Diversity & Nonfiction: Writers of Color as Experts

poc nonfic blog pic

So here’s something I’ve been mulling over recently:

Where are the writers of color in non-fiction?

Sure, you might argue that there’s a lot of nonfiction available written by people of color, just look at Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me and Between the World and Me or Just Mercy. These works are – very deservedly getting attention and accolades. However, they are narrative non-fiction and memoirs or works about race and racial justice. And because there is always someone: I love such works and I do not want to take away from these achievements at all, I am simply trying to make different point. Suffice it to say, that ‘the personal is political’ applies to people of color, too, and what is more, other less rigid genres and non-Western formats might work better for the things we want to say.

Thinking about the non-fiction I tend to read, two things stand out: One, I focus on social justice works written by women and people of color, and two, when I read other non-fiction (bees, Monsanto, dinosaurs) the authors are almost exclusively white. So let me  rephrase my earlier question: What is the place of writers of color in non-fiction?

People of color have claimed the right to be experts on our own experiences and the fight has been long and is not over by a long shot. In literary fiction, this right is being re-claimed again and again under the hashtag #ownvoices. In non-fiction (including  academic texts), there is excellent work being done in nearly all disciplines, demonstrating the intersection of for example food justice and racial justice or architecture and racism. But we can also see plenty of cases like white scholars putting together research groups on Blackness without any Black people or white ethnologists producing the narrative on Black urban communities.

There are plenty of reasons for people of color to write about issues of race, we want to tell our own stories and we need to be there and fill these roles of authority. Looking at the work being done in non-fiction by and about people of color is such a joy! But another aspect is, are we allowed to be experts on anything else? Will we ever be allowed to be experts on the human condition? On ballet or on the planetary system?

We have had this debate about women writers (and it keeps popping up), and all campaigns to shove white men off the expert throne are very welcome, but stopping at this point reproduces the same tired old power relations that work to keep marginalized voices out of positions of authority. And non-fiction is about authority, oftentimes taking on the mantle of logic, rationality and facts that present us with the ‘master’ narrative. We cannot leave this up to those ensuring our oppression! So what would hopefully be the benefits of diversifying by having nonfiction writers of color writing not on issues of race: Sharing in the building of archives of knowledge, demonstration of our humanity and complexity – we contain multitudes, prevention of for example biologically essentialist science (at least as the truth).

I’ve put together a list of six titles by writers of color writing about space, pandemics nd business. It’s an attempt at finding diverse authors in nonfiction by focusing on mostly US (and not generally Chinese, or Indian authors, because PoC is not the same as non-white) scholars and scientists of color, but of course we need to highlight other voices as well. Sometimes, it’s a bit more difficult to find out how authors identify, but hopefully I will find time soon to do this, or perhaps one of you will give it a try?

Tyson-death by black hole

Death by Black Hole (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

shah_pandemic

Pandemic (Sonia Shah)

(recommended by Jenny)

The Gene

The Gene (Siddhartha Mukherjee)

Liquidated-Ho

Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Karen Ho)

Khan- next pandemic

The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers (Ali S. Khan)

Khan-Adapt

Adapt: How Humans are Tapping into Nature’s Secrets to Design and Build a Better Future (Amina Khan) – Will be out April 2017 from St Martin’s Press

chu songbird

Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds (Miyoko Chu)

(recommended by Debi)

cosmopolites

The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Atossa Araxia Abrahamian)

(recommended by Sharlene)

michio kaku future of the mind

The Future of the Mind (Michio Kaku)

(recommended by Naz and Vishy)

connectome

Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes us Who We Are (Sebastian Seung)

emerging mind

The Emerging Mind (Vilayanur Ramachandran)

gathering moss

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Moss ( Robin Wall Kimmerer)

(recommended by Stefanie)

What are your thoughts on writers of color in non-fiction? Do you have any titles to add?

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46 thoughts on “Diversity & Nonfiction: Writers of Color as Experts

  1. I so hope you get loads and loads of suggestions of more authors–will definitely be following your comments closely! I’ve only read the first two authors on your list (though not those particular books). Sonia Shah’s The Fever was excellent, so I’m really hoping to pull Pandemic off the shelf to read soon. Also really looking forward to reading The Gene, and to someday getting around to The Emperor of All Maladies. I’d never heard of Ali Khan, but I’m really excited because that book sounds like one I’d love! If anyone likes reading natural history, I really enjoyed Miyoko Chu’s Songbird Journeys. Thanks for yet another awesome post!

    1. Oh thanks so much, Debi! Glad you liked the post :)I hope the list will keep growing, we need more poc writers in general nonfiction. I’m adding the suggestions I got to this list, will defintely check out Chu’s book, thanks so much for the recommendation 🙂 Fever sounds great and Jenny recommends her Pandemic! I think reading that one at the same time as Khan’s book could be informative but make me very paranoid 😀

  2. I love your post Bina. You always have such great ideas! I was trying to think of other books that would fit in with your list, perhaps The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian. Although at 162 pages it may be more like a long essay than an actual book-book.

    1. Oh thank you so much, Sharlene, you are too kind! 🙂 Oh the Cosmopolites, that’s definitely on my tbr thanks to you! Oh I’ll add it to the list, it’s great to find nonfiction that’s short and to the point!

  3. Brilliant! I don’t read much non-fiction and can’t recommend, unfortunately. This is a great list though. Got me thinking too. Especially in Humanities, such as Psychology and Anthropology, etc, I think PoC authors can make a difference.

    1. Thanks so much! 🙂 Hopefully the list will keep growing and we’ll have more books to choose from! Yes definitely, we all see the world through our own lens of privilege and so I think white male authors shouldn’t get to be sole experts on life and nature.

  4. I read a good amount of non-fiction, but of course my brain is failing me at the moment. There’s something to be said though, for PoC narratives being so necessary right now. For example, I’m reading “In the Country We Love: My Family Divided,” which is a strong contender for the personal being political. It’s about an actress who’s family was deported, leaving her alone at 14 years old. Stuff like that is powerful, and while the narratives might seem overdone to people who are tuned in, they’re necessary to humanize policy that overwhelmingly affects people of color throughout the world.

    But on a different note, it’s also important to see people of color writing about things that deviate from the common personal narrative. To see them as authority figures in medicine, literary criticism, and whatever other fields we can name. We can write about anything and everything, and I love how much of that I’m seeing these days from people like Neil Degrasse Tyson and others.

    1. Oh is that the memoir by an actress from OitnB? I have that one on the tbr! Yeah I think both social justice related nonfiction and let’s call it general nonfiction by poc are what we should be aiming for, like you said we can write about anything and everything! 🙂 Love that Tyson’s pop science work is amazingly accessible. If you do remember titles, let me know and I’ll add them to the list 🙂

  5. Interesting post, Bina! It has got me thinking. And, of course, I can’t think of anything to add to your list right now, but I’m really hoping some others do. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and when I do, it tends to be the personal kind. But, I’m going to come back later to see if anyone else has added to your list – I hope it grows exponentially!

    1. Thanks, Naomi! Heh oh I can never come up with titles of the top off my hat either, but do let me know if you remember any and I’ll add them to the list. I love memoirs, too, there’s something to be said about drawing people in and making them empathize and also see the world from a less or differently privileged perspective. Yes I do hope the list will keep growing!! 🙂

  6. Wonderful post, Bina! I saw ‘The Gene’s when I visited the bookshop recently 🙂 I have read some pieces by Michio Kaku, who writes on physics for general readers. He is odd in that field like Neil deGrasse Tyson, because physics writing is generally dominated by white men. Have you heard of him?

    1. Thank you, Vishy! 🙂 I definitely need to add Michio Kaku to the list, thanks for the rec! Yes, I don’t really ever see other poc as authors or experts in documentaries on physics. I’ve read parts of Tyson’s book on Pluto and found it wonderfully accessible to people like me who rarely stray outside of the humanities and social sciences 🙂

  7. This is such a wonderful, thoughtful, and eloquent post, Bina.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

    I have a few friends who read mainly non-fiction and they know about my blog and push for diversity in literature. Their question is always what they should be doing as readers of nonfiction to diversify their reading. And this is where I fall short. Firstly, because I do not read much nonfiction and secondly because nonfiction lags far behind fiction in terms of diversity of authors published in the genre.

    My suggestions are always Neil DeGreasse Tyson and Michio Kaku because I have personally read their works and can recommend them. Tyson is by far my favorite nonfiction writer. His book “Origins” is absolutely fantastic and there is no question about his authority on the subject. He is the reason I started to appreciate astrophysics.
    Not sure what this says about me, but if a PoC writes a nonfiction book, I am more likely to care. 😀

    1. Aww thanks so much, Naz you are too kind!! Glad you like the post! That’s so wonderful his works got you into astrophysics! I’ve read a bit of Tyson’s Pluto book and found it surprisingly accessible! Will def have to read and add Kaku! 🙂
      Haha yes I always squee a bit when I find out a book is written by a poc writer. Hopefully more books can be added to the list soon and you can rec your friends a few more titles! 🙂

  8. These are brilliant points, Bina. Thank you so much for discussing this! I’ll definitely be looking into your suggestions. I read a lot of non-fiction, but I fail to look at the authors. Now that I’ve had a think, most of them aren’t #ownvoices or PoC… this has to change!

    1. Oh thanks so much, you are too kind Fatima! Oh yes that’s what I noticed in my reading and spurred on this post 🙂 I hope we can help push for this as book bloggers so that we find poc nonfiction more.easily. I’ll keep adding to this list when I heat about titles. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  9. Excellent post Bina. I finally got time to read through this after all the hype on Twitter. I dont think I can contribute much to your list since I do not read much non fiction. But I think it was really innovative of you to point out this issue in non fiction. Writers of color writing non fiction in prominent fields sure makes the world feel more equalised.

    1. Ahaha there was hype? Oh wow! 🙂 Thanks so much and glad you like it! Yes we need poc writers everywhere in all fields 🙂

  10. Great post Bina. I’ve wondered the same as well and assumed that it’s because of the academic landscape and how hard it is to gain respect in that community as a person of color. I don’t know much about the academic community to be able to say this for sure, but the little I’ve heard led me to that conclusion.

    1. Thanks, Zezee! Yes I do think that’s an important point! I it’s the case in the German academic world and from looking through department websites and reading poc scholars experiences, it seems to hold true for the US and other countries too.

  11. I got to see Sonia Shah speak a few months back and she was AWESOME. I think that Pandemic might freak me out a little bit, but if I get in the right headspace I might be able to do it. Her 30 minute panel was enough to start making my head spin!

    You make an amazing point that I have never really thought of. I try to be diverse in my reading, but most of the books by POC are memoir or fiction. I am going to change this.

    1. Oh that must’ve been fantastic! Haha I really fear the resulting paranoia will be epic, esp reading Shah and Khan at the same time 😀
      I love fiction and memoirs by poc too 🙂 I want to keep reading mostly social justice nonfiction but watch for that tricky general nonfiction that sneaks white only books on my tbr! Maybe we can all push poc nonfiction so that we won’t have to search for some so long in the future 🙂

  12. Love this post! You are spot on. I think writers of color do go unrecognized for things other than memoirs or social justice sorts of things and while those are important voices to have, they should definitely not be limited. Robin Wall Kimmerer has two books I have really liked, she is Native American and a scientist who specializes in mosses. She has a fascinating book about moss and another cross-genre book part memoir/environmental science/Native American culture called Braiding Sweetgrass. I think I’ll be adding a couple of the books you list to my TBR!

    1. Thanks, Stefanie! And such great recs I’m so excited to check out these works, hadn’t even heard of the author! 🙂 Absolutely, I do love my social justice reading but like you said poc should get to be authorities on other topics too.

  13. Thank you for thinking about this and writing an important post – as well as offering nonfiction titles which illustrate that people of color are articulate experts on topics other than race! I want to give you a big hug!

    1. Aw thanks so much, Leslie! Solidarity hug!! 🙂 I hope to find more books to add, found some.fascinating ones in the comments already.

  14. Such a thoughtful post, Bina (of course! not at all a surprise). You are so right. Outside of feminism/critical-race theory/intersectionality and education (my ‘academic’ passions) all the non-fiction I read is by white people (usually, guys). Definitely this is an issue that is a problem in so many facets of society (from Hollywood to books to politics)… We have much work to do still in dismantling the white-patriarchy for sure.

    I LOVE LOVE that you put Neil deGrasse Tyson on your list – I haven’t read a physics book in a looong time but I do love this man SO MUCH from TV/media. He really is the perfect example of “the people’s academic” – there’s nothing pretentious about him (like other physicists, i.e. Brian Greene), and he is so passionate about educating the public (as am I, as a teacher :)). It’s truly a rare quality, most professors who research at that level, especially in math/physics, don’t care at all about teaching others.

    I just spent the past 45 mins on a google search trying to find some more books to add to this list and sadly everything that comes up is fiction, or is directly related to race. I’m going to do some more research into this and make a concentrated effort to diversify not only my fiction but also my non-fiction shelves. THANK YOU.

    1. You are too kind, Ioana!! I’m happy you liked the post 🙂 I love your academic passions!!They show in your blog I love that 🙂 I haven’t read much on education, def coming to you for recs soon 🙂 Yes we are just subtly made to read white male authors and.need to work so hard at changing this.
      Loved excerpts of Tyson’s Pluto book so accessible 🙂 Oh yay, do shoot me a mail/tweet etc if u find sth but yeah I spent much time googling too, and.it’s such a pain to find these books isn’t!?’Hope this list’ll get longer and longer 🙂

  15. I think about this a lot, because I love reading nonfiction, and as you say, so so so soooooo much of it is written by white authors. I was going to mention Michio Kaku as well, because yayyyy! And I read a quite good book called Blindspot that dealt with cognitive biases (including racial biases, but that’s not its only focus), where one of the two coauthors is a woman of color.

    I’m guessing that as time goes on, journalism will make the shift first — which seems like a crazy thing to pin my hopes on, given how lily-white American journalism is. But the mills of it still have to grind faster than the Academy, or at least it seems that way. I am particularly fond of reading the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthologies every year and then keeping an eye on the POC authors included in those to see when they will write a book. SCIENCE.

    1. Yes! It’s so frustrating how most of the experts are white, I really need to remember to check all the time and put poc nonfiction on a list. Thanks for the recs! Will check them out and you showed me the Shah book so u already recommended woc nonfiction! 🙂
      Oh I hope that shift will occur! That’s so great that u keep on top of it via the Best anthologies! I felt very awkward stalking names and pics to find out if authors were poc but we gotta do what we gotta do 😉

  16. Interesting post. When I saw the subject, I thought about Atul Gawande and Siddhartha Mukherjee. Both are wonderful writers, though there is something stereotypical about people of South Asian heritage writing about medical topics.

    As for Goffman…don’t even get me started! I read excerpts of her book when the controversy around her methods happened and decided not to read her book.Then, my well-intentioned Mother-in-law sent me a copy of it as a present. She thinks I’ve read it. I don’t have the heart to say otherwise.

    1. Oh no, it’s difficult with family giving these books, but I wouldn’t want to read Goffman’s book either! Yes I do hope I will find more works that mix up these expectations, I want to find more Black writers especially but that means relying more on author pics being available.

  17. Wow this is so incredibly important! Although I quite enjoy non-fiction of all sorts, now that I think of it, lots of them are written strictly by white authors, Especially as non-fiction strives in its essence to tell the truth (or a perspective of truth anyway) I think that having more diverse input is crucial.
    Thanks for the suggestions, and I’m having a great time looking at more suggestions in the comments!
    Kate @Read and Dream

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Kate! Yeah it happens so quickly if one doesn’t seek out diverse authors expressly. Hopefully pushing for in nonfiction as well will change the publishing and marketing of these writers and their books 🙂

  18. Thought of this post today when I ran across Economics: the user’s guide by Ha-Joon Chang. Two of his other books have apparently been translated into a variety of languages besides English. (The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, and Kicking away the ladder)

  19. I’ve only heard of Siddhartha Mukherjee and Michio Kaku but will check out the rest! It takes me much longer to read non-fiction but it’s always a worthwhile experience when I do.

    1. Hope you’ll find some great reads from the list 😃 Yeah it takes me longer too, always feel like taking college-like notes 😂

  20. I really enjoyed reading this post. As a WoC I do enjoy seeing more and more works of nonfiction and fiction literature written by other WoC and even people of color in general. I often wondered why more people of color aren’t taking their narratives into their own hands especially because their voices would be seen as more authentic.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Rabia! It is great to see more WoC getting published😃 It’s still difficult for #ownvoices stories but so little general non-fiction by poc. Hope that will change, too.

      1. No problem Bina! Happy to stop by. I agree, still difficult but hoping that changes. I try to support the poc authors when I can.

  21. Wow. This post resonated with me. I immediately went to my bookshelves and started looking, because I do have a decent amount of non-fiction. I have plenty of fiction, memoirs, biographies, and commentaries on race relations, but the only black author I had any non-fiction by (not dealing with race) was Neal deGrasse Tyson. Finally after googling 4 bookshelves worth of authors, I checked my current reading shelf and was rewarded with Grit by Angela Lee Duckworth. Hope to add more NF works by POC experts to my shelves now that I’m aware of this huge gap!

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