Since grade school, I have had a passion for books and reading. This must have been evident to my teacher during elementary school because, on the last day before summer break, she gave me a gift. It was a collection of hardcover Dr. Seuss books. It came with its own bright blue, hard plastic book rack in the shape of the hat-wearing feline. While other kids on my street ran through the fields, climbed trees and collected bugs, I spent most of that summer inside, sucking my thumb and reading the shiny new books from cover to cover, over and over again.
But as my interest in reading grew, so did my awareness of what was missing in the books I read: Me. None of the characters looked like me, acted like me or spoke to my experience. So, when a book came along that did, I clung to it. I somehow stumbled onto a book called Harriet’s Daughter by M. NourbeSe Philip, and it was probably one of the first times I’d seen Black people in books outside of the bit of history we learned in school. I immediately wanted more. As a teen, I took an interest in novels like Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Those stories reassured me that my experiences were just as valid, important and worth reading about as all the others. But the shelves in which those books lived always seemed to be the slimmest section of the entire library.
This is the cry of many educators, youth and other readers: Where are the diverse stories? My recent entry into the publishing business as an Acquisitions Editor puts me in a unique position to contribute to positive change. I enjoy sitting around the boardroom table and engaging in those deep and meaningful conversations about culture, race, identity and the ways in which we can expand how we share our perspectives with the world. It’s vital to have diverse viewpoints and experiences included in conversations about the types of stories we should be publishing.
In a recent media interview about my latest book, Ride or Die (Lorimer, 2017), I was asked whether I was the first Black acquisitions editor at a Nova Scotia book publishing company. It was a good question, but one that I couldn’t answer. I did some digging afterwards but came up empty. I’m curious to know which others walked this path. First Nations people? African Nova Scotians? Muslims? And if I am the first, now is the perfect time, as diversity in the stories we read and in those who tell them is slowly and steadily becoming a permanent fixture on the literary landscape.
As an African Canadian female writer, I am also exceptionally positioned to create those stories with diverse characters and inclusive themes. I have several manuscripts still yet to be published that focus on everything from a Muslim teen as main character to the mobilization of a stigmatized group of friends. However, as minority authors, we often face the threat of being pigeonholed. There is a belief that we are only good at writing about diversity and minority issues, or that our characters are not mainstream folks with everyday challenges but instead must be defined by their “diverseness.” Yet our race, class, gender or ethnicity are not the only stories we can tell. As humans and as individuals, we are not one single story and minority writers continue to demonstrate that they are not only equipped to write minority stories but are just as skilled in writing mainstream ones as well. I feel that an incredible storyteller is a gift to the world. She has the ability to make us see things in ways we might never have seen, were it not for her artistic gifts leaping back from the page.
The publishing industry is slowly changing to broaden the diversity of stories told and authors published. Readers are finding increased opportunities to connect with different kinds of characters, themes and stories. Bookshelves are beginning to look more representative of the world we live in. I am excited to be a very small part of that momentum.