Everyone likes the Oreo filling, not everyone likes the cookie

Picking up a fresh novel, I would sit on the couch in front of the fireplace my father built for hours till I had read at least the first three chapters. The beginnings were always the slowest parts, getting to know the characters and their personalities and really get a feel for who they are. I’d cling to the copies of “Harry Potter” that my brother didn’t trust me enough with for the longest time, afraid I’d dog-ear the corners or spill my hot chocolate on, or “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and so many others. I’d find bits and pieces of myself in each of the characters and most times just pretended I was them.

That’s how everyone should read a story. Just to lose themselves in the characters, but I think I was lucky that a lot of the characters that I read were typically white and I found it easy to identify. And maybe “lucky” isn’t the best word, but I can’t imagine being a young Latina girl or young black girl or young Native American girl and be able to identify with Bella Swan in Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight.” This also seems to be the case on a much larger scale. In Daniel Jose Older’s “Diversity is not enough: race, power, publishing” he discusses how most characters are typically written white because it’s more accepted in publishing and more widely accepted by readers. He says “This is the language of privilege…” trapped in every novel, that white writers and white characters are what has always sold, so why bother changing it? Older discusses how many publishers or editors reach back out to the authors to tell them they don’t relate to the main character because they exist outside of their own race, and then they never get published.

harry

This transcends into the film industry as well. Older discusses how characters that aren’t specified as particular races are usually cast white in film. Like Katniss from Suzanne Collin’s “The Hunger Games” it never specifies if she is white or not but she is casted as white for the film to be more generally accepted. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” got a lot of heat for the casting, in the play production, of Hermione because she was played by a woman of color. Many argued that wasn’t how the character was written, and Rowling clapped back that she never specified for Hermione and that she was proud that the production had done so.

What this comes down to is: how do characters relate to people if they’re absolutely nothing like their audience? Shouldn’t the point of all literature be about learning something that is unlike yourself? If we wanted to read our own life story we would write it ourselves. I’ve found a great love in Latin American authors lately, like Isabelle Allende (famous for “The House of the Spirits”) and Junot Diaz (famous for “The Brief and Wondrous life of Oscar Wao”) and they are both authors I would recommend for others to read. I enjoy them because the characters are of Latino descent, something I am not, and incorporate historical references and traditions. I’ve learned from these novels, as every novel should teach.

Emily Goleski

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2 thoughts on “Everyone likes the Oreo filling, not everyone likes the cookie

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  1. I like your perception of reading outside the bubble people have come to sit in comfortably. It is easy to read a story were the main character is relatable. But I think you make an important note that literature should be about learning more about the rest of the world, with characters readers might not necessarily relate to. I would be interested to see if you expanded on how reading authors of different backgrounds might change young children’s outlook on the rest of the world as they grow up and how that would effect the publishing industry.

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  2. Nice work using your post’s early reference to Harry Potter as a sort of touchstone to which you return later on (referring to “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and using the quote from Rowling about “our choices”). You also effectively show your personal progression as a reader — from reading books with characters that looked a lot like you, to expanding your reading interests. [Tangentially related to your post, you might check out this recent controversy: http://kotaku.com/the-japanese-internet-reacts-to-scarlet-johansson-in-gh-1771544034%5D

    One point you might consider is that editors rarely say they can’t relate to a piece *because* of the race of the character (it’s unusual for people to be that blatantly racist, though it does happen)… instead they recognize that the piece talks about an experience they haven’t had, and that keys in as “unrelatable”. In some ways, this kind of bias is even more insidious than blatant racism. This is one of the reasons I caution GLR editors to be especially aware of what’s going on when they say they don’t “relate” to a piece. Is it because the writing isn’t strong, or because it’s showing a wordlview that’s unfamiliar to the editor?

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