Drinking from a Literary Wellspring in 2020

“I can tell you, without diversity, creativity is stagnant.” -Edward Enninful

Just before the start of 2020, when I reached a point in my writing journey where I had little inspiration and even less motivation to write, I took a hard look at the influences around me. I looked to my bookshelf, in particular, and realized there was a distinct lack of diversity. The shelves were overwhelmed by authors who looked like me, talked like me, had similar backgrounds. The lack of diversity made me a poorer, less inspired writer.

So I decided to make a change. I gave myself a reading challenge.

As it was 2020, I added those two twenties together, making a nice, even forty – I would read at least forty books by diverse writers. Knowing my weaknesses (and foolishly/arrogantly thinking I may not be able to find enough diverse books to read), I gave myself these minimal criteria to use while picking the books I would read”

  • 20 books written by male authors.
  • 20 books written by female authors.
  • At least 20 books had to be written by BIPOC men and women (diverse nationalities, ethnicities, backgrounds, etc.
  • Up to 20 books could be written by non-BIPOC

I made certain that my challenge was S.M.A.R.T. – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. I would read 40 books, where at least half were diverse authors. I would record each book I finished on a word document, where I would include the book’s title, author, author country and ethnic group, and book genre. I would give myself an achievable and realistic monthly goal of 3-4 books, and I had all year to do it.

The year started out slow, but steady. January and February went by, with three and four books read, respectively. March was very slow, with only two books. But beginning in April and May, I began to hit my stride – my interest was really peaked by the books I was reading, and I couldn’t get enough.

June came and I completely outdid my earlier attempts and read twelve books, finishing my original goal of forty books early. I upped my goal to sixty and read the twenty additional books in July and August. I upped by goal to eighty and reached that goal in late September, with twenty books read in one month. Honestly, I believe a madness took over my mind – and I couldn’t stop.

My well of creativity was so terribly dry. I saw through this reading challenge that one of the reasons for this feeling of aridness was because I was starved for stories which made me think, made me feel, made me laugh and cry. The fountains from which I drank inspiration and meaning had become stale, uninteresting, and meaningless.

The books I read from Muslim authors were eye-opening and heart-wrenching. The books I read from African and South American authors were breathtakingly beautiful and epic. The books I read from African American and Indigenous Americans filled me with a sense of conviction and humility.

It was as wonderful as it was painful. I could talk to others of nothing else. I had to share the stories I was reading with friends, family, anyone who would listen. They got quite sick of it, but I was enjoying myself so much that I couldn’t help it.

My final count for the year 2020 was one hundred twelve (112) books. Of those one hundred twelve books, ninety-one different authors are represented, of which forty-seven of those authors are BIPOC – which I’ll admit was less than I had hoped.

I had new favorite authors, however, and a much greater awareness and appreciation for how diversity is a glorious, beautiful state of being. I also learned how far we still have to go in the struggle for equality and the protection of human rights – not only here in the United States, but also all over the world.

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Photo of the fountain outside the Cincinnati Public Library, taken by J.F. Schmitz.

On Japanese Authors

My love of Japanese writers began with Yukio Mishima and Yoko Ogawa. I cannot remember which I read first – Mishima’s “The Sound of Waves” or Ogawa’s “The Housekeeper and the Professor”. However, there is one thing they share with many other Japanese authors I’ve read over the years and that’s an appreciation of the ordinary.

So often, writers are told that stories need conflict. Add more conflict and the readers will come. That may be true. In fact, it is true. A story without conflict is not, by itself, very interesting.

I would argue that conflict need not always be sword fights, explosions, or murder plots. Life, as so many of us know from first-hand experience, is rather dull. Routine. Unexciting. But life is also full of conflict. Ordinary conflicts over parking spaces, misunderstood emails, missed birthdays, unmet expectations, et cetera.

Japanese authors seemed to have distilled the ordinary into something quite poignant and beautiful. So many times the protagonist, or narrator, is never even named.

The drama and beauty of the story is told through the slanting light through curtains, unsaid words over lunch, a pain in the stomach or a lump in the throat when our true feelings don’t come out properly, or at all.

From reading stories like Mishima’s “The Sound of Waves”, or Ogawa’s “The Housekeeper and the Professor”, or Murakami’s “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage”, I’ve personally learned that a life, any life at all, is a good story, an extraordinary story. A priceless and beautiful story.

Conflict in fiction doesn’t have to be huge to be effective or to move along a story. It can be as simple as an unspoken confession, or one spoken a day too late. Conflict doesn’t need to flash, bang, or roar to be meaningful or world-shattering. Or move the reader to tears.

Remember that.