I started the first semester of my MA program in Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Cincinnati this past August. I knew my pleasure reading would slow down, as it always does when school starts, but this time, it stopped completely.
As I’ve continued in my program, I’ve been thinking about diversity a little bit differently. I’m taking a class on American Women Writers in the 19th Century and I’m barely familiar with any of the authors, despite their wild success during their time period. History buried them. History said that their work isn’t good enough.
In her essay “Dancing Through the Minefields,” Annette Kolodny writes,
“male readers who find themselves outside of and unfamiliar with the symbolic systems that constitute female experience in women’s writing s will necessarily dismiss those systems as undecipherable, meaningless or trivial. … what we are asking to be scrutinized are nothing less than shared cultural assumptions so deeply rooted and so long ingrained that, for the most part, our critical colleagues have ceased to recognize them as such.”
While Kolodny is ultimately arguing for scholars to reexamine the Canon, this requires taking another look at why we read what we read. That thought is what initially inspired me to take on this challenge, though I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time. All I knew is that their were holes in my reading—gaps that I desperately wanted to fill.
I’m starting to understand the urgency behind the “We Need Diverse Books” movement and the deeper reasons behind why such movements exist. As I read about the female poets that strongly shaped Edgar Allen Poe’s reception—poets that I’ve never heard of before—I wonder how many more voices have been left unheard. As I read fiction from white women trying to make meaning from the domestic in the 1800s, I think about the slave women and Native American women that had stories too, but were rarely valued enough to preserve.
I’m understanding that the way I read hasn’t been shaped by chance. My preferences—the ways I determine what literature is valuable to me—has been shaped by governing ideologies. These ideologies are white, male, and European, ideologies that say “because you are Other, because you are different, because I can’t understand, your writing has no value.”
I don’t want to be a part of that narrative anymore. I’ve always wanted literature to show me a world outside of my own experience—that’s why I loved fantasy so much as a child. I want to embrace the literature from those who are different than me in order to see into a life experience that is radically different than mine. I want to learn to understand. I want to challenge my prevailing cultural assumptions.
This requires an extensive amount of work on my part. Perhaps it’s impossible (Foucault would certainly think so). But I must try. I must. International novels can be difficult. The cultural references don’t always make sense. The pacing is different. It’s not what I’m used to and thus it’s uncomfortable. But in my 2 months of not-reading, I am reminded of why I took this challenge on in the first place. An urgency burns in my bones.