I am reading America: 3 books set in each state and written by men, women, and authors of color.
My reading project is turning out to be more complex than I thought. I am reading my way around the US in three books per state, and my original hope was to read works of fiction written by men, women, and non-Caucasian authors who are natives of the state, or at least lived there a while:
- Three works set in each US state
- Male, female, and writers of color
- Authors native to or residents of the state
I gave myself these parameters for a number of reasons: setting plays a huge role in my love for literature, and I want to get to know my country better through language and story; I want to read a variety of voices; I love fiction – it’s my favorite; and I want to read each state from the perspective of its own people, from writers whose minds have been shaped by the state’s landscape and culture.
Mainly, though, I set these criteria to give shape to what might otherwise be an unwieldy enterprise. I thought I was going to need limitations to help me narrow down the choices; in Georgia, my childhood state, I can think of ten books that represent the landscape and culture, and I have no idea how I’m going to pare the list down to three.
As far as male and female authors go, or I should say as far as male and female white authors go, my parameters are doing exactly what I intended them to do: they are helping me eliminate titles so that I am not overwhelmed by all of the possibilities. It is the non-Caucasian component of the project that is introducing complexity.
I knew when I got up into Maine, the whitest state in the United States (95%) I might have trouble finding a non-Caucasian fiction author. But I didn’t start with Maine. I started at the beginning of the alphabet, in Alabama, and finding an Alabamian author of color wasn’t nearly as easy as I thought it would be.
According to the 2000 census, Alabama ranked 7th in America in its percentage of African Americans: a full 26% of the Alabama population in 2000 was African American. On top of that, Alabama has a rich racial history, was pivotal in the civil rights movement, is the birthplace of Rosa Parks, and was home to Martin Luther King, Jr. There are lots of stories there. Yet, after I easily found novels by an Alabama man and an Alabama woman, and had several more piled up I could read, all of the authors I found were white. I racked my brain trying to think of a novel set in Alabama written by an African American author, and I couldn’t. I did some digging, was not satisfied, and ultimately, I got a recommendation from an editor at Book Riot. Unlike with white authors, I did not have a large pool to select from. I had one title.
Alaska and Arizona were not as problematic. Though there still weren’t a lot of authors to choose from, I was able to find titles written by Native American and Latino authors who are also natives of their states. But as I move through Arizona and prepare myself for Arkansas, I am stuck. Once again, I’ve got plenty of selections by white men and women, but not a single title by an author of color. Or at least not one that fits my parameters.
There was an interesting discussion going on over at Book Riot, where they recently ran a Who Are Your Favorite Writers of Color? poll. One reader commented, “Why do we have to call them writers of color? Why can’t they just be writers?” My mom asked a similar question over Christmas – why do we keep talking about race? Aren’t we all Americans? And ultimately, yes, it would be great to get to that point, where we don’t constantly distinguish between our own people – white, black, Asian American, Latino. But the fact is, when I’m trying to find authors of color to read their perspectives, to hear their voices, and it takes days to find just one author, that concerns me.
I am not sure what the reason is for finding so few titles by non-Caucasian authors. Are ethnic fiction writers that rare? Is the publishing industry not picking up their manuscripts? Are they publishing them but not promoting them? Or is it a failure of research on my part? Perhaps I am not looking in the right places to find more titles. I have contacted several faculty in the English department at the University of Arkansas with the hope that they might have some suggestions.
Meanwhile, I am working out my options for relaxing the restrictions of my project. My first priorities are setting – the narratives must be set in the state of interest – and that I read a diversity of authors, which still includes men, women, and non-Caucasian writers. The commenter on the Book Riot poll is right that they are all writers – white, black, man, woman – and my mom is right that we are all Americans. And my purpose with this project is to listen to them all: to hear many voices, to read an America that is not my story. So these parameters must stay:
- Three works set in each US state
- Male, female, and writers of color
As for fiction and the residency of the authors, it looks as if I must choose between them. In Arkansas, I could read nonfiction: Maya Angelou’s autobiography from her Arkansas years, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or Janet Kearney’s memoir Cotton Field of Dreams. Or I could stick with fiction and read a novel whose blurb excites me, whose blurb makes me want to skip out of the Arizona desert right now and luxuriate in the languid South, except that the novel’s author was born and raised in New York, not Arkansas. If I read a non-native, non-resident depiction of a place, am I going to get a Hollywood version or the real deal? As W. Somerset Maugham articulates in The Razor’s Edge,
Men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learned to walk, the games they played as children… And because you cannot know persons of a nation foreign to you except from observation, it is difficult to give them credibility in the pages of a book.
I would argue that the same holds true for setting: it is difficult to know a landscape, the weight of the air, the subtle shift in mood that a shift in atmosphere precipitates, through research and observation. You have to have lived them.
I want to know the truth of a place. And while I want to read that Arkansas-set novel by a New York author, I think that for the purposes of Andrea Reads America, because my intention is authenticity of setting, residency will have to trump fiction. I may read that novel, but not for this project.
I wish I didn’t have to choose between fiction and residency to read a good book by an author of color. I wish we had more options. I look forward to the day when we are able to overcome whatever obstacles are in place – biases in education, or publishing, or marketing – that limit our authors of color. I look forward to the day when we have so many works to choose from, so many stories from so many points of view, that we are overwhelmed by the possibilities, that we must set parameters and restrictions and rules to help us thin the thicket, and that when we do narrow it down, when we prune titles to get to what we want, we are left with a shapely shrub instead of a spindly twig.
As a follow-up to this piece, I assembled a list of authors of color from each state. If you are interested in diversifying your reading, you will find more than 60 titles on Authors of Color From Each US State: A Photo Gallery. Enjoy!
“Where are the ethnic authors?” is a revision of a piece originally published January 10, 2014 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.