There are links below to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign as well as thoughtful essays by people of color about representation in media. I'd encourage you to head down & read them now.
(Light spoilers to follow, more likely to color your reading than ruin a surprise)
The Three Body Problem is a bestselling Chinese novel recently translated into english, and reading it made me aware of how thoroughly accustomed I am to being the center of a story. The book is primarily set in modern China, with a prologue and a few other moments that look back to the Cultural Revolution. Not surprisingly, there are essentially no americans. Even when some of the scientists decide to reach out to the global scientific community, input comes from European experts, not Americans.
Some of this is simply delightful and creative. Late in the story there's data on a boat that needs to be recovered. I found myself waiting for the obligatory moment where special forces landed on the boat. Since there's a loose global alliance, I actually found myself wondering if there would be a SEAL team or the chinese equivalent storming the boat.
... Infrasonic waves. All of these are cooler than a SEAL Team. And really, even cooler than a superhero. Literature of the imaginationI found the few places where Americans did show up the most challenging, however. As mentioned, there is a loose global alliance (this is revealed early on, though the purpose is not), and there are periodic meetings where a US military officer shows up. Four, I'm pretty sure. By which I mean - I paid a lot more attention to the book every time an American shows up. All four times. Four meetings, where basically the officers serve as window dressing. And yet I read these scenes very closely. Then, in the last meeting, the American officer is a jerk. He's a foil there to show off one of the actual protagonists, and reading this scene actually made me angry. "We're not really like this!" I wanted to yell. "That's not me!"
— Jonah Sutton-Morse (@jsuttonmorse) November 20, 2014
I don't know quite how to describe this, so I'm going to just say it again - I went into a story written by a Chinese author in Chinese, and yet every time an American showed up, no matter how briefly, I keyed in on that character. When the characters turned to the outside world, I was disappointed that it wasn't an American expert they sought out. When the American in the story turned out to be a jerk and a useful foil rather than a fully realized character, I felt betrayed and angry.
I take two messages away from this - first, I am incredibly accustomed (in ways I'm not even aware of) to being able to center myself in the story. The Three Body Problem is the first time I can remember where I found my representation pushed to the margins. This is the definition of privilege, and once again a reminder for me of how easy & unconscious privilege usually is.
My second takeaway is that #WeNeedDiverseBooks. I'm a cis white male with all of the privileges. It's easy for me to find books that center me. But I'm trying to imagine reading a book where the character who I obviously identify with is always just a foil to show off someone else, always relegated to the background, always an idiot or a jerk, or violent, or being set up for a noble, tragic death (or maybe an ignoble or meaningless death). Because for many readers and authors - women, people of color, gay or transgender individuals, that experience, rather than my one-time discomfort is the norm. (And that's if they exist in the story at all).
I don't know what that experience would be like. I can't extrapolate from my one venture into literature where I was not centered to imagine reading only books that marginalized me. I can imagine that your defenses would go up. I can imagine reading every book waiting to be betrayed by the author. I can imagine clinging to shallow tropes and marginal representation because it was the best you've ever seen. I can imagine anger every time someone said something like "well at least now there's a character like you - isn't that a good first step". I can imagine simply being driven away from the genre entirely - choosing not to keep reading books that will let you down over and over again. I can imagine all of these things, but I don't really know what it's like. I do know that for me, reading a book that presented my identity in a marginal way, and eventually showed the character who looked like me to be an unpleasant jerk was not fun. It wasn't enough to spoil my reading of The Three Body Problem (which, I reiterate, was awesome), but it did make me angry.
I'm going to stop here with links to a campaign to bring more diverse books so that more people can have literature than centers them, rather than marginalizing them. (And also maybe so I can read more literature that doesn't put me in the center, and become a bit more aware of my own privilege). Also included are a few recent links where people of color talk about representation in media. If you're aware of more, please let me know in the comments & I'll add them here.
Donate here through December 10, 2014!
Troy Wiggins on DA: Inquisition
(Also a good set of recommendations if you're looking for diverse Fantasy/Sci-Fi)
N. K. Jemisin on DA:Inquisition
The Unbearable Solitude of being an African Fangirl
These are the links that I've noticed specifically in the few blogs that I follow in the SFF community recently. This doesn't really touch on some of the issues exposed at the National Book Awards (buy Brown Girl Dreaming here!) or elsewhere. These links aren't exhaustive. They're barely scratching the surface of an experience many readers have all the time. An experience that I've had once, but which provoked a visceral, angry reaction I haven't had towards a scene in a book in a long time.