Monday, 21 December 2015

Reflection: #WNDB & Beyond a Single Story

Whether they realise it or not, most Australians are familiar with the concept of a single story. It's when foreigners ask us, unironically, about keeping kangaroos as pets. Its the entire sub-genre of Australian Outback romances. I've been polling all my romance reading friends about these, and none of them have ever read an Outback romance. Even though these books are (sometimes) made and distributed in Australia, they are primarly meant for external consumption. It's the advertisements on my cable television provider for a program in which some minor British personality goes bush to search the "real Australia". Cue images of horse-wrangling, cattle stations and crocodiles, and British Guy patronisingly explaining everything despite having a day's experience of the place. It's not that the stories of rural Australians aren't worthy or important - in fact, in our internal media these are often sidelined - but their presentation to international audiences invalidates the 85% of Australians who live in urban environments. 

And countries and regions all around the world have similar experiences. Often, we even encourage the stereotypes of the outside world to brand ourselves for tourism and business purposes, Australia's Where the bloody hell are you? ad campaign being a prime example, but this doesn't make them any less alienating or dangerous.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's talks about how we are often lead to believe that one story about a particular place or people is the only story in her influential TED talk entitled The Dangers of a Single Story. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend watching it, or reading the transcript.

She recounts how, on coming to America for university, she realised that people saw Africa as a place of "beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS", and related to her through this lens. It was not their fault; this is what the media and popular culture presented to them with little differentiation between nations, regions, cultures and religions. Adichie, however, was not in the same boat. She says:

...because of America's cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America.
I thought of this quote when I was reflecting on my #WNDB Challenge as it comes up to the end of the year. Despite the fact that I had sought out books featuring characters of varying ethnicities, religions and sexualities, I have realised that 14 out of the 20 books I read were set in the US, and all but two took place in either the US or UK (and when I say the UK, I really mean England with the odd Scottish setting thrown in; Wales and Northern Ireland don't get a look-in). I undertook the #WNDB Challenge to counter hegemony, but ended up perpetuating it in another form. Unless they had immigrated to the US or UK, the people of the periphery were still silenced. No doubt about it, the fault was in my selecting skills, but this also reflects what I was exposed to on Goodreads, Amazon and other blogs.

I'm always loath to buy into romance/'light' fiction vs. 'literary' fiction binaries, but I do feel like the romance world is dragging its feet in this regard. The Man Booker prize has opened itself up to writers from all over the world and novels from all over the world are feted as literary masterpieces (this is has it's own set of problems as well, don't get me wrong). In contrast, all of the 2015 RITA Winners were set in the UK or US. 2014 had more diverse settings: one Outback, one partially set in Bangkok and one set in various European locations (but with the characters based in London). In 2013, we were back to all US or UK, excepting two fictional locations.

I have no doubt there are many romance novels set outside these conventional locations out there, but they are not making it past the literary gatekeepers and so languish in the dusty corners of the Kindle Store. In 2016, I'm making it my mission to find them. The aim is to review books from countries around the world in an aim to help myself see beyond the single story, and I would be grateful for any recommendations. 

As always, there will be an element of working this out as I go along. For example, should the author have to be from the country in which the book is set? The only things I'm sure about is that I would like to read more than one book from each country. After all, it would be pretty useless to counter a single story with a single story.

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