Since I've been on Bookstagram, there's been a number of books that were initially popular until #ownvoices readers expressed discontent with the portrayal of the characters or story from a particular cultural, ethnicity, or social group. So, how do you avoid inadvertently supporting such books (that is if you would like to avoid 'em; we are all free to read what we wish after all).
Well, here's my method & checklist when I'm thinking about a book's diversity. Using Love from A to Z by S. K. Ali as an example.
**Note that all of these questions are based on your prior knowledge and experience. Plus your willingness to Google or ask questions if you're unsure while evaluating.
1️⃣ Cover: Are there images of the setting or the characters? What do the settings/characters look like? Who/Where is being represented? Does it feel accurate and authentic based on what you know?
Love to A to Z's cover features a visually Muslim female character wearing hijab, sitting across from a young man in what appears to be an airport. The setting is not specific to a culture and as a Muslim myself, the representation of the female character is respectful of Islam codes of dress. (Some traditionists might have issue with her ankles showing, but they're not who this novel is for anyway, so... lol).
2️⃣ Blurb: What's the storyline? Is there a particular culture or ethnicity highlighted? Does the potential plot make sense based on the particular culture or group? Does it sound natural and real? Or does it seem forced, clichè or stereotypical?
Love from A to Z is about a young woman named Zayneb who is tired of being the only Muslim in her class. When faced with offensive comments about Muslims, her frustrations spill over and she is suspended. To deal with everything, she heads to Qatar to visit her aunt during Spring and she meets Adam.
Her name, the situation with her teacher, and visit to family in different parts of the world makes Zayneb's experience familiar and real to many young, Muslim woman with Arab descent. Even as a West African Muslim, I can relate to dealing with stereotypical comments from others because of the media's portrayal of Muslims and Islam.
3️⃣ Author Bio: What is the writer's background? Does it match the culture/ethnicity featured in the story? If it doesn't match, does the writer share experiences that would provide authenticity in some unique way?
From this bio, we cannot determine if Ali herself is Muslim. We learn that she's written another novel with a Muslim protagonist and that she has a chat. A quick Google search brings forth images of S. K. Ali in her hijab and information that she is Indian-Canadian.
4️⃣ Opening Words/Pages: What about the language, style, & diction? To the best of your knowledge (and Google), is it respectful, authentic, nuanced in regards to the cultural/ethnic background of the characters?
Here, we have a snippet of Zayneb's POV as she flies to Qatar to visit her aunt. She's sitting next to a woman on the plane that she considers hateful, due to her snarky behavior towards Zayneb. In Zayneb's POV, the woman is being rude to her because she is visibly Muslim. Whether or not this is true, it's a relatable experience for many Muslims traveling in this post-9/11 world.
5️⃣ Foreword, Prologue, Author's Note, etc: Has the writer conducted research? Spoken to people from the group, ethnicity, or culture portrayed in the story? Does it seem as if the research was done with care, respect, and "good" intention?
Ali ends the novel with an Author's note explaining her research on and experience with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Converting to Islam, and Islamophobia. This provides reassurance that her portrayal of these sensitive subjects is likely done with respect and care.
What do you think of my process? Am I missing anything? Let me know in the comments below!
~ Tuma 🧕🏾
P.S. Buy copy of Love from A to Z as Classic or Minimalist BOTM, or add-on to your purchase of a February Box.