Friday, 23 December 2016

Reflection: Concluding Thoughts on Beyond a Single Story

At the beginning of the year, I dedicated myself to try and read more books set in different locations with something I called Beyond a Single Story. The initial idea was to read one historical, one contemporary and one non-fiction book set for a bunch of countries or regions. In the end, I didn't end up reading all three categories for any one country, because, as the year wore on, I became increasingly disillusioned with the way I'd set the whole thing up. It was, at best, arbitrary and, at worst, promoting bad representation. 

I had pre-set categories, and I wanted something that checked a particular box. But there were often slim pickings in a particular category, especially when it came to historicals. I had called the category 'historicals' because I knew that it was unlikely that I would be able to find historical romances for all the countries, and was expecting to have to branch into general historical fiction. This plays into the lack of diversity and ownvoices in historical romance, but also the the tension that romance writers - particularly POC - feel between the HEA requirement of the genre, and the stark realities of life for POC in many historical periods.

The work of Beverley Jenkins, Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley and other authors writing romances with African-American protagonists demonstrate that the two can be successfully and beautifully reconciled, but it can be a delicate balancing act. And perhaps this example does not necessarily translate to other parts of the world; there is not always the historical continuity and modern relevance that underscores African-American historical romance, (and some other romances set outside the white European(-descended) default, such as Jeannie Lin's Tang Dynasty romances). However, for countries where the recorded past is largely associated with colonialism, but where independence has since been achieved, there may be less desire to reopen those old, painful chapters of history. Or, where the colonial past is being written about, there may be a desire to present it warts-and-all, rather than placing a HEA at its centre. 

That is a lot of speculation, and it must be noted that I read a wonderful romance novel for this project, Under the Sugar Sun by Jennifer Hallock, that managed to balance a HEA with conveying the horrors of American colonialism in the Philippines. But, although Hallock has lived in the Philippines, it wasn't ownvoices. And, when I was looking for ownvoices historicals for any of the countries with colonial pasts, I consistently noticed that there were few to none set during the colonial era. (In some instances, I'm willing to admit there may be issues in what gets translated or released internationally, but in many countries, as a result of this very same colonialism, English is a national or official language, and literature is originally written in English).

For example, looking for historical fiction set in Ghana, the books I found by Ghanaian authors were mostly set in the post-Independence era or in the transition period from colonial rule to Independence. It was books by white or outsider authors that were set during the colonial period. One featured a British couple living in a seaside fort that I can only assume would have been a slave castle, where slaves were taken before boarding ships. Another was about the Fifth Anglo-Ashanti War, and a review I read expressed an Ashanti character's desire to "kill all the white people", despite the fact that the conflict was very specific and was born of a British administrators lack of awareness (or care for) Ashanti protocol. Ultimately, I decided that it was better to leave that category blank than to read and review something like that. I had wanted to read these books to counter my lack of knowledge, and even if I read and reviewed books with bad representation critically, this lack of knowledge would mean that there would still be things I didn't pick up on and subconsciously absorbed, and I didn't want that. 

This brings me to the second critique of this project, which was touched on in the point above. It promoted a lot of false equivalence:
  • Between ownvoices and non-ownvoices authors
  • Between Western and non-Western countries
  • Between modern states and their predecessors
  • Between countries/regions with histories of colonial and other forms of oppression and ones without
This was inadvertent, but intent does not equal or excuse impact. I created, framed and implemented the project in a way that was less than ideal, and I am sorry for it. I am the product of two white settler societies who have both been very successful at whitewashing their histories, and that affected the way I thought/think about other nations and their histories. I wanted to educate myself more about the different parts of the world, but this too is an idea deeply ingrained in whiteness, from the 19th century armchair ethnologists and anthropologists, who became "experts" on races on the other side of the world from their comfy London townhouses, complete with racist theories like phrenology and social Darwinism. 

These realisations came slowly over the course of the year, as I listened, learned, grew and reflected. As my unease built, my enthusiasm and the desire I had to see the project through to a "successful" (i.e. completed) end waned. Therefore, the gaps in what was read do not only represent where I could not find anything appropriate to read; they also reflect where I did not find or even search for something to read because of my disenchantment. However, there are still a few books sitting on my Kindle that were originally meant for Beyond a Single Story, and which I will hopefully get around to reading and reviewing in the new year, although not as part of the project.

Despite my disillusionment with Beyond a Single Story - and with myself for undertaking it - it was responsible for bringing me into contact with some seriously cool books, publishers and resources. I'd particularly like to note:
  • Romanceclass - Independently published romance novels by Filipino authors, with a wide range of titles, sub-genres and settings.
  • Ankara Press - An African romance imprint. As they say, their stories feature "self-assured women who work, play and, of course, fall madly in love in vibrant African cities from Lagos to Cape Town".
  • Indireads - Publisher of South Asian popular fiction, including lots of romance.
  • WOC In Romance - I hope most of you already know about this resource for finding romances written by WOC. I discovered it before I started this project, but it was certainly useful.
Reflecting on my experience, and looking forward to 2017, I think that the most appropriate for me to do better in the new year is to keep in mind the two resolutions from my Best of 2016 post (be better at reviewing diverse books I read, especially when I enjoyed them, and read and review more Antipodean authors and books), while also reading diversely without a prompt, challenge or other such device (which is essentially what I ended up doing when this project bit the dust mid-year). However, this does not mean a lack of awareness or self-accountability about what I read. Just like this year, I will keep track of what I read through Goodreads, allowing me to reflect, find and fix holes in what I am reading. I still intend to read as widely as possible within romance (and non-fiction). If, part way through the year, I feel that this isn't keeping me on the course I would like to be on, then I will reassess then. I have also recently classified my reviews by setting, and intend to use this as another tool for self-assessment (you can know that most of the books you read and review are set in the US, but it's much more shocking to see the extent to which this is true!)

Lastly, the paragraph above has framed reading diversely in terms of responsibility, and I want to clarify that: as a blogger who has the potential to influence other people's reading decisions and as a person with privilege on many different axes, I do feel that I should read and review diversely. However, I also do it for my own enjoyment, and because it reflects the world I live in, and next year I hope to focus on this "Here's what I liked about this book, and it had [POC/disabled/queer/etc.] representation", rather than the approach that underlaid the Beyond a Single Story project, which was a questionable "I read this book because it had a diverse setting, and here's what I thought about it". 

Apologies for the navelgazing, but I think that transparency, self-reflection and -growth are important tools for making myself and the blog better, and I wanted to be clear on where we stood at the end of one year and the beginning of the next. As always, feedback is more than welcome.


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