“Learning diversity” – Using Fiction as a Tool

As a white woman who grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago I was not exposed to much in the way of diversity throughout my youth. Every so often, a church mission trip would take us places that seemed utterly foreign to me as if we had traveled to a different planet. But these were places that existed ‘elsewhere.’ They were not a part of my world.

One experience in childhood, however, did open my eyes to the fact that others did not enjoy the same privilege I enjoyed. My grandparents took me on a vacation to Mexico, ostensibly to see the amazing tourist attractions – the pyramids, the beaches, the fancy hotels. Instead, what I saw, what I remember as a jolt of electricity in my belly, was women sitting on the streets with their babies. When I asked Grandma why this was, she explained matter-of-factly that they didn’t have a home to go to.

Even college offered me little in the way of exposure to people different from me. In my small, midwestern, academically elite school I rarely had cause to think of experiences beyond my own. I do remember one choir trip to the South where we attended a Southern Baptist church service. I remember the incredible and unbounded joy expressed during this service – out loud! And realized again that my experiences were not universal.

All of this to say, I have had to work hard to “learn diversity.” It has become a passion for me, and I have been taking up any opportunity I can find to learn. I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading, attending seminars, participating in conversations and discussions. And every so often, it can get overwhelming. I need a break.

For me, that means reading. Usually cozy mysteries. Always fiction. This time, I decided I would try something different. I went to my library app and searched under popular fiction and the first book I could find that was available right away has led me on a whole new journey. I have now overloaded my library holds with books written from perspectives that differ widely from mine. For now, I am sticking to the ‘female’ perspective (in quotes because the meaning of that word is also under exploration), to contemporary fiction, and if at all possible, to American fiction. I feel like this is where I need to start.

The two books I will share below are simply where I have started. I know there are many, many options out there, and I’d love to hear from you what fiction books have opened your eyes to new ways of understanding this world we live in.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The first book I read was An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Not only is this a beautifully written book, it is captivating and such a great read. The story makes personal the bullet points we see in every diversity presentation – the incarceration of black people, especially men, is disproportionally high. In this case, a black man who we know, without doubt, is innocent is sent to jail for committing rape.

The story follows the lives most affected by this conviction – the man himself, his wife, and their best friend. We also hear about the parents of both the husband and the wife and their struggles to deal with this tragedy.

The story is so compelling because it feels so real. It feels like a ‘ripped from the headlines’ story. I felt as though the author allowed me, for the hours it took to read the book, to understand and feel what the impact of this injustice can do to real people. It literally derailed a life, tore apart a marriage, and caused stress, confusion, and chaos in the lives of so many peopled.

The story helped me to get inside the reality of what is happening to so many people, people different from me, in our society today. It helped me to see beyond the bullet point on the PowerPoint slide and to feel the pain of individuals who are faced with this kind of injustice.

I highly encourage everyone to read this book.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

My choices of book to read are dictated by the availability at the public library. That said, I am very pleased that the next book to pop into my queue was Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner. While not a tale of racial diversity, I was pleasantly surprised by the differences introduced by the fact that the family was Jewish, that one of the women was a lesbian, and that the other was childfree by choice.

This story follows the lives of two sisters who’s stories alternate as they move through time, the major events of the decades passing by in the background. As time progresses, the lose themselves, then find themselves again several times, in various ways.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot – I’d love for those reading the book to experience the empathy as these two sisters follow their journey – sometimes experiencing incredible pain, other times overwhelming joy. Suffice it to say, I learned quite a bit from these two characters.

I felt through the story the pain of having to suppress significant parts of your identity simply to fit in, to be seen as “normal.” I learned the difficulties behind the healing after significant personal tragedy. I saw a world where women faced the difficulties of trying to get ahead in a male dominated world decades before the present day.

This book only offers small windows into these different experiences women might face in their lives, and yet it is so well written that you feel strong empathy with each passing challenge the sisters face. I am grateful to have had a peak into this window, and hope it helps me to act with even greater empathy towards others.

……

Fiction gives the authors the latitude to fully explore issues of diversity, to provide a different vantage point to explore the amazing things that make each of us unique. I know I have read many books of this type before – I simply chose these two books because of the incredible quality of writing and because I happened to have read them recently.

What fiction books have you read that have opened your eyes to a new way of thinking about your neighbor? I’d love some suggestions!

As always, stay positive! Pass along a smile!

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