When I was a teenager, my literary diet consisted of crime novels and Good Housekeeping, which I blame for my poor listening skills.
I was better in my days as a news reporter, a job that required me to retell other people’s stories. Listening was daily practice then, but when I quit, I forgot all I learned about encountering others and slipped back into my natural resting position as a bad listener.
This is especially easy to do if you live in a Midwestern suburb, where communities are often built upon commonalities, a lazy listener’s respite.
I didn’t know how lazy I had gotten until a whirlwind trip to the Caribbean with my husband for our 10th wedding anniversary, our first vacation together in seven years. (I don’t recommend waiting that long to anyone, especially if you have small children. Let’s just say we were happy and surprised to celebrate such an anniversary.)
My husband is the kind of traveler who befriends everyone, anywhere we go. I prefer to watch everyone else have fun while pretending to read. But we were only there for what felt like five minutes, and I intended to keep up.
By the last night, we had a dozen new friends of various nationalities. I was feeling socially, globally confident. As we sat on a patio overlooking the ocean, I channeled my husband’s extroversion and invited a couple from a nearby table to join us.
Feodor and Magdelina were newly American, Polish emigrants. Magdelina spent the first five (long) minutes hitting her head until she finally, thankfully, remembered the celebrity I resembled.
“Jennifer Hudson! You look like Jennifer Hudson!” She was pleased. I’m not sure why she thought I resembled the black “American Idol” superstar, but I thanked her. My husband thinks I look like Michelle Kwan, so this wasn’t the first time I passed for a famous person with different ancestral origins than mine.
That was the end of the niceties. Then Feodor wanted to know why food was so expensive in Hawaii and why we weren’t vacationing in Cuba and what exactly the U.S. government did with his tax dollars. Magdelina wanted to talk about our views on Crimea.
I gave what I thought was a noble, NPR-ish answer, something about when democracy is ignored, someone must stand with those whose voices are not heard. I tried to blast hearts and rainbows from my eyes as I spoke, aware the ground was shaking beneath us.
Magdelina and Feodor did not like this. One bit. They yelled with pointed fingers as if I were America: Stay out of other countries’ conflicts! I sat for as long as I could during their rant, which wasn’t very long, then excused myself. My husband lasted another 10 minutes, then did the same.
I’ve been thinking about them ever since, which is why I called Captain America.
All right, not the “real” Captain America. This version wears glasses, a beard and a turban. His real name (sh!) is Vishavjit “Vish” Singh, an American-born New Yorker, and most of us just missed his recent visit to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where he gave the mental digestive tracks of the students there a “sudden blast of a ethnic effervescence never tasted before.”
(He is smitten with Kansas, by the way, and would like to come back to drive across it.)
Vish travels the country as a Sikh superhero to confront people’s perceptions of him, then writes about their reactions — mostly curious and loving, sometimes ignorant, rarely hateful — for a variety of publications, including the Atlantic Monthly, Salon, and most recently, Huffington Post.
“Superheroes are somebody’s pure, fictional imagination, yet they become so real in our cultural mythology,” Vish explained. “Why can’t our superheroes be thin, fat, gay, brown, geeky? Real life superheroes come in all shapes and sizes.”
I agree! So why did I have a hard time sitting for a difficult conversation with Feodor and Magdelina? As someone who’s been the target of deep-seated stereotypes all his life, Vish had good advice, which, as I suspected, had much to do with listening.
“The key is to suspend judgment of other people, ask questions from a place of childlike curiosity and not worry about exposing our ignorance. Ignorance is what creates the wonderful moments for us to learn even more. As hard as it may sound, wish everyone well, even those who hurl hate your way,” he said.
I wish Feodor and Magdelina well now, but I also wish I could have gotten over myself, to see that, while it didn’t feel like it at the time, I had something in common with those angry strangers.
Back to those crime novels I read as a kid: I think more diverse books would’ve helped me remain compassionate when faced with people who disagreed with my ideas of justice. Books give us safe spaces to hone and protect our childlike curiosities in order to better understand that, no matter our packaging or the ideas that guide us, we are each a tiny universe, without substitute or replacement. But those books didn’t exist in large numbers then, and though kidlit has come a long way since I was young, we aren’t hearing from the widest range of voices even today. A recent study by the Cooperative Children's Book Center showed that, of 3,600 books reviewed in 2012, 93 percent featured white protagonists.
That doesn’t reflect America. That doesn’t give our children enough safe spaces to consider different ideas so that they can do better than us.
Earlier this month, a social media campaign, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, drew more than 160 million reactions in a single week after an upcoming national book convention’s kidlit lineup consisted of all white, mostly male authors and a cat. Since then, librarians, teachers, readers, authors, booksellers and publishers have continued to speak out about the need for today’s literature to better reflect the diverse demographics of the people reading and writing them, especially for the sake of our kids.
Author and campaign organizer Ellen Oh agrees. “When you are young, it’s very sad not to see yourself represented in the world you live in. But just as importantly, white kids who don't see minority kids represented in their world default into thinking of them as other,” she said. “That is where biases and prejudices arise. All kids need diversity because it means they can learn at an early age to embrace our differences.”
That last line is key.
Captain America plans to join the #WeNeedDiverseBooks conversation when he attends BookCon on May 31 in New York. He’ll be armed with a comic book manuscript featuring a Sikh superhero traveling the world to blast ignorance with humor and love, looking for a publisher.
I wish I’d read that book two decades ago, but I look forward to reading it, soon. And I know my kiddos will love it like they love water after a long, hot day playing outside.
Because they need it.
Jennifer Mazi is a freelance writer who lives in Liberty. Follow her on Twitter at @jennifermazi.