Below we feature an interview with Emma Ewert, an environmental educator living in the West. She made a commitment a few months ago to read books written only by people who aren’t white men for a whole year, in order to consciously seek out the underrepresented voices of literature. Now Emma has a blog, Reading Diversely- a year of not reading white men. Read on to hear about why she started the project, her favorite novels, and more!
What made you decide to start this project?
This project came about as an offshoot of a project I worked on in graduate school. My capstone presentation was on the importance of story in community. I started by looking at how stories impact our lives on a personal level, but as I started to research stories and communities, I began to recognize that my own relationship with story was a privileged one. I get to see myself reflected in many of the stories around me, but there are people from so many other backgrounds whose stories are simply not being heard. As an avid reader, I looked at diversity in children’s books and found that upwards of 85% of all children’s books published as recently as 2015 feature white or non-human protagonists.
As I reflected on my own reading life after finishing this project, I recognized that my own reading was skewed towards white authors, and often towards men as well. Outside of my own life, I have also been deeply impacted by the political and social climate here in the United States. White male voices are consistently dominant on both sides of the political divide.
And finally, one of the reasons I read is to see the world through other people’s eyes. As I thought about everything I was experiencing, it seemed like a natural step to choose to use my reading life to see perspectives I was not seeing in the media and books around me. Once I had mentioned to a few people I was considering this, I found people were interested, and I decided to start it as a blog both to offer a platform for books I think people should read and to hold myself accountable throughout the year.
What are the rules you’ve been sticking to?
This was tough for me. Before I go more into it, I want to say that I really do love a lot of books written by white men, and I am not choosing to do this because I don’t think white men’s writing isn’t worth reading, but rather because I know there are voices out there that I am less likely to read and I want to make the time and space to read these diverse voices. There are many ways that people are excluded from the social narrative and discriminated against, but I also didn’t want to open the net so wide that the intent of my project would be diluted. I ended up coming up with the following definition of “white men” for this project and from that developed 4 simple rules.
Defining white men: For the purposes of this project, I define white men as men who are of European descent who do not publicly identify as members of any other commonly marginalized group. While I recognize that many white men are often discriminated against due to religion or sexual orientation, these differences are usually not obvious in their name, picture or short biography. There is a long history of famous male authors who are suspected of hiding these differences, such as the many rumors that Shakespeare was either gay, or a member of one of numerous persecuted religions. Therefore, while it does not need to be evident in the book itself, unless a white male author publicly identifies with a group like this, they are still off limits.
1.) Unless explained below, no books by white men (see definition above.)
2.) Collections of stories or poems can include work written by white men as long as at least 50% of the work is written by members of another group
3.) Each month, I can read ONE “token white male” author. However, the work I read must have at least one POV narrator who is not a white male and pass the Bechdel test (or essentially must include interactions between non-white males that are about everyday life rather then their relationships with the dominant culture)
4.) Read at least one book a week.
What’s been the hardest part so far?
I recently moved out to Yellowstone National Park, and I am really interested in natural history. Unfortunately, this is one genre that is essentially completely written by white men. There are one or two books written by women, but for the most part, I have struggled to find good natural history books about the Rocky Mountain region that I am able to read.
How about your favorite part?
I love so many things about this project! On a personal level, I haven’t had the chance to read as much fiction over the past few years because I was in school, and so I have absolutely loved getting to read again, and having this as motivation had been amazing.
On a social level, I have really appreciated the conversations and connections I have made through the blog. I have always read a lot, and it is so much fun to be able to share my love of reading with a larger community of readers, and to hear other people’s stories and thoughts about the project or books in general.
Has anything surprised you?
When starting this project, my goal was simply to read more books written by women or people of color but I wasn’t really thinking about diversity in terms of where in the world a book was published.
Getting to read books by authors from around the world has been such a joy. Recently, I have read several books written by African authors that I loved, including Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, The Woman Next Door by Yeawande Omotoso and Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta.
Another thing I have noticed is how sensitive I have become to who has a voice in other areas of my life. I find myself watching Samantha Bee instead of Jimmy Kimmel or even Stephen Colbert, and actively seeking podcasts that represent diverse voices, even though this is not part of the challenge.
What types of books and stories are you most drawn to?
This is a hard question for me because I love so many kinds of books. Recently, I have been reading a lot of literary fiction, but I also love mysteries and narrative non-fiction. I am particularly drawn to well-written books with complex but relatable central characters that I can root for.
I’m hoping that as I write more about books over the year I will be able to develop a better understanding of my own preferences.
Do you also write (aside from blogging)?
Not really. I had to write a lot for my graduate program, and I do keep a naturalist journal off and on, but this is the first time I have ever written anything that is available for anyone to read. It is incredibly scary!
What are your top three favorite books?
This is so hard. There are so many ways to pick a top three, and if you asked me this tomorrow it would probably be different. These three books are all incredible stories with beautiful storytelling! I read them all at least a year ago, but I can still picture the people and stories in these books vividly.
– Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières
– Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
– Mink River by Brian Doyle
Thanks Emma! Find her blog, Reading Diversely, here.
Photo from Emma Ewert.