Diversifying My Inputs

A while ago–okay, more than a year ago, which is a bit wild–I wrote a post about my nebulous sense of guilt for not being a wide reader, for rereading more frequently than I pick up a new book, for reading mostly books written by white American men. This is a guilt that still haunts me, but ever since writing that post, I have been reckoning with the root of the problem.

The people who speak into my life have all had very similar lives.

When I talk about someone speaking into my life, I’m considering not only my friends and family, but also the podcasts I listen to, the books I read, the tv shows and movies I watch, the YouTubers I subscribe to, and the people I follow on social media. Each individual person is speaking their thoughts out into the world, and I am on the other end, listening. So if every person whose thoughts are coalescing in my brain and forming my ideas about the world is built from a similar mold, my ideas about the world will only fit the same mold, and the cycle will repeat.

There are problems inherent in saying you need to read more black authors” or similar phrases. It implies that the reader is going to be reading a book solely to experience a specific truth rather than approaching the book as if it expresses a general truth. We as a society rely on white authors to give us the universal knowledge of the world, and use minority authors to give us details outside our experience. If we go in knowing that tendency, however, we can combat it and begin to expand our view of the universal truths of the world.

So, slowly, over the past year and a little longer, I have been trying to change who speaks into my life. It’s a slow process. The work will never be done, but I thought I would share some moments from this journey that struck me.

For the longest time, most of my podcast listening has been a subsection of the biggest podcasts in the world–99% Invisible, Criminal, Planet Money, etc.–tech podcasts, usually about apple products or YouTube due to the nature of my entrance into the podcast sphere, productivity and creativity podcasts, and history podcasts. Most of those podcasters were of the same mold again. I tried adding more podcasts from different people, different cultures, but time is not limitless and I would fall back on my rota of top podcasts.

Then, one day, I was listening to a favorite, and it struck me that I no longer agreed with anything the host was saying. It was a productivity podcast and the specific topic is lost to me by now, but the host–an older white man living in California–was talking about how productivity just takes discipline and focus, and that he never needed therapy or help dealing with a disability because he had been meditating for years. I felt as though I was being told that because I need therapy to help me manage depression and anxiety, and medication to help me manage my ADHD symptoms, and needed to adapt to suit my desire to do anything and everything, that I wasn’t ever going to be productive. And seconds after my brain processed that message, some of the others who had been speaking into my life whispered back to me, he’s wrong, you are legitimate no matter what support you need. In that moment, I was glad that I had grown and changed and found people who could help me reckon with this moment, and the instant I parked my car in my driveway, I opened my podcast player and removed that input from my life. Boom, gone.

Less than a day later, the same happened with a book review podcast I’d listened to for years. I listened as the hosts talked about yet another white American male author writing a groundbreaking book. Can’t even remember what the book was about! And I thought, what is this giving me? When the answer was nothing, I deleted that podcast as well. This purge happened over and over, and like magic, different voices began to take their places.

I found a handful of book review podcasts hosted by women and tested them out. I kept three that spoke to me, including one that was taking an entire episode to recommend books across genres written by Asian and Pacific Islander authors for AAPI month, discussing the ways each book had influenced them. I subscribed to a podcast about wildlife biology hosted by a Black, female scientist who goes into detail about how her race and gender affects her experiences to this day in her profession. I pivoted from general tech podcasts to one about the intersection of tech and disabilities. I added history podcasts about the lesser known aspects of history–not just the Romans and Greeks or the history of Europe’s elite–covering things like the fall of the Khmer Empire, or an in-depth analysis of Monica Lewinsky (rather than Bill Clinton), or the history of tomatoes! Add in a podcast about native habitats, another on the effect diet culture has on society, a few roleplaying game themed shows with a variety of hosts, a poetry podcast focusing on a different poet every episode, and a movie podcast that examines the portrayal of women in film, and I suddenly had a wide variety of new voices in my life. It happened quickly at first, but has slowly continued, with new voices rotating in to help me view the world through a wider lens.

More recently, I rearranged our bookshelves to put the books from my partner’s youth as well as my own in a section by themselves, as they’re less likely to get our attention these days. Then the fiction we’ve read as we’ve grown up and become adults, and the nonfiction we’ve accumulated over time, separated out and waiting for us to revisit them. The unread books, the books we haven’t yet experienced, the books we want to read again to refamiliarize ourselves with them, they got a place of honor–closest to the door at eye height–so that we can find them at a moment’s notice. I realized that among those special unmet friends, there was a massive range of diverse voices that I hadn’t yet tapped, and all because they had been out of sight, out of mind. It led me to rearranging my digital book collection as well, removing books I would never read again, categorizing my favorites and leaving my unread collection front and center. It was in this process that a new voice called to me.

I had purchased The Peace Keeper by B. L. Blanchard some time ago but never opened it, instead seeking the comfort of a favorite series over and over. But sitting there on my digital shelf, it spoke to me, asking me to let it tell me what it knew. So I opened it, and was drawn into a world where North America was never colonized by Europeans, where the Anishnaabeg had continued to hold on to their nation with no set borders around what I would call the Great Lakes. It was not a philosophical fiction about how the world would be different, not really; instead it was a murder mystery thriller surrounding the main character Chibenashi, an Ojibwe detective who lived in a world that was not novel to him. He moved through the universe of the book as if everything was self-explanatory, his life showing me a handful of universal truths while it highlighted the cultural differences between his fictional ancestors and my own.

This, I thought, is why I want to read more books by people who are not like me.

From maps oriented with east at the top of the page because the Anishnaabeg consider east the direction that orients them to the world where I would use north, to art focused on the miigis–the beings who taught the Annishnaabe people their way of life–and Sky Woman, to the cultural significance of a person’s doodem or clan, the story spoke to me of a world that I had never dreamed of. The world through which Chinbenashi lived was not perfect, and he was ashamed of parts of it as I am ashamed of parts of my cultural legacy. Universal truths written in a voice I had not heard before. It has changed me for the better already.

The overall diversification process is ongoing. I’m in a book club that’s encouraging me to read books I wouldn’t have chosen for myself. The same could be said for the movie club I’ve joined. New podcasts enter, old podcasts leave. I’ve subscribed to the magazine Poetry to start reading a genre I rarely experience except by accident. My social media feeds are filled with people who do not look like me, who do not think like me, who do not live like me. I have never felt so in love with the world, so happy to hear the voices of those who would tell me I do not have the whole picture.

6 July 2022 books podcast diversity

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