Questioning the Lack of Diversity in Historical Fiction

Miriam Makeba
Miriam Makeba (4 March 1932 – 10 November 2008)

Two weeks ago, I talked in a complicated sort of way about why it is so important to be aware that the language history is written in is not necessarily the language it occurs in and as such, discrepancies exist and the lens through which we view history is, perhaps unavoidably, flawed.

This week I want to question a marked lack of diversity in historical fiction written for children. Let me define what I mean and set up some limits etc. so that what I say has some relevancy and makes sense. In fact, let me restate my question.

Why does children’s literature not have a more noticeable number of titles that deal with non-European, non-white history written not by white people but by the very people whose history is being narrated/fictionalized etc.? To simplify further, why don’t we have more books by, for example, Indian authors who write books talking about Indian  history from an Indian perspective? Why do almost all books concerned with history that are available for children contain European history?

Let’s speculate:

  1. Parents are not interested in teaching histories of different kinds of people to their children. Therefore, publishers do not bother publishing books that deal with alternate histories. No demand means no profit so what’s the point?
  2. People are not writing books containing alternate histories in English. An Indian author writing about Indian history will write in Hindi.
  3. We live in North America. That should say it all.

I will address each point separately.

  1. I can understand parents for whatever reason not making diversity a priority for their children. (Even though I think it’s incredibly wrong to not educate your children about the different kind of people that make up this world.) What about schools and libraries though? Shouldn’t places devoted to learning ensure that the kind of literature available for children include books that contain alternative versions of history or histories of different people? Should they not demand these kinds of works from publishers who then have no choice but to fulfill this demand by searching out and giving chances to writers writing these kinds of books?
  2. It is a fact that the number of books translated from other languages to English is one of the lowest when compared to books translated to different languages. More books are translated from other languages to French, German, Russian etc. than to English. So it is entirely possible to translate books for children containing alternate histories. Someone just has to want to.
  3. You may think this argument is an oversimplified one but I have heard people put it forward when talking about the need to learn about different histories. All I have to say to this is…”Look around.”

Now that we have covered that this lack exists and some of the reasons (which I have rebuffed to varying degrees of success) this lack exists, let’s discuss why this lack is so damaging and inhibiting to not just children but to people of all ages.

1995 was observed as the United Nations Year of Tolerance (I remember because it was the topic of a speech I gave in an oratory competition). I was thinking about the word “tolerance” the other day and I came to realize that I kind of dislike the implications associated with the word. To tolerate something or someone who is different from you has a negative connotation attached to it; to tolerate something implies that the ‘something’ in question is in some way negative. I “tolerate” the loud music my neighbours are playing because I don’t want to yell at them; I endure the noise.

People who are different whether by their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation are not something to be endured or tolerated – there is nothing wrong with them. Their existence is not meant or aimed to be an affront to yours. Therefore it is not tolerance that should be taught but acceptance.

And what better way to teach acceptance than by teaching your children about the different kinds of people that exist in this world – not through the colonizing lens but through the lens of a person who belongs to the people being talked about. Appropriation is a very sticky subject with me and whether it be fiction or otherwise, I am ready to take you on. However, the point here is to discuss how opening a child’s mind to people who exist not just in their relationship to him/her but as a full people with their own histories, myths and religions who share this world with him/her.

Children assimilate culture when they are young, they learn the ways of being and they learn to reflect the thoughts of their parents and other family members. If we as educators, librarians, siblings and parents were to ensure that our children grow up learning not just their own history but the histories of different people, no matter the depth, I think the world would be a much better place.


6 responses to “Questioning the Lack of Diversity in Historical Fiction

  1. I vividly remember many discussions about tolerance and visibility and I am glad you mentioned some of my favourite points. To paraphrase Goethe “tolerance should be a passing mentality: it has to lead to acceptance. To endure is to insult” Tolerance basically means to not actively persecute someone for pragmatic reasons. I often notice that opponents of diversity and inclusion feel that for their tolerance of someone they should be rewarded by them becoming invisible. As if they don’t understand that visbility is the point of the exercise.

    • Exactly! I think what’s happening in Ferguson is an indication of the work that needs to be done where race and discrimination are concerned.

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