History as a Key to Representation

A year ago, in my first weeks at Portland State University’s graduate program in Book Publishing, I wrote about the need to consider representation in nonfiction. My concern was that the discussions of diversity in publishing I saw were focused almost exclusively on the diversity of fictional characters and how the lack of diversity in the publishing industry creates biases that marginalize storytellers who could address this issue. This seemed important, but I felt that there were other important considerations. Looking at nonfiction seemed like a first step to figuring out what was missing.

I like that blog post, but what I wish I had done—what I wish I had known enough to be able to do—was articulate why thinking about representation in nonfiction should matter to people who publish fiction. That is what I’m attempting to do here.

There’s a long tradition in Western philosophy of trying to determine the one precise thing that distinguishes humans from other animals. It’s pretty questionable whether this question really makes any sense at all, but there is one answer that I’ve found fruitful to think about: humans are the historical animal, and they’re the animal whose nature is radically determined by historical context. I’ve tried to imagine what a person without a historical context would look like, and it’s very similar to imagining a person who doesn’t have a culture. There’s something important missing, and it’s a very profound form of lacking.

If history is really what makes humans human, it seems like the effort to be more respectful and inclusive of other peoples has to include the acknowledgement of and effort to learn about history. If we want publishing to be something that helps make our wider community something more respectful and inclusive, publishing should help create an understanding that all peoples have history rather than obfuscate it.

My sense of things is that publishing at present is very often an obfuscating force. This example comes from journalism, rather than book publishing, but I was recently discussing an article about death squads in the Philippines with one of my (excellent) teachers here in the program. I’ve lived in the Philippines and have studied a bit about it, so I was sensitive to how the article didn’t acknowledge that the Philippines had any history or politics. President Duterte emerged from nowhere and had no relation to the Filipino people except in how his rule killed them. It may have appeared to stick to the immediate facts as an individual piece of journalism, but I argued that the cumulative effect of American journalism about non-Western culture is to create a sense that the rest of the world is a place where brown and black dictators do terrible things to a vast sea of brown and black people without any sense of these places having history or politics at all. The lack of context turns much of the world into a stage of almost formless violence and suffering, without any context that makes it appear human in the way that we understand ourselves to be human.

These kinds of things matter. It is a big part of the reason why the debate about immigration takes the form that it does, shaping the perspectives of both people hostile to immigrants and those who celebrate them. It determines how ethnic minorities in countries like the United States are perceived, because the understanding of ethnic minorities is very much informed by the understanding of their ethnic equivalents in other countries. It shapes foreign policy, because places without politics or history can’t have their politics or history violated.

This is the kind of thing I notice when I read books, too—both fiction and nonfiction. Very little foreign language literature gets translated into English, and the cumulative effect of reading what does get written in English gives a sense that most peoples don’t have a lot of history. I don’t want to say that history is the only determinant in individual human behavior—its effects are subtle, and writers and editors who have fictional characters behavior informed by history in a crude way risk creating a character that doesn’t resemble a human at all. It’s something I ,as a reader, notice—that fictional characters from marginalized communities will often lack any historical dimension, and they’re less human for it. It’s something I think writers and publishers need to be aware of.

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