Hacking Diversity: Who are we to need diverse books?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Shinen Wong

Picture of books facing backwards on a shelf

We Need Diverse Books is a grassroots organisation of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honours the lives of all young people. Inspired by the #weneeddiversebooks campaign that sparked the organisation, Shinen Wong considers if Australia needs diverse books too.

For the politically progressive, there may be a tendency to valourise diversity for the sake of itself, regarding difference as a gift that brings spice to culture. Diversity becomes not only the exotic, exquisite fruits of late modernity, but also its very condition as well as its fertiliser. The assumption is that a more diverse polity is necessarily ‘better’ than a less diverse one.

There is truth to this, of course. Celebrating diversity is an ennobling exercise. It attempts to rectify some of the suffering wrought by attitudes that have contributed to the founding of this settler colonial country, based on the ongoing targeting of Aboriginal communities for neglect, theft of land and genocide, and exemplified in first piece of legislation of the newly Federated Australian Parliament: The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, known famously as the White Australia Policy.

The Act is remembered, rightly, as a racist policy that resulted in the exclusion of people of non-white/European heritages from entry, migration or naturalisation into Australian citizenship. What may be slightly less well known is that the Act also imposed exclusion of other ‘undesirables’, including ‘idiots or the insane’, ‘a prostitute or person living on the prostitution of others’ and people likely ‘to become a charge…upon any public or charitable institution’, which was interpreted to apply to people with disability.

Some of the most racist aspects of this part of Australian immigration history were dismantled in the 1970s with the end of the White Australia Policy. This paved the way for the influx of migrants from other South/Eastern European and non-European heritages and the administration of an official policy of multiculturalism for Australia (however ill-defined, ill-understood or imperfectly implemented). Restrictions on immigration for people with disability remain legal, with concerns about ‘health’ and ‘public interest’ being cited as reasons for exclusion.

It is worth noting that these latter two criteria remain as thinly-veiled racist (though purportedly rationalist) justifications for the ongoing, and indefinite imprisonment of people seeking asylum in this country.

So this is our context. This is where we come from.

I want to take a step ‘backwards’, as it were, to consider utopian understandings of ‘monoculturalism’, and to engage in an inquiry not unlike that of the premise of Slavoj Zizek’s 2009 book ‘In Defence of Lost Causes’. In the book he scours the rubble of the horrors of failed, violently authoritarian political projects to rehabilitate the spirit of the ideals that they were rooted in. To find the baby in the murky bathwaters of violent history.

So, similarly, I am curious about the ‘monocultural’, which I define here as an orientation and aspiration toward a singularity of cultural expression and cultural identity. This is not only epitomised in white racism, it is also exemplified in the seemingly ubiquitous human tendency toward the security of the familiar (even if the familiar is ‘diverse’ or ‘multicultural’).

The wisdom of this ‘lost cause’ of monoculturalism is precisely in its attention to security, today monopolised by paranoid pundits of the (increasingly multicultural and diverse) political Right. Even as we strive to transcend security as the primary or central governing principle of our politics, there is a wisdom in connecting with it as a basis for a more progressive politics of social change.

For many migrants of colour within white-dominant settler societies, for example, security has become a symbol of our progress. Security is precisely what many of us miss, have craved and still crave, in the familiarity of shared languages, rituals, customs – the taking for granted of particular ways of being, belief and spirituality – in the face of the dominant culture’s ever-present arbitration of our speech, our cultural production, and our movements.

Therefore, a commitment to diversity, inclusion and pluralism ideally includes not only the physical or cultural presence of the ‘other’ in relation to the self, but also of the ‘other’ in relation to themselves.

I am reminded of some of the ways that some well-meaning white folks demonstrate their commitment to a liberal, progressive stance on race relations by declaring their connections with non-white others:

‘Oh, my sister is married to an Aboriginal man!’
‘My son is seeing a nice Chinese girl!’
‘Oh, we have raised a Vietnamese son since the end of the war…’

These ritual disclosures, perhaps even ‘confessions’ of white solidarity through proximity can, as Andrea Smith has written in her articleThe Problem with Privilege, ‘ultimately reinstantiat[e] the white majority subject as the subject capable of self-reflexivity, and the colonized/racialized subject as the occasion for self-reflexivity’. What happens in an Australian context when Aboriginal people, people of colour, women, people with disabilities, non-Christians, and so on, become ‘occasions for self-reflexivity’ for settlers, white people, men, neurotypical people/people without disabilities and Christians?

There is a danger in getting caught up in the circularity of identity politics, where the allure of exposure or proximity to the ‘other’ (which promises authenticity of my enlightened, multicultural/feminist/progressive identity) trumps other specificities of my own history, particularly if I come from a dominant group. Andrea Smith, for example, whom I cited above and whose scholarship on race and colonisation in US American contexts has been influential to me, has been embroiled in an ongoing controversy over her own disputed claims to Cherokee Native American heritage.

The point here is not to suggest that these are ‘bad white people’, or that my relationship to the foibles of people from dominant groups in the encounter with diversity ends only in glib annoyance. I do not want to end with targeting straw people for the sake of rhetorical point scoring. It does, however, remain unfortunately true that a dominant group’s exposure and proximity to diversity (whether around gender, race, sexuality, religion, and so on) more regularly becomes symbolic of their enlightenment, their achievement, their open-mindedness, their generosity, even as the marginal group’s fluency in their own languages and ways of being, and even their fluency in the dominant group’s language and customs, still relegates marginality.

It is within this context that the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign/organisation sits, which is gaining traction and media attention. What does it mean to declare: “#WeNeedDiverseBooks”?

Who are we?

As a reader/citizen/member of the public, I certainly appreciate the availability of diversity in literature. This is a given. The crux of the campaign seems to be about the importance of an implied ‘more’; that is, that we need ‘more’ diverse books, more than we currently have. While I take this also as a given, this cannot be an end in itself. It is not only enough that we need to have more diverse books, certainly not enough to articulate this as a ‘need’ that circumscribes all other needs, desires or even itches. It is also imperative to question the sovereignty of the ‘we’, the subject to whom this hashtag is assumed to refer. Who are we to need diverse books?

In English, there is only one word, ‘we’, to describe the first person plural subject. Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia (Malay and Indonesian languages) share two separate words for ‘we’: Kami and Kita.

Kami is used to refer to the ‘we’ that excludes the listener. For example, ‘We (kami) went to the movies today, what did you all do?’ This is in contrast to kita, which refers to the ‘we’ that includes the listener. For example, ‘We (kita), as a nation, need to address the problem of a lack of cultural diversity in our Cabinet.’

When it is declared that “#WeNeedDiverseBooks”, I intend here not cynicism, but rhetorical curiousity: Is this ‘we’ kami or kita?

People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, for example, have been writing, publishing, sharing oral histories, practising our spiritualities and so on, for eons without these works becoming necessarily or primarily representative of fulfilling a country’s or an industry’s needs for aesthetic or economic diversity and inclusion, or as demonstration of enlightened tolerance and self-reflexivity of the ‘we’ who otherwise continue to ignore us.

Kami – We already have diverse books.

I repeat that I am not cynical about the value of diversity, which, as I have mentioned, is an ennobling given. Rather, I am frustrated about the incapacity to assume this as a given, and I wish to highlight the melancholy of a cultural condition in which it bears repeating. I also want to provoke conversations beyond diversity-as-an-end-in-itself. Diversity not only as ‘inclusion’, but also as circumventing of the very sense of the authority and entitlements of the ‘we’, the in-group, that the ‘other’ is supposed to be (or to feel) included among.

The question here is not only, for example: How do we include more people with disabilities, or more people of colour or more women in literature? The question is also, why am I, as a man, the Minister for Women? Why am I, as a non-Aboriginal person, the keynote speaker for a national conference on Aboriginal health? The point here is not only to ‘step down’ from these roles. Rather, it is to dare to ask these questions and to risk having that be the outcome. Not to let the fear of that potential outcome over-determine the sorts of questions we can ask.

In her piece, ‘White Men’, Sara Ahmed wrote, ‘When you ask questions like, “why are only white men speaking?” or even something more specific that relates to an ordering, “why are white men the opening speakers for a conference on race?” you tend to be heard as not being very helpful… It has become old-fashioned to mention that only white men are speaking at an event but not old-fashioned to have only white men speaking at an event. [italics in original].’

I reflect on Ahmed’s point here because part of the power of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign is precisely in its turning of kami (we who need more diverse books from you, about you… ‘tell me your story’) to kita (we who all need to learn from and share in the diverse books that we already have with one another, and that we can continue to generate together).

From the perspective of a person from an historically under-represented community in nationally accessible English literature, this kita, this ‘all of us’, is only possible if there is also room for kami, for ‘us without you’. You, who are the reader who has the power of being a consumer or publisher of literature and who thus partially drives who does or does not get represented, who does or does not get published, and whose voices and images get to be prominent, popular, or hegemonic. Kami, for us to consolidate our own sense of who we are, without having to be only contingent on You for survival, existence or legitimacy.

By asking who ‘we’ are to need diverse books, we may ultimately liberate ourselves (kita: all of ourselves) from the tyranny of an unquestioned vestige of ethnocentrism: our need for in-group security (e.g. ‘I am a good, respectful multiculturalist’).

An alternative form of security can come through a politics of representation that reframes the sites of power and influence. It is not only that people from diverse backgrounds need to publish more (or that ‘we’ need to publish more of ‘their’ books), it is also that what has already been published needs to be related to as having already been published, and to thus make the rounds of more affirmative consolidation, invitation, profiling, marketing and distribution. It is true that they (diverse, historically marginalised people) need to publish more books, and also that we (privileged people) need to publish more of their books. It is also true that it is incumbent on us (all, particularly privileged purveyors) to learn other languages, literally and metaphorically, to interpret what has already been published, to comprehend what ‘others’ have been saying all along.

The job of institutions, publishers, curators and consumers is not only to ‘give a voice’ to underrepresented people, it is also to seek out the diverse voices already speaking, the diverse writers already writing, to listen in good faith, even, and perhaps especially if, we do not like what we hear. And then to highlight these voices, even and especially if they are ambivalent, even and especially if they are critical, even and perhaps, however implausibly challenging, especially if they are ultimately ungrateful or unsatisfied… Insatiable!

What happens when the practice of balancing security, justice and sovereign autonomy for one another, challenges the foundations of what we consider secure, just, or sovereign? What if it challenges the very foundations of who we think we are in respectful coexistence?

What if all that we all thought we were (kita) has turned out to indicate only the very partiality of our identity, that all this time, we all (kita) have actually been only the some of us (kami), and that we have been ‘othering’ you without your knowledge and without your consent?

This is how we must hack diversity, to tweak it, to make it happen, and happen properly. This is also why we must hack diversity, into pieces. 

About Shinen Wong

Shinen Wong is a Melbourne-based, MalaysianChineseAustralian man, via Sydney, San Francisco, New Hampshire, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. B.A. in Gender Studies, GradDip in Buddhist Studies, and current M.Ed student. Professional background in public health. A love of people, country, music, Buddhist philosophy, Eucalypt and skinned knees. One of the two editors for the monthly Asian Australian Democracy Caucus blog (www.peril.com.au/aadc), hosted by Peril Magazine, the largest online platform for Asian Australian voices in arts, culture, media and politics.

This article is supported by the Australia Council for the Arts.