So here’s something I’ve been mulling over recently:
Where are the writers of color in non-fiction?
Sure, you might argue that there’s a lot of nonfiction available written by people of color, just look at Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me and Between the World and Me or Just Mercy. These works are – very deservedly getting attention and accolades. However, they are narrative non-fiction and memoirs or works about race and racial justice. And because there is always someone: I love such works and I do not want to take away from these achievements at all, I am simply trying to make different point. Suffice it to say, that ‘the personal is political’ applies to people of color, too, and what is more, other less rigid genres and non-Western formats might work better for the things we want to say.
Thinking about the non-fiction I tend to read, two things stand out: One, I focus on social justice works written by women and people of color, and two, when I read other non-fiction (bees, Monsanto, dinosaurs) the authors are almost exclusively white. So let me rephrase my earlier question: What is the place of writers of color in non-fiction?
People of color have claimed the right to be experts on our own experiences and the fight has been long and is not over by a long shot. In literary fiction, this right is being re-claimed again and again under the hashtag #ownvoices. In non-fiction (including academic texts), there is excellent work being done in nearly all disciplines, demonstrating the intersection of for example food justice and racial justice or architecture and racism. But we can also see plenty of cases like white scholars putting together research groups on Blackness without any Black people or white ethnologists producing the narrative on Black urban communities.
There are plenty of reasons for people of color to write about issues of race, we want to tell our own stories and we need to be there and fill these roles of authority. Looking at the work being done in non-fiction by and about people of color is such a joy! But another aspect is, are we allowed to be experts on anything else? Will we ever be allowed to be experts on the human condition? On ballet or on the planetary system?
We have had this debate about women writers (and it keeps popping up), and all campaigns to shove white men off the expert throne are very welcome, but stopping at this point reproduces the same tired old power relations that work to keep marginalized voices out of positions of authority. And non-fiction is about authority, oftentimes taking on the mantle of logic, rationality and facts that present us with the ‘master’ narrative. We cannot leave this up to those ensuring our oppression! So what would hopefully be the benefits of diversifying by having nonfiction writers of color writing not on issues of race: Sharing in the building of archives of knowledge, demonstration of our humanity and complexity – we contain multitudes, prevention of for example biologically essentialist science (at least as the truth).
I’ve put together a list of six titles by writers of color writing about space, pandemics nd business. It’s an attempt at finding diverse authors in nonfiction by focusing on mostly US (and not generally Chinese, or Indian authors, because PoC is not the same as non-white) scholars and scientists of color, but of course we need to highlight other voices as well. Sometimes, it’s a bit more difficult to find out how authors identify, but hopefully I will find time soon to do this, or perhaps one of you will give it a try?
Death by Black Hole (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
Pandemic (Sonia Shah)
(recommended by Jenny)
The Gene (Siddhartha Mukherjee)
Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Karen Ho)
The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers (Ali S. Khan)
Adapt: How Humans are Tapping into Nature’s Secrets to Design and Build a Better Future (Amina Khan) – Will be out April 2017 from St Martin’s Press
Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds (Miyoko Chu)
(recommended by Debi)
The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Atossa Araxia Abrahamian)
(recommended by Sharlene)
The Future of the Mind (Michio Kaku)
(recommended by Naz and Vishy)
Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes us Who We Are (Sebastian Seung)
The Emerging Mind (Vilayanur Ramachandran)
Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Moss ( Robin Wall Kimmerer)
(recommended by Stefanie)
What are your thoughts on writers of color in non-fiction? Do you have any titles to add?