Friday, April 6, 2018

What’s Normal To You Might Not Be Normal For Me.




Decades ago, I lived in Latvia for several years. I was a volunteer English teacher, and I met a few other Americans who’d come over on the same program. Latvians frequently used the term “normãli” to mean “as usual,” and our students therefore tended to overuse and misuse the English word “normal.”  One of my colleagues was asking her student how her weekend was, and the girl replied, “Normal.” Liz responded, “What’s normal for you might not be normal for me,” and thus a great catch-phrase was born.

I was thinking about diversity in literature recently, based in part on an article about how only four YA fantasies by black women are expected to be published by major houses this year. FOUR. There’s so much more variety of authors and diversity of characters than there used to be that it’s easy (for a white lady like me) to think things are markedly better. But the vast majority of what’s published is still by and about white people.

And straight people.

And monolingual English speaking people.

I started thinking about all the boxes you have to tick off in order to qualify as the default, as “normal” has been defined for generations.

  • White 
  • Heterosexual
  • Cisgendered  
  • Raised by birth parents 
  • Able bodied  
  • Neuro-typical  
  • Christmas-celebrating, but not significantly religious  
  • Native English speaker
  • Middle class or wealthy  
  • Educated  
  • Politically moderate  
  • Slim, or at least wishing to be so 
  • American, Canadian, British or maybe Australian

 (I’m not adding “male” simply because I’ve read a ton of books by and about women, and although it’s definitely a problem that we think boys won’t want to read about female main characters, as a girl, finding female rep in books was never a challenge.)



 But still—look at that list. That’s a LOT of things that have to line up exactly in order to be considered “Normal.” Miss any one of those things, and all of a sudden you are “diverse,” “exotic,” “niche” and in an “issues novel.” 

And yes, I was EVERY SINGLE ONE of those so-called “normal” things growing up. As were my parents and sisters. I have branched out a tiny bit since then—I’m on antidepressants, and I’m overweight and underconcerned about it, and my family has been built through adoption. It’s not much, but it’s enough that when I read about a character struggling with mental illness, or a character who’s fat and doesn’t “win” by losing their weight, or when I read about different parts of the adoption triad, I feel seen.  (I also feel confident in weighing in on where representation in those areas is poorly done, but that’s another issue.)


It’s enough that I get, just a little bit, what it would be like to have never seen yourself in a book. To have to cobble together representation from almost-likes and well-I-guess-that’s-universals.  And then what it means to actually find a piece of your lived experience in a book.

I made a book buying resolution for my classroom library this year. I am focusing on the areas students constantly run out of options in:
  • Horror
  • Graphic novels
  • Latinx rep


But now I’m thinking about my own reading and the voices I seek out. I will always be a mood reader, and I will always read plenty of books in which my white-cisgendered-straight-girl self is well repped. I’m okay with that. It doesn’t mean I can’t also seek out authors and characters who do not fit neatly onto the list I began with. People who are

  POC of all varities
  GLBQT+
  Transgender, non-binary, intersex etc.
  Raised in non-nuclear families
  Adopted, fostered
  People with disabilities
  People with mental illnesses
  Addicts
  People of other religions or more niche brands of Christianity, strongly religious Christians
  Immigrants, migrants, and refugees
  Non-native speakers of English
  People living in poverty, homeless people
  People living in non-English speaking countries or countries that ended colonization in the 19th or 20th century
  Extremely conservative, liberal, or libertarian political views
  Little formal education

There is a whole world out there. None of it is normal, or all of it is. Hard to say. But I just bought an #ownvoices book about a blackAce girl, and I can’t wait to read it.

3 comments:

  1. I don’t read as much horror as I used to, but from what I remember, it’s not a very diverse genre. I would love to see more #ownvoices horror stories. I know there’s spooky stuff in every culture. Somebody should write about it.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  2. This reminds me of a post I read that left me shocked. She was saying that when you say American, people think white. I guess because I grew up in a Caribbean neighborhood (Flatbush, Brooklyn) and live in Middlesex County in NJ (which is VERY diverse), the thought that White = American never crossed my mind. As a former teacher, I do like that we are seeing more diversity in entertainment in general - books, movies, TV, because young people really do need to see someone like themselves featured and not just serving as a sidekick. And I really like getting an #OwnVoices POV. I was really excited that Rick Riordan started that imprint to publish books featuring mythologies from other cultured by #OwnVoices authors.

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  3. Hahaha, we also use "normaliai" (our spelling) in Lithuania, with the same meaning :D

    What a great post. I've been wanting (but never getting round to) promoting more translated books on my blog - like, at least to branch out from the "everything is written in America by Americans" and "if it's about your country, it's probably not true but my stereotyped imagination of it" (a friend has recently asked for book recs for books set in Lithuania. I got none. Apart from the untranslated LT ones, I don't think they even exist.)

    So branching about is definitely super important. I guess every single one of us can help bring more diversity onto the plate little by little.

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