A Diverse Disappointment

The bookternet has been raging about diversity in publishing for a good couple of years, and all the concerns are valid – on that, most bookish folks can agree.  We DO need more books published that are written by people of color!  We DO need more books published with characters of color, or with disabilities, or characters that are LGBTQIA, or with mental illness, or who live in poverty!  Personally, I make a point to purchase and/or read books that meet all of these criteria because 1) these are good books, 2) I think it’s important to let the publishing world know, with my book purchases or library checkouts in my small part of the world, that I value these books and want more of them, and 3) I teach kids who meet one or more of the descriptions above and want to have relevant books to put in their hands.  However, I am a white, middle-class, educated, non-disabled, mentally healthy, straight, cis person who reads these books – I have no personal experience in the situations these characters face, so I’m just blindly hoping that the authors get it right and accurately depict the characters in an honest manner without being stereotypical.  I have never experienced the outrage and disappointment that many people who meet the above descriptions must feel when they read a book about marginalized characters that just gets it ALL WRONG. Until recently, that is, and let me tell you, my outrage is still simmering, ready to boil over to anyone who will listen.

A few weeks ago, I was anxiously awaiting the release of a middle-grade book that was promoted as realistic fiction with magical realism set in New Mexico.  What WHAT?? This is in my wheelhouse, y’all! I LOVE middle grade fiction!  I LOVE magical realism!  I am FROM New Mexico!  This book description rang all my bells, so as soon as it was for sale I ran out and bought a copy.  This is not a book review, so for the purposes of this post I will not reveal the title, but if you are active in the book world at all (or can do a simple Google search) you can figure it out.  This book partially took place on a ranch, and in addition to growing up in New Mexico I also grew up around ranching families and spent a lot of time on ranches, so I know a thing or two about that culture.  And it is a culture, not just a vocation.  New Mexico also has a large Hispanic population, and although I am not Hispanic, I did grow up with very rich Hispanic culture all around me, so I know a little about that as well.  I was extremely excited to read about something I KNOW about. What I was not prepared for was the crushing disappointment and subsequent rage I felt when I discovered how many mistakes the author made while telling this story.

I won’t go through all the terrible missteps the author made in the details of this story; I will just say that after some light internet stalking I discovered that the author is white, young, and has no history that I can find of living in New Mexico at all.  She lives near New Mexico in another state – but Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Texas are not New Mexico.  New Mexico has a culture and landscape that is uniquely its own. This author made some unforgivable mistakes about the Hispanic culture in NM – one example I will share is that she had all the Hispanic children in the story willingly anglicize their names.  ALL the children, even undeveloped fringe characters, not just one as a quirky character trait.  This is a common misconception that many white people with no experience in the Hispanic culture, especially the NM Hispanic culture, make.  They think Hispanic people want to have names that sound more American or English. They don’t.  I grew up and later taught school as an adult in NM, and the Hispanic people I knew with Spanish names were very proud of their cultural heritage, and if you mispronounced their names they would immediately correct you.  This author assumed Hispanic children in NM are ashamed of their Spanish names, which made it obvious to me she wrote the story from her white perspective and didn’t do research to get it right.  She also made some glaring mistakes in the descriptions of the landscape and cities of NM and the ranching culture.  The mistakes were so, so bad that it was clear the author maybe drove through NM once and perhaps stopped to eat in Albuquerque, but that must have been the extent of her research.

This book made it clear to me that the publishing world still has a long, long way to go when it comes to diversity.  If a Hispanic person had read the book during the editing process, or if the author had consulted Hispanic people from NM during her writing process, or if the author talked to someone familiar with ranching in NM, or if the author actually spent some time in NM exploring the landscape, it could have been much better.  I searched and searched online reviews of the book to see if anyone else noticed the problems like I did, but most reviews just raved about the book.  Again, this made it clear to me that there is even a serious lack of diversity in the people reviewing books. I found one review, from a teacher in Albuquerque, who called BS on the book. One. It made me wonder if books I’ve read and loved that centered around a location or culture I’m unfamiliar with could be just as bad, and I’ll never know because I have no experience to give me background knowledge.  I hope not.  What I do know is that authors need to be better about knowing what they don’t know, authors need to have more diverse beta readers when they write about a culture different from their own, and the publishing world needs people from diverse cultures and ethnicities working as editors. I have no control over those things, but I do know, now, what it feels like to have a place and culture I love terribly misrepresented in literature. I was surprised at the amount of anger I felt, and have decided the best way for me to deal with it, now and in the future, will be to call out the BS when I read it.

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