What is the most important thing in a story? That it contains characters that you can identify with, people who look like you, see the world like you?
For far too many readers, that is what they expect from any story, any book or movie. If they find it difficult to find anyone ‘like themselves’, they are discomfited, even angry, and often stop reading or watching.
I do see the problem.
People have to FIGHT to have a true representation of the protagonists of their stories showing up on the covers of books that feature them.
In most literature the main character is barely described, and without description or context that character defaults to “generic milquetoast white”. Many readers or viewers of color feel silenced or disappeared because they never see in fiction anything or anyone they really recognize. There is an excellent and urgent case to be made for the presence of a greater swathe of the world’s cultural heritage in the offerings we are given in our entertainment options.
I’m all for that.
Just recently I had an exchange with someone on social media who mentioned a Kenyan writer I had not heard of before – but is apparently an amazing writer telling stories that nobody else but him could have told. I hunted up one of the man’s books. I haven’t dived into it yet but the book’s there and waiting, and I am quite looking forward to reading it. But I have very little expectation that I will look into the mirror of that book and see myself anywhere in it.
I don’t need to. I am reading, in part, to learn about things, experience things I know less about than perhaps I should. Not to find myself.
There are very few books in which I ‘find myself’ in that sense. When I was a girl and I read Louisa May Alcott and about the “little women” growing up in Civil War America – there was very little there that was remotely familiar to me or accessible to me. I might have identified a little with Jo because she was a writer like me but the other sisters…? Amy annoyed the snot out of me, Meg was just that bit too good to be true, and Beth… I barely remember Beth other than a sweet little ghost of a character, a mayfly spirit who lived and died in a world hugely different from my own.
When I was reading about an India in the throes of mutiny, I found myself in none of the characters who peopled the pages of the book I held in my hands. When I read novels written by Pearl Buck, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Nnedi Okhorafor – novels written by the South American magical realists, the French novelists of two hundred years ago, the Russians and the Poles, the Norwegians, the Greeks – I learn things I didn’t know but don’t inhabit those worlds – those writers’ characters do, telling their own stories. Their worlds are not my worlds but I read about them with fascination anyway.
If I were looking for stories that merely reflected myself, or my own little bubble of a world, I would go into a spiral and lose myself – which was reality and which fiction? I strongly believe that those of us who treasure Story should walk many roads – and some of those roads SHOULD be strange to us, and unfamiliar. That’s the game.
I do understand – I do – when people who belong to races or cultures or circles of gender preference that are sidelined, or different from the generic white bread world that things are often set in, find something lacking in the “whitewashed” worlds from which all references to themselves have been excised – a complete failure to find a familiar taste of aspects of their own heritage or culture. That is something that should be rectified, and dealt with, and improved – there is no excuse that any human storyteller’s voice should be silenced.
But a reader who ventures into literary and media worlds expecting to see themselves reflected in countless mirrors is bound to be disappointed. No writer, no artist, can hold a perfect mirror to any consumer of their work. If you’re feeling invisible, by all means yawp and make people see and acknowledge you and tell the stories you want to hear told – but also accept that these are crowded roads, that you are walking them with many many others, and that sometimes an unfamiliar face beside you… is precisely the mirror that you never thought could exist.
I am not for homogenizing because – as one of my favorite SF shows (Babylon 5) once so beautifully stated – each life is a unique flame and once it is gone the world will not see its like again. Such flames should burn with their own light, and perhaps illuminate, in some small way, someone else’s path while doing so.
But none of the flames burning around you will be YOU – will share YOUR world, your dreams, your vision, your instincts. And if you wade out into the flames only seeking for one that is like yours, serene and tame and safely familiar, you will be disappointed… and you will lose out on all the richness that IS out there. You may never find yourself but you may get brilliantly lost finding things you never knew you were looking for.