Centring marginalized voices and decolonizing my bookshelf

books - James Baldwin quote

At the beginning of 2016, I made a commitment to read only books by authors who weren’t from the dominant culture. My intent was to broaden my education and stretch myself by staying away from books written by white able-bodied cisgender heterosexuals. Books have always helped me make sense of the world, and I knew that if I wanted to catch glimpses of the world through lenses that were different from mine, books would help me get there. Though my bookshelves reflect some diversity, I knew there was much more I could do.

It was harder than I expected. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of books by other voices – there are, but I had to dig harder to find them. It became clear, early on, that few publishers and booksellers are willing to bank on books by marginalized voices. They don’t invest in them as often and don’t put them front and centre in the bookstores. Walk through almost any bookstore (or at least those that I’m most familiar with, in North America), or browse through Amazon, and you’ll see fairly quickly what types of books get the most space and attention. Those voices that feel most “safe” for the average bookstore shopper will sell the most books, and I think it’s fairly safe to say that the “average bookstore shopper” is expected to be a white person with privilege.

That was one of my first realizations in this year-long quest… It is far more challenging to find a publisher and make a living from your writing if you do not fit the dominant paradigm. Other voices have to work twice as hard just to get a spot on the bookshelf. Like any other space ruled by capitalism, the bookstore centres those with privilege.

It was easiest to find books by marginalized voices in the fiction section, so I started there. Friends gave me lots of recommendation and my nightstand quickly filled with borrowed books. I started with Indigenous authors (in Canada, those are the voices that are often the most marginalized) and moved on to people of colour from the U.S., Africa, and Southeast Asia. Many of those books were gritty and challenging, and some of them brought up my white guilt. There were moments when I questioned why I was putting myself through this. Reading was starting to feel more like a chore and less like a pleasure. (Note: scroll down for a list of some of the books I read.)

Though I enjoy fiction, I don’t read nearly as much of it as I used to, and soon found myself searching for the kinds of books I lean toward – memoirs, books about the human condition, cultural exploration, leadership books, and other non-fiction. These became increasingly more difficult to find. Memoirs were fairly plentiful, once I started digging deeper than the typical bookstore shelves (and I found some great ones by writers who gave me a new perspective on what it means to be gender non-binary, what it’s like to be raised by a residential school survivor, etc.), but the hardest to find were the non-fiction books I tend to read that are relevant for my work.

I’m not sure how to define the books I most love to read, because they don’t tend to fit bookstore categorization. I read a lot of “ideas and culture” books – on leadership, spirituality, feminism, trauma, engagement, facilitation, personal development, etc. When I turned my attention to these books, my quest became the most challenging. Very few of these books are written by people who aren’t from the dominant culture.

And this was my second major realization in this quest… While we may be willing to read fiction, and sometimes memoirs by people who don’t look like us, we very rarely will accept as experts anyone who doesn’t fit the dominant paradigm. This is where the white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-gender voice is the most centred. Storytelling may have become a more equal playing field, but the fields of knowledge and expertise are still colonized by those with more power and privilege. And the higher you go up the “knowledge food chain” the more white women are eliminated as well.

In the Spring of 2016, just when I was looking for more of these kinds of books, something happened in my personal life that derailed my year-long commitment and made the absence of these voices even more obvious. As I’ve written before, I hit burnout. A combination of stresses in my life – divorce, single parenthood, home renovations, and the continued high demands that followed my viral blog post – left me feeling wobbly and exhausted. I stepped off social media, pulled away from some of my commitments, and sought therapy to help me get my feet back on the ground.

As is my tendency when I journey through something that shakes me up and requires a deepening of my emotional and spiritual growth, I turned to books for comfort and a way forward. At first I tried to maintain my commitment to marginalized voices, but the effort required felt like one more stressor, so I let myself off the hook. Instead, I read about body healinggenerational trauma, and spirituality from some of the prominent writers in those fields – all of them from the dominant culture.

This healing period in my year is worth mentioning for a few important reasons.

1.) It highlights the lack of marginalized voices in books related to trauma/therapy/spirituality/body wisdom/etc. This begs the question: Where do people who aren’t from the dominant culture turn to find voices like them speaking to the deep healing work that they need to do? If you’ve experienced oppression, it’s very difficult to find healing from among the people who represent your oppressors.

2.) To stay on the quest for a deepening understanding of injustice, racism, etc., and to be able to continue to examine my own place within the systems that oppress people, I needed to turn inward for awhile to find my own strength and resilience. A deepening understanding of trauma, for example, helped me to heal some of my own so that I am more equipped to hold space for others who’ve faced trauma. I can enter into other people’s stories better when I have healed my own.

3.) My ability to find the voices that speak to my experience and help me heal is part of my privilege. I didn’t have to look very hard to find a therapist who looks like me and has enough education and training to support me and I didn’t have to look very hard to find suitable books that helped me understand my life experiences. My voice is well-represented and healing is relatively easy to find.

After a few months, I renewed my original commitment. I found I wasn’t quite ready for the heaviness of some of my earlier reading, so I looked for lighter reading. Comedic marginalized voices provided a nice balance and, in a surprising way, helped to normalize “the other” even more. When you’ve entered into the humour of a lived experience that is different from yours, you realize the threads that bind us together and give us common humanity. In a book on growing up Muslim in Canada, for example, I found myself chuckling at how similar some of the experiences were to my own Mennonite upbringing. Just as I felt like an outsider in my small town for the things I couldn’t do as a child (no dancing, drinking, attending community bingo nights, etc.), a young Muslim girl feels set apart for living a more restricted life.

By the end of 2016, I wasn’t ready to quit reading books by marginalized voice. Having worked through the earlier challenges of finding books that interested me, I now have a stack of books waiting for me and a long wish list of ones I want to get to eventually.

I have learned more than I can say from the reading I’ve done so far and I know I have much more to learn. At the beginning, I was learning about what it means to be Indigenous, black, brown, disabled, LGBTQ+, non-gender-binary, etc., but at some point I realized I was learning something that was equally important. By witnessing, if only for a fleeting moment, the world through their eyes, I was learning more about what it means to be a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-gender woman and what privilege comes from those pieces of my identity.

When you’re a member of the dominant paradigm, you rarely have to look back at yourself in any kind of intentional self-reflection. The world is set up to support you, to centre you, to make you safe, and to make you feel normal, so you don’t have to work very hard at figuring it all out and there’s no need to challenge it. 

I have the privilege of navigating the world with a kind of obliviousness in ways that others don’t, and my reading this year helped me see that more clearly. Since reading all of those books, I am more aware of, for example, how safe a bathroom might feel for a transgender person,  or how accessible a space might be for a disabled person. I am also more aware of how little I’ve had to pay attention to either of those issues, and, more importantly, how I have contributed to the challenges marginalized people face and how I represent that which is unsafe for them.

Two terms came into my consciousness this year and both were made more clear by the reading I did – kyriachy and intersectionality.

From Wikipedia:

Kyriarchy, pronounced /ˈkaɪriɑːrki/, is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word was coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, militarism, ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.

Intersectionality (or intersectional theory) is a term first coined in 1989 by American civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. It is the study of what Crenshaw contends are overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Intersectionality is the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. These identities that can intersect include gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental disability, physical disability, mental illness, and physical illness as well as other forms of identity. These aspects of identity are not “unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather…reciprocally constructing phenomena.” The theory proposes that we think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one’s identity.

The broad range of my reading has contributed to my understanding of what it means to be intersectional AND someone who benefits from the kyriarchy. My life is impacted not just by one aspect of who I am, but by the intersection of multiple identities. I am never “just a woman” or “just a white person”. I stand at the intersection of those identities, just as every other person stands at their own intersection. My intersection means that I am both oppressor and oppressed, both settler and sexually colonized. Their intersection means something entirely different, and I can’t presume to understand it until I ask and until I sit and listen to their stories. Embracing their stories means embracing complexity. 

Individually and collectively, we need to examine our wounds, our trauma, our privilege, our oppression, our marginalization, our power, and our guilt. As we do so, we need to be conscious of how our intersectional identities might impact other people.

I started out trying to diversify my bookshelf, but what I learned instead was that I needed to work on decolonizing my bookshelf and, consequently, my life. Diversity would only get me part way there. It might give me a collection of stories and ideas about what it was like to be marginalized. But a diversity lens still allows me to centre myself and my story and do little to challenge my privilege. Decolonizing is different – it invites me to examine myself and my place in the kyriarchy, deconstruct my own narrative of domination, and challenge that which allows me to live with privilege while others can’t.

I don’t want to make it sound like it was all drudgery and hard work, though. It wasn’t. Many of the lessons of this year were beautiful ones. Adding all of these voices to my life was like adding colour to a monochrome kaleidoscope – it added depth, beauty and texture to my view of the world and allowed me to see what I’d been missing. I found common threads in the stories that made me feel more connected to the humanity of all of the people I encountered.

Though I started the year feeling like it was my duty, as a white person, to challenge myself and stretch my worldview, I can now say that it is also my pleasure and privilege. I have fallen in love with these voices and I want more and more of their stories and their wisdom. They have challenged me and they have blessed me. They have pushed me past my own fragility and helped me listen more intently to what I couldn’t hear before. My life is richer for what they continue to bring to my world.

I still have much to learn and many teachers to teach me. For now, I will continue to centre those voices that are not centred on the bookstore shelves, because it is only in doing so that I can see myself and the world more clearly.
Though I wasn’t vigilant in keeping track of the books I read this year, here are the ones I remember and recommend (in no particular order:

The books I read for healing/growth (not from marginalized voices)

Sophia laughs! (or “Why I now drink tea out of an elephant’s trunk”)

Last night, when my husband thought it was wise to send me out of the house for some “me time”, I headed to my favourite bookstore to buy more smart books. As you can tell, I love smart books. I have bookshelves full of them, and a night stand nearly caving under the weight of them.

I had a gift certificate, so I could buy them guilt free.

I wandered through my current sections-of-choice – leadership, women’s studies, spirituality, writing, and inspiration – grabbed a handful of possibilities, and found a comfy chair to get lost in.

After flipping through a few of the books, I felt something familiar creep into my gut. A heaviness. A tight ball that was being wound even tighter by the seriousness of the books I was looking through.

“Ugh.” I thought. “I don’t want to read one more serious or smart book. I don’t want any of these.”

And in that chair, with my arms full of books, I started to weep. I wept because I suddenly realized that I no longer know how to find books that will bring me joy. I only know how to find books that will make me smarter, bring me closer to self-realization, or challenge me to serve the world with greater justice.

WHEN DID I BECOME SO DAMN SERIOUS?!?

It’s not just books. I listen to smart music too – music written by “social-justice-minded” or “plunging-the-depths-of-your-soul” folk artists.

And (I’m embarrassed to admit) when I buy jewelry, I find myself looking for some kind of spiritual meaning behind the symbols I wear, rather than just buying something for pure love.

I’ve even noticed it in my art journal. Instead of simply having fun with paint, I’m trying to inject meaning into every single page.

This is serious people. I think I have a disease. And I might very well be the last to notice it.

My dear friend Michele recently filled out a questionnaire about me (that I had requested) and she said some beautiful things that made me weep. What made me weep the most, though, was this: “While I admire your persistence and the vigour with which you approach your work, sometimes even your ‘play’ seems like work to me.”

Gulp. She’s right. I have forgotten how to play just for the fun of play.

I ask again… WHEN DID I BECOME SO DAMN SERIOUS?!

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that this past year has been punctuated with serious things like a suicide attempt, breast reduction surgery, and the transition from employment to self-employment. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I’ve spent the past six and a half years writing primarily about social justice issues and visiting some of the most devastatingly poor areas of the world. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I’ve decided to build my career on the issue of wisdom and I feel like I need to be wiser than I am to do it.

SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE! I have GOT to bring back my sense of play. It’s time for a shift, people. No, I’m not going to become a comedian overnight, or abandon my passion for wisdom, but I AM going to inject a little more fun into my life.

I started last night at the bookstore. I knew I couldn’t even trust myself to buy a novel (I’d probably end up with a tear-jerker set in war-torn Afghanistan), so I headed to the gift shelves, bound and determined that I would buy the silliest, most impractical, “make-me-smile” things I could find on the shelf.

And that’s why I now drink tea out of an elephant’s trunk and wear mis-matched socks on my feet. It’s time for a little FUN!

Because really, when it comes right down to it, what good is all of this wisdom if we don’t know how to laugh?

I hereby declare December the “Month of Silliness”. I am adjusting my mental image of Sophia – this month she’s got a big stupid grin on her face and she keeps bursting out in random giggles. When I put my head on her chest, I can feel the vibrations from her deep-body giggle.

PLEASE send me recommendations for books, movies, activities, WHATEVER, that are guaranteed to tickle my funny-bone and bring back my sense of ha-ha.

AND… does anyone want to knit me a tea-cozy? My elephant needs a colourful coat! 😉

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