Writers of Color Are Being Pigeonholed Into Writing About Race and Identity | Opinion

For years, the Texas Book Festival has been known as a historically liberal event, a place where authors from all backgrounds can showcase their stories. So, when I looked at the author-speaker lineup for the week of October 23-31, I was heartened to see it included many wonderful Black, Hispanic, and Native American authors, as well as a few from Bangladeshi, Chinese, Indian, and Iranian backgrounds. Yet when I reviewed the stories by these authors, I noticed that over 75 percent of them were about race and identity. I couldn't help but wonder why.

In recent years, a series of racial reckonings engulfed the publishing industry just like it did the country at large. Even before the murder of George Floyd led us to question so many things, a controversy was playing out over American Dirt, a novel that was supposed to be the next Grapes of Wrath, but instead, critics say, stereotyped Latino immigrants. Since then, the publishing industry has repeatedly acknowledged that it has not done enough to showcase, promote, and celebrate the work of non-white authors. Executives have vowed to "do better."

But have they actually done so? I teach literature and writing to college students, so I'm frequently exposed to panels, conferences, and festivals. I'm well versed in the way the industry handles diversity. And I can't help but feel that its solutions are shallow, promoting authors from diverse backgrounds but only if they choose to write about suffering and identity—stories about crossing the border, dismantling racism, or following the school-to-prison pipeline.

Some of these stories are important and poignant. Others are just sensational. But taken together, they offer a limited view into the radically diverse and divergent experiences of minorities in America.

More than a decade ago, in a TED Talk that's since become famous, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned against what she called "the danger of a single story." Adichie explained that on a trip to Guadalajara, Mexico, she watched locals going to work and making tortillas in the marketplace while laughing and smoking. She felt ashamed for believing that all Mexicans were simply "abject immigrants." She admonished an industry that creates just one story, that shows an entire people "as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again."

White writers have no such single story; they publish all sorts: Stephen King writes horror; J.K. Rowling writes children's fiction; Tom Clancy writes thrillers. Helen Fielding writes chick-lit; Jennifer Weiner writes contemporary romance. White writers might write about the Civil War or the Alamo, but they also get to write about horses, food and recipes, climate change, chemistry, Pinocchio, photography, music, magic, history, art, addiction, energy and social media—without having to remind us about their race.

Meanwhile, the non-white writers are relegated to race and identity.

writing
iStock

To truly "do better," the publishing industry needs to answer some important questions. Are we publishing more books about race because they are vital and important? Or are we pigeonholing writers into topics we think will sell—profiting as we task them, time and again, with the ominous responsibility of saving the world by exploring their tribe?

How can we highlight more books by non-white authors that are about other subjects, ones that show a more holistic version of minorities in America?

Race and ethnicity are important parts of who we are and what we experience in the world, but our stories, our lives, can't be reduced to such narratives. Doing better means giving minority writers the opportunity to give readers books they will enjoy, or use to escape. People read when they travel. They read when they're on the beach. They want to discover the best recipes or dabble in the latest fad diet. They want to be transported to new or magical worlds. They want to feel love and romance again.

Let writers of color take them through all of that and more.

I am an Hispanic woman who was born on the border in Laredo, Texas. Perhaps one day I may choose to tell that story. Or to go back further, maybe I'll write about my ancestors, the land grants from the King of Spain, and how my family became successful ranchers.

But those shouldn't be the only stories I'm allowed to tell. I urge the Texas Book Festival and the publishing world at large to find and promote more stories that are truly rich and diverse. As Adichie so aptly put it, "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete."

Desiree Prieto Groft teaches literature and writing at Arizona State University's New College. Her work has appeared in the San Antonio Current, NBC Chicago, and Rome Today.

The views in this article are the writer's own.