The Oscars and Book Covers

At Starbuck’s this morning, the patron in front of me in line, the two baristas behind the counter, and myself were all discussing the Oscars. None of us had actually watched the awards, though most of us had checked online briefly to see who won. I’ve been seeing the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. So, I looked for myself. Below is a picture of the Oscars this year.

Instead of watching the Oscars, Knyght and I had date night at Barnes and Nobles Bookstore. We took some time in the Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Romance sections of the bookstore to analyze book covers, in relation to the aforementioned hashtag.

Romance did terrible. There was nothing darker than a spray on tan. Knyght looked, he really did. It was almost sad how hard he tried to find anything to prove me wrong. But the section was white.

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As a fantasy and sci-fi fan, I was really hoping that genre would do a bit better than it did. We found one after a few minutes. The girl on Midnight Taxi Tango is of African descent. There were a lot of alien species pictures but that was about it on diversity. I don’t even remember Asians being represented last night, though I did see several of covers in the library recently that represented a broader range of humanity.

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Altogether, we had slim pickings until we reached Young Adult. There are two covers in this photo of someone who are not white. The first one is on the right, second from the top. The second cover is blurry. Look near to the left bottom edge for it. It’s of a girl from ancient China. Beautiful cover, to be  honest. I’m sad that my phone did so poorly and blurred it almost entirely.

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And then the next shelf over, we found another two covers that were not white.

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I asked Knyght as we wandered the shelves if the racial slant being shown was caused by the deep European culture roots of the genres and as such, just gave way to figures of predominantly white descent. Perhaps I was being too harsh. Perhaps only white people read romance and sci-fi and watch films that are worthy of Oscars.

Um….no.

Here’s my personal struggle. My children will not be white. Their mother will be of Celtic/Western European blood and their father will be of African heritage. My nieces and nephews from at least one of my sisters will not be white. They will be half-Mexican and half Celtic/Western European. I already have an adopted niece who is half-black and half-Mexican. As much as I was enthralled reading Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry as an eleven year old, I don’t want limit the narrative my children can visually identify with to stories of racial tension and sharecropping. Much like my parents were careful not to refer derogatorily to people of other religions around me
as a child, I want to give my children the freedom to see the world as an open mosaic. At least while they are young, they shouldn’t have to imbibe a personal narrative of discrimination and hatred, from either side, black or white, or Mexican, or Chinese, or Christian or Muslim. They should have options besides the ‘hood and I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly.

My parents and grandparents gave me a beautiful gift in not continuing to teach me to hate the English or the Protestants or the Catholics or the Irish. Granted, my father’s Irish and my mother comes directly from the Mayflower. Their marriage crossed historical lines. Not necessarily for in American history, but it the racial clash does exist. At least one of my grandparents refused to attend the wedding at first because it was being held in a Protestant church. There’s a lot of bad blood, even to this day, over the Catholic/Protestant line for the Irish. But my grandparents did not pass that on. They told us about it but the narrative was “You’re American”. They wanted me to know about the history because it had shaped where we had arrived as family but they never asked me or my father to carry on the torch of rage or victimhood.

So, when I buy books for my future daughter, what will I be teaching her? That she needs to be pale like me to be a princess? That she needs to continue to nurse a hurt done to her people? And how will she internalize the fact that both stories are hers by birthright? Will she have to choose against the history and heritage I have to offer her because she’s darker than I am? The outer world will not recognize her right to it. She’s going to have to claim it. Consider the narrative that surrounds our president. He also has a white mother and a Kenyon father but his label is “black”.

Where’s this biracial narrative? Certainly not on book covers at first glance. Where do children like this fit in? And as an author and publisher, where’s my responsibility? Can I publish a stream of books with only white people on the cover and then look my daughter or niece in the face and “oh, that’s what sells”?

I was thrilled to see the latest Star Wars had a male lead who was black in the latest episode. I’ve enjoyed the Walking Dead as a popular TV show with diverse relationships and cast. There are major steps being taken that encourages me. I’ve found dolls in the full spectrum of skin tones in stores for the last ten years. There’s a market. Barbie is actually expanding it’s body style line.

But there remains a long way to go. And morally, I have my answer. No, I cannot write, commission books covers, and sell books that only represent a white narrative. And as much as I would like to say I write a human narrative, that also, is not true if I only inform it from my European culture. There is a vast resource of heritage, history, culture, and myth beyond that of Norse, Celtic, or even Roman and Greek legends which needs to be explored, especially as our societies become more diverse. It’s going to take effort. I wasn’t raised on these stories. Neither was Knyght, so it’s not easy for me to draw from his background.

Traveling has given me insights and appreciation for Chinese and Japanese storytelling. The first novel written by a women was penned by a Japanese woman and playful erotica and comedy has a long history in Japanese works, as I found out to my shock when I was shelving art history books at my first job in undergrad. The first male/male love poem I ever read was Japanese. It’s more difficult for me to pull from Chinese heritage, mostly, I believe, because of the disruption to its storytelling caused by the Cultural Revolution. However, Chinese history and monuments have definitely effected my imagination and they do inform the development of some of my future projects. There is still so much more to explore though, as a writer and as a mother and aunt of children who own multiple cultural narratives.

Do I support the #OscarsSoWhite campaign? As a grammar teacher, it makes me uncomfortable. Do I think it’s a problem? Yes. I also, however, see it as an outdated institution because it does not reflect my own experience in the world. My world is diverse. My friend group is diverse. My marriage is biracial and my family has multiple lines of heritage that I enjoy and appreciate. America has finally gained a president who represents a different racial lineage than the office has enjoyed for the previous two centuries. There are many markers pointing to better acknowledgement of the actual racial makeup of the world around us, as imbibers of media.

Scrolling through the names of those who won at the Oscars, I did see a few points of diversity. Gabriel Osorio Vargas and Patricio “Pato” Escala Pierart are both Chilean film directors. Their film Bear Story is the first animated  short Chilean film to win in that category. I’m not certain if its the first Chilean film to win an Oscar at all. It was unclear when I checked Wikipedia. Alejandro González Iñárritu, a Mexican director, also won Best Director for ‘The Revenant. British film maker Asif Kapadia whose documentary film Amy is of Muslim British Indian heritage. I have no opinion of any of these films, if they are good or not, but it seems only honest to point out that not everyone who won last night was white. As important as it is to seek recognition and inclusion of African Americans and Africans around the world, we’re only continuing the discrimination if we deny recognition of other racial groups and their accomplishments.

This is a very long post. I’m going to wrap it up here, even though there is much more to say. Here are my last thoughts for the moment. Let’s not turn this into a moment of hate or anger. I’m sure many of the films that won deserved recognition. I’m thrilled Leonardo DiCaprio finally has an Oscar. I love his work. #OscarsSoWhite is just a very obvious and loud example of something mores systemic in media. Something I think is changing in TV. And it’s going to keep changing with under the force of dollars and patronage. Although watching and reading can appear passive, it’s not. We’re making choices and shaping narrative by what we give our attention to.

So what narrative are we choosing to support? Culture, literally, is written and enforced in our media, our novels, our TV, and our comic strips. And the pieces of art and literature that are watched and read are the ones that dictate what is produced next. So what sort of future are we promoting with our “relaxation” time and our “fun nights”?

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Image Credits:

Oscars: http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2016/02/29/oscars-academy-awards-diversity-oscarssowhite/81075474/
Book Covers photos at store 1,2,3,and 4 by author.
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry: https://sites.google.com/a/wbsd113.org/roar-of-thunder-hear-my-cry/
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: http://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/photo.goodreads.com/books/1328867659i/407913._UY452_SS452_.jpg
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4 Responses to The Oscars and Book Covers

  1. Whitewashing is a big problem in book covers. There exists the belief that having a person of colour on a cover (let alone a POC protagonist) makes a book less “universal”. I think this is a load of crap, but it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy after a while: if the only stories that get told are those involving white people – if white people are never invited to get into the perspective of someone different from themselves – then of course they will find books with POCs inaccessible.

    But the world is changing and people are getting bored with the same old same old. People are demanding representation, which is a good thing. I totally agree with your comment above that the presence of diverse characters shouldn’t ruin the escapism of a story. And if diverse characters are given more diverse roles (not just the black slave, the bullied gay kid, the manic pixie dream girl), it ruin the escapism – it will enhance it, especially for people who fit into those diverse categories in real life. I’ve written about this subject in the past: http://jannagnoelle.com/2015/05/18/diverse-characters-dont-have-to-earn-their-keep/

    • Ciara Darren says:

      Perhaps you should reblog your post. It is so relevant right now and I’m glad you linked back to it in your comment so that I would have the opportunity to read it. The world is changing, for which I am excited. The more “normal” roles and “diverse” roles assigned to characters who are not white, the lower the barrier to escapism will fall, for all readers.

      I encourage everyone to go and read Janna’s post and the comments which follow. One very good point which was made in those comments is that as long as it is respectful, everyone, majority or minority in their particular area, should be able to discuss the topic, within guidelines of courtesy, without being jumped on. I would like to repeat that here.

  2. Meg says:

    I thought the Oscars really took away from the people who were nominated. For most of them it will be their only time and they busted their butt to get there. I was reading while it was on. I read for the stories I like, as far as I can tell writers place what they are on the cover of their books. Now I am not a writer but I would think for most, if you try to force the process the story suffers. I have read books from my favorite authors and wondered if they had gotten ghost writers, the stories lacked so much. I chalked it up to they must have been under deadline pressure. I read to exscape not to be reminded of all the problems in today’s world. There is the non-fiction section for that, and I do go there sometimes.

    • Ciara Darren says:

      Some authors to have ghost writers. The number one example that comes to mind is Tom Clancy, who has his name on several books that were actually written by other people. I loved his Patriot Games, Rainbow Six, and Without Remorse, but eventually gave up reading his later works because they felt like he was calling it in.

      Most writers in stores like Barnes and Nobles though, have no control of what is placed on their covers. It’s controlled by their publishing houses, actually.

      And yes, forcing the process for a story will make it suffer. The fact you mention you read to escape and not to be reminded of the problems of today’s world reinforces the point of the article, though. The presence of people different than us, or in many cases actually like us, shouldn’t ruin the escapism of the story. Regulating diversity to the nonfiction section of media and focusing on “problems” is actually part of the problem. It keeps diversity from normalizing and in many cases, expanding beyond a narrative of repression and resistance. I don’t think anyone watching the latest Star Wars felt like they were being reminded of Colonialism because the cast wasn’t entirely white. That was well done and entirely enjoyable, at least for my friends and I when we went to see it.

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