THE BLOG
05/12/2014 03:07 pm ET | Updated Jul 12, 2014

America Lacks Multicultural Literature

The absurdly low percentage of multicultural literature published by the major publishing industry is a topic which has been addressed before, and more recently in an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Christopher Myers. But given the current state of the American literary landscape, let us look more deeply into the state of multicultural literature itself.

The definitions of multicultural literature are fairly fluid and often contradictory. They tend to differ from agent to publisher, librarian to professor. Some consider Asian-American and Latino-American literature to be multicultural, while others do not. Very few professionals I have known consider African-American literature to be multicultural, although it arguably is.

Nevertheless, certain statistics are impossible to look beyond. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor noted that only about three percent of children's books published in the U. S. in 2013 featured African-American characters, despite the fact that African-Americans are approximately 13 percent of the American population. According to the Asian-American Writers Workshop, a non-profit in New York City, fewer than one percent of books published in 2008 were by Asian-American writers, even though they make up about five percent of our population. Our society has been multicultural throughout its history, more so since the 1960s Immigration and Civil Right Acts. Minorities are expected to be the majority by 2050, but we have a literature that is almost wholly aimed at middle class white women.

Even the multicultural literature that is published by the major publishing industry must cater to the expectations of these readers. The tone of Asian-American literature must be soft and delicate, corresponding to the expectations of the general media. It must be about Asian-Americans adapting, not comfortably, but usually peacefully, into American society. The main characters are usually studious, meek and well-educated professionals, with parents who are struggling to achieve the "American Dream" and who wish to pass their values onto their half-grateful, half-rebellious children. If a book challenges or strays from this formula or the basic assumption that America is the great "Promised Land," then we see it rejected and relegated to self-publishing or small publishers.

Given the random nature of publishing, it is possible such a book can slip through and get published, but it is not likely. Despite a multitude of great Asian-American authors writing today, the only figures to be widely lauded are Jhumpa Lahiri and Chang Rae-Lee, neither of whom were born in America. Junot Diaz is a widely lauded Latino-American author, but he was not born in America either. You are at a severe disadvantage in the literary world if you are a minority who is born in America and write "multicultural" fiction that actually addresses real issues facing American-born minorities.

Books written by authors born abroad about their native lands in turmoil are much more sellable, simply because most Americans like to read about turmoil occurring somewhere else--anywhere but in America. But there's plenty of racial and class turmoil here, most of which isn't addressed in an honest way in any fiction outside of certain cable television series.

African-American literature, unlike the majority of multicultural literature, is allowed to be more provocative because it is already devalued by a majority of the population. In fact, there is an outright segregation in the industry and within libraries of African-American literature. Most agents who represent everything from literary fiction to science fiction won't touch African-American fiction. As a librarian I have seen many libraries classify it separately in a "Black Experience" section so general it combines Urban Fiction with Christian Fiction and classic authors like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison with Ashley Jaquavis and Cash.

This section is often de-emphasized and hidden from view, perhaps because of its subversive characteristics. Still, even this literature often subscribes to formulas and stereotypes, and is wholly aimed at the "Black" population that reads it. Authors like Baldwin, Richard Wright and others who are read by all types of readers are relatively rare (Walter Dean Myers and Walter Mosley, both genre writers, being slight exceptions).

The question isn't just one of whether the industry can publish more multicultural literature, or, in an age in which self-publishing accounts for almost 80% of books being released, how they can be better organized for access to the public. It is also whether a new multicultural literature can emerge that challenges these categories, that doesn't cater to the expectations of certain groups of readers but creates a new way forward, including the establishment of an author-centered approach and a renaissance of literary creation that reflects our dynamic age and its complexities.

Let us begin this process of encouraging a more diverse and dynamic literature for our time so that we can turn the page and move forward into a new and exciting age.

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