Considering My Culture When Reading

Posted January 13, 2016 by Cristina (Girl in the Pages) in Discussions / 20 Comments

Considering My(1)

This past weekend I came across a School Library Journal article about the Pura Belpré award, which is given to outstanding literature for young people written by Latino authors living in the United States, which focuses on the Latino cultural experience. The award this year will be awarded at the ALA Annual conference over the summer. This article and award resonated with me, as I realized that since graduating from college I haven’t been exposed to as much culturally diverse literature, especially that of my own Latino heritage.

While not something that’s always apparent upon my appearance, I am of half Latino descent. My mother’s family is from El Salvador, a small country in central America below Mexico and near Guatemala. While I’ve been born and raised in the United States my entire life, I’ve always felt a strong and close connection with my Latino heritage as my I grew up extremely close with my mother’s side of the family. While I am aware that I’ve been influenced by my father’s Western European descent and can connect with novels and protagonists of similar backgrounds, I’ve always found I have a strong pull and connection to the Latino writers and works that I have read, though I haven’t purposely sought them out for the sole purpose of their cultural diversity.

Reading about the award made me curious as to what books I had read that were granted the honor, as it’s geared toward children and young adults and I run a young adult book blog. It turns out that I’ve only read two, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saénz (which I read back in 2014 and reviewed on my blog) and Esperanza Rising by Pan Munoz Ryan (which I read back in elementary school). I started thinking about other the Latino narratives I’ve read, and if they seem slim in YA because there’s a lack of them, or simply because I haven’t done my due diligence in seeking them out. The only other YA story I could think of having read was Matt De La Pena’s short story in the My True Love Gave to Me holiday anthology, “Angels in the Snow.”

As I mentioned earlier, in college I took several contemporary multicultural literature classes, and was reading much more widely when it came to culturally diverse books. It’s how I came across one of my now-favorite authors, Junot Diaz, after reading his raw, brash short story anthology Drown, and then his magical realism novel The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao (which I highly recommend to anyone who likes contemporary literary adult fiction). It was the first time I really read and analyzed Latino literature in depth, and made me realize it really changed the reading experience for me, made it more personal and intimate, especially when I encountered a tradition or word that was pulled straight from my childhood that may have not held any significant meaning for my classmates. It made me realize there are specific themes associated more strongly within the writing of certain cultures (such as magical realism in Latino fiction). Exposure to Latino narratives in college, with writers from a culture I shared, made me engage with fiction in a way I hadn’t before.

I’ve decided that in 2016 I want to make an effort to read more narratives by Latino authors, and consider both my culture and the culture of others’ when reading, as seeking out such narratives can lead to such a rich reading experience. My shortlist TBR is made up of a mix of YA and adult novels, with some focusing heavily on the Latino experience while others featuring characters from Latino and Hispanic families. Some I read excerpts for in my advanced Spanish classes in school (such as Like Water For Chocolate and One Hundred Years of Solitude) and some I didn’t even know featured Latino themes/characters until I started research for this post.

latino tbr

Let’s Discuss!

Do you make an effort to seek out books that include your cultural background? If so, does it change the reading experience for you? Do you find it difficult to find culturally diverse books in YA? Have you ever read a book featuring a culturally diverse protagonist that made you more interested in learning about a certain culture? Were you ever surprised to read a book and find diverse characters that you weren’t initially expecting? What are some book awards that hold meaning for you or that you seek out when finding a book to read? Let me know in the comments!

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20 responses to “Considering My Culture When Reading

  1. I hope you read The Weight of Feathers! I absolutely loved this book, one of my favorite books of 2015. The writing is beautiful, the story poignant. The dual cultural aspects were a highlight!

  2. Wonderful article, Cristina! This is something that has also been on my mind this past year as well. As a fellow Latina (I’m Mexican-American), I’ve always found it extremely hard to find protagonists that look like me and have similar backgrounds (this goes for movies, television, and books). Over this past year, because diversity in literature has come to the forefront within the book blogging community, it’s been a goal of mine to seek out more Latino authors (and not just books that feature Latinos but are written by white authors). Books like The Weight of Feathers and Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall were immensely eye-opening for me. I didn’t know just how much I craved books with characters like me until I picked these up. I want to read more Latino authors in 2016, but I would also like to see more variety because as a reader fantasy has always had a special appeal to me and it isn’t often that you find Latino authors and protagonists in this genre. Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia is another novel I picked up this past year and I loved it.

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    • Thank you, Alicia! You make a great point about the distinction between Latino characters and books written by Latino authors, and that’s something for me to keep in mind while I seek out more books that incorporate Latino culture. I’ve actually found that there’s slowly more mainstream shows incorporating Latinas as main characters (I started watching Jane the Virgin last fall and I adore it) and I think, while still underrepresented, it’s a step in the right direction. Especially living on the West Coast, I feel like the Latin culture is very prevalent and it’s something I’d like to continue to seek out in more ways than just my family connections to it. Hopefully we will start to see more and more Latino culture in YA fiction in the coming years, and/or more of a focus on characters with partial Latin backgrounds who are of mixed ethnicities and cultures.

  3. I’ve been thinking about the same thing (well, sort of). I’m from the Netherlands, born and raised. However, I noticed that I was seeking out more and more English literature. Obviously, there is now a wide range of YA and adult literature in English that’s definitely worth reading. However, I noticed I started reading less and less literature by Dutch authors. So, last year, I made the effort of starting to read more Dutch authors again, which led me to discover some amazing books! Some of which have been translated into other languages, but most haven’t. This year, I’d like to continue that trend, because there are so many amazing authors from my country that sometimes I just forget about because there are very little people talking about them.
    I realize this is not quite the same as having a Latina heritage. It is however the culture I come from, and is this mostly English book loving community (even those that do blog in Dutch, read a lot of books translated from English), it’s good to look back to your own culture and where you come from.

    Myrthe recently posted: Favorite Dutch books of 2015
    • It’s so great that you have been able to focus more on Dutch authors recently! You bring up a great point, about the role of translation. Even if a book is in your native language due to the publisher having it translated, it’s not really reflective of the culture (although I do wonder if some cultural elements of the language it is translated to get inserted from the cultural meaning and implications that are tied to certain words). I know with a lot of the Latino and Latina authors I will be seeking out, I will be reading English translations of their books, so I may lose some of the nuances of the culture and heritage that I would get reading them in Spanish. Perhaps this is something I should focus on trying too, reading more in the actual Spanish language!

      Thank you so much for stopping by, and for your wonderfully thoughtful comment!

  4. I’ve never really sought out books from my own cultural background, but in the last year or two, I’ve been trying to read more books from authors of different backgrounds; and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at what I’ve found (after letting go of the fear of not fully comprehending what’s going on, or of something being lost in translation). I reckon I don’t read many books from my own background because of the familiarity. It’s kind of the equivalent of how people might prefer holidays overseas to one in their own country.

    ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is a personal favourite of mine, though. I hope you enjoy it too! I’m gonna add ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ to my TBR on your recommendation 😉

    • I think you bring up a great point about the hesitation many people may face about reading literature from a culture or country they are not tied to or familiar with. There will always be certain elements that will go over one’s head if one hasn’t experienced life as the author or author’s culture has. But I think it’s incredible that you’re making the active effort to diversify your reading and being mindful of seeking out new experiences, as it’s easy to really forget or gloss over the background of an author when choosing a book.

      I hope you end up liking Juno Diaz’s work! The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao is very raw and has a bit of magical realism, but I really think it does a great job of writing of the Dominican-American experience!

  5. I’m lucky because my culture is represented in nearly every YA book I read, white and female and British, but it makes me sad that a lot of other people don’t have this privilege. It’s surprisingly difficult to seek out books that are culturally diverse, but I’m glad that this is slowly and steadily changing with the we need diverse books campaign.
    One thing I have been trying to do recently is read more UK YA. Until I read Trouble by Non Pratt and loved how British it was, I didn’t realise that pretty much all the books I was reading were by American authors and based in America. I probably know more about high school than UK schools! I’ve also recently become aware that pretty much all the characters I read about are heterosexual, so I’m hoping I can read a few more sexuality-diverse books this year too. 🙂

    It was interesting to learn more about your heritage!

    • I love that you bring up the distinction between UK YA and US YA. Though the ethnic background of characters may be similar (white, of Western European descent, etc.) I think the cultural elements are still very distinct and unique. When I read Trouble on your recommendation, I really did feel like I was experiencing another culture when reading it with wrapping my head around the way the British school system works, and I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the YA contemporary novels out there do focus on American characters (it’s so interesting that you’ve been able to pick up on high school nuances and details so much, it’s something I never would have thought of!) Likewise, I’ve also started reading books by Lianne Moriarty who is an Australian author, and while I may share some ethnic distinctions with the characters’ genetic makeup and ancestry, it’s really interesting to see how the cultural elements are different based on the location (what with the seasons being flipped and all), the school system, transportation, etc.

      Sexuality diverse books also seem to be starting to grow in number, which is great! I haven’t actively sought out any since I started blogging but I’ve really heard wonderful things about so many, and the ones I have read that feature non-heterosexual characters (such as I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson) have been such well written books.

  6. Hi, I am popping over from HEADFULLOFBOOKS with the link to the Read all the YA Youth Media Awards Challenge. The titles were selected this week and I have filled them in. Now just out the list and start reading the great YA Lit. Thanks for joining me. (One of them is the Pura Belpre award books.)

    Anne @HeadFullofBooks recently posted: Friday Quotes, January 15th
  7. This is something I’ve thought about recently. For various reasons, I’ve grown up stirring away from my cultural roots (I’m Chinese-Indonesian) and while I read a lot of Western novels, I rarely read any that was written by or about people from my background. Globally famed YA don’t feature us a lot, though lately I’ve been seeing more Asian characters which is awesome! I’ve been thinking that I should read books written by people from my own country, so maybe I’ll try that soon. Recently, I was surprised to find diverse characters in Everything, Everything – I was embarassed to realise that until described otherwise, I pictured Madeline as white. Anyway, I love how thought-provoking this post is – great one, Cristina!

    • I’m so glad that you’re starting to see more of your heritage featured in YA! Everything, Everything was a great example of a YA book that featured an ethnically diverse character (several of them, actually, as I remember her caretaker who was like a second mother to her was latina) without making it the main focus of the book. I can appreciate texts that contain cultural diversity while telling a story that isn’t necessarily making it an “issue” book about diversity. Everything, Everything specifically really stands out as well because it handles the topic of ableism- Maddie is “disabled” in a way by her auto-immune disorder and it’s fascinating (and shocking) to see how she is made to cope in life because of it. Yay for books that feature multiple types of diversity!

  8. For me, it can be a bit hard to find culturally diverse books in YA – but I think that’s starting to change! Usually whenever I hear about authors writing books about Asia, I tend to pick them up and consider them more closely as a potential read. In general, anything that’s outside the ‘norm’ of Western protagonists, I’ll definitely consider, because I’ve learned some great things about a certain culture, and been enticed into learning more about other cultures, from reading great, culturally diverse books. Great discussion! 🙂

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  9. Teaching YA lit, we try to make an effort to include diverse authors and characters on our reading lists, which means I often seek more diverse books naturally as I try to find good books to add to categories where there aren’t many options out there. If you are looking to read more Latin@ authors, I can recommend a few! The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is basically a major part of the YA canon now and always a favorite of middle school students. Alex Sanchez’s books bridge LGBT with Latin@ culture (though they are a little less literary than Benjamin Alire Saenz). I very much enjoyed Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero (probably my favorite on this this list). And I see you have Mexican Whiteboy in your post — it’s such a great books exploring what it feels like to live on the border between two cultural identities). You have some great options out there in the YA world if you dig around a bit!

    What I realized, though, is that most of the books I have read are about Latin@s in the US, and I need to branch out and read some books set outside of the US. So it might be time to take on Gabriel Garcia Marquez and some adult fiction, too.

    • Thank you for the recommendations, Tara! I actually read The House on Mango Street in high school, and while it wasn’t a favorite of mine it was one of the first books I encountered with the “vignette” style of writing and I was really struck by how the narrative was constructed that way, like snapshots from the narrator’s lives. You’re definitely right, a lot of the diverse literature that gets highlighted is set in the US and often from a mixed experience (such as Latina American) and it would be fascinating to compare how the themes in Latino literature set in Latin American cultures vs that set in the US differ. Thank you for the insightful comment!

  10. I’m a white, middle class American who teaches (depending on the year and subject) between 60 and 100% Latin@ immigrant middle schoolers. I do try to find books that reflect them in various ways, both where race and culture play a significant role in the book and where diversity is there, but not the main focus. Some authors to add to the suggestions above are Gary Soto, Meg Medina, and Francisco Jimenez. Students are also attracted to other works that address immigration and biculturalism, such as Allen Says’ “Grandfather’s Journey,” Thanhha Lai’s “Inside Out and Back Again,” and Gene Yuen Lee’s “American Born Chinese.” I REALLY l like the idea of seeking out more work from Latin America that has been translated into English–does anyone have recommendations for MG and YA books that would fall into that category?

    • Thank you for the suggestions, Wendy! All of the works that are from Latin America that I have seen widely translated into English have fallen into the more “adult fiction” realm, but if you have any suggestions/come across any YA/MA titles, please let me know!

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