Diversity, Language, and All That

As we come to the end of the year, I’ve been thinking about the evolving conversation about diversity. It raises so many questions for me. In plenty of ways, I get it. I do. I’ve been writing while brown for 25 years.WNDB_Button

I support We Need Diverse Books. Of course I do. How could I not? And I’m proud to claim as my publishers houses whose work is advancing that cause.

But I also worry sometimes that the conversation is becoming reductive and oversimplified. I still don’t know who’s inside and who’s outside the diversity window. I don’t know where I’m located, which side of that window. I was born in India. I write in English. I can speak my native language but my literacy doesn’t go much farther than labeling spice mixes on jars in my pantry. I’m an American citizen, now living in Canada. What single space can I possibly claim to write about with authenticity, and what does that mean, anyway? I’m sure there are other people who feel a connection to every place I’ve ever lived, and their versions of it will be different from mine.

Which is why this New Yorker article by Jhumpa Lahiri fascinated me–it’s about her journey to learn, not her native Bengali, but Italian. Learn it enough to write in it, at first haltingly, then with greater confidence but also with humility, knowing one’s limitations. It feels like an act of courage.

James Baldwin said: “I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness.” There was a writer who stayed true to his own convictions. Maybe that’s the point.

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