local SFF fiction in the Philippines; I’ve seen that happen often enough, certainly. But Philippine SFF was never “diverse” to me. How could it be outside nearness, when it featured places I grew up in, the air I breathed, the lives my peers and friends and relatives lived? It didn’t, doesn’t, feel different from the mainstream, because the Philippines is my mainstream and the basis of my norms. The Philippines is my center; it has never been my margin. And yet I know that if I were to say this within the context of the majority white west, it would probably sound somewhat strange. Because what to me is my center is to the dominant powers of the world something so far from central it’s almost out of view. So there’s that dissonance there, too.

What this word means for me is lingo specific to Anglophone SFF, for “outside the majority” or “from the margins” in relation to the white, cis, straight, male, Anglophone, western experience — as Aliette said, outside these axes of privilege. I use it the way I use terms like “third world” or “global South”; they are imperfect and lose a lot of nuance, they’re based on a certain frame of reference outside of which they don’t mean much. They flatten us. All that being said it stands for something that I want very much to happen, so I’ve learned to use it just as I’ve learned to use “third world” or “developing country” without biting my tongue. It’s something that can speak to power — in a way, I hope, that will open the minds of people for whom the white western majority experience is mainstream. There is so, so much out there, such a huge multiplicity of perspectives. Maybe one day there will be no need for this word anymore and my experience as a queer Filipina will be just as valid and meaningful as that of a white Anglophone westerner, and we can just be humans — tao, the people — together.


All of which just goes to show how difficult and loaded these topics can be to talk about.

Also, from the BookCon panel, Ken Liu talks about his complicated feelings about the notion of diversity. From

“Often it’s been exoticized that if you look a certain way, there’s a certain story expected of you. That’s problematic.” [Liu] advocated that, instead of all trying to go against one normal curve (as on a graph), we should turn the world into a scatter plot: “Individuals are not diverse. Collectively, we are.”

But meanwhile, Nnedi Okorafor explained poignantly why representations of different types of human beings are so important — because otherwise, you end up with a situation where people identify with non-humans more than the narrow representation of humans on display. Also from

Okorafor (The Book of Phoenix) shared her experience growing up, in which all of the fantasy she read was populated by white characters. The only nonwhite characters were nonhuman creatures or aliens. “When I looked back,” she said, “I noticed that I migrated towards those books that did not have human characters, because I could relate to those characters more than the white characters. I didn’t see reflections of myself in what I was reading.” Diversity, she said, is necessary for readers.


Also, Cecilia Tan quotes Sarwat Chaddah, who was told by a bookseller, “We don’t need your book because we don’t have any Indians in our community.” To which Chaddah replied, “I bet you don’t have any hobbits either.”

All three group discussions are well worth reading in their entirety. [BookSmugglers,, Cecilia Tan]


Top image: Nnedi Okorafor, Book of Phoenix.

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I think I understand a bit. But I could be wrong. From what I am getting is that diversity is relative.

For example, when an American of Chinese heritage asks for diversity in the media, she is talking about American media and from an American perspective. The things she consumes. She doesn’t want to be pointed to cinema from China and be told, “There’s plenty there.” She wants to see other Americans who look like her. She’ll even settle for non-American Asians IF and ONLY IF these actors are in American productions with American actors. Or at least actors portraying Americans. (Like Japanese actor, Rinko Kikuchi, in Pacific Rim.). She wants to see Lucy Lu with her American accent, American mannerisms and such being an American in Sherlock. She doesn’t want to have to go to foreign media in order to see someone who looks like her. Because though she may look Chinese, she feels American. She wants to see her reflection in the country that she calls home.

So, asking for diversity is not actually a blanket call for global media everywhere. Just for the media the caller is from.

What do you think?