Ever since childhood, I’ve had a strong connection to books and stories. As a kid, they were my entrances to adventure, love and any possible place that could be dreamt up. I was the type of kid to have a flashlight next to my bed, so I could read far into the night, even after the lights were turned off. As I grew up, novels and stories became ways to understand not far away lands, but my own world. I clung to characters and whispered sentences I loved to myself as a way to find peace with who and where I was. Ultimately, this is what drove me toward the English major. There was nothing I could be more passionate about, nothing else I could picture myself spending the rest of my days doing and nothing that could completely encompass the entire world and human experience the way literature does.
However, my world, the world I was so interested in seeing in a book, was almost impossible to find. The stories available celebrated a white, heterosexual world. Growing up, every person of color goes through the experience of having the crucial and heartbreaking realization that you are nonwhite and therefore non-normal. Queer folk go through a similar experience as they realize how alienated they are in a heteronormative society. I went through both of these experiences as a bisexual Puerto Rican and Guatemalan woman. When that realization occurs, it is as if you claim a painful weight that you must carry your entire life. The weight doesn’t get lighter — you just learn more effective ways to carry it. Aside from this initial realization as a person, there is a chance you go through another realization, beginning the cycle again in other aspects of your life and staking claim in a new type of pain. This was the case with me and literature.
I always knew there was a disproportionately low number of POC voices being highlighted in all forms of media. There was so much social media content around it that it was hard to ignore. I was always bothered by it and left trying to calm a twitch in my eye or lower the rising of my heart rate, but it wasn’t until fall my freshman year at UC Berkeley that I had a full-fledged, emotional realization. My English classes throughout middle school and high school featured novels exclusively by white men. I still loved the stories, and I still loved reading. I had just accepted that there was a limitation to how encompassed I could be in a book. The only exception to this was “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë, a novel following a young British woman’s journey to claim her own type of independence while simultaneously pursuing love. To me, it was a perfect book far ahead of its time, allowing me to connect with a character in a way I never knew I could. Granted, Jane ends her journey as a wealthy white woman, marrying the older man of her dreams. She is definitely far from the perfect representation of someone like me, but as far as novels went, this was the best I had.
After I started my first semester at UC Berkeley, I shared a conversation with my sophomore year English teacher and expressed what “Jane Eyre” had done for me. She noticed how much I was missing in my experiences in literature and recommended I read “In the Time of the Butterflies” by Julia Alvarez.
At this point of time, I was about to start reading Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” for a gender and women’s studies course taught by Professor Aparajita Nanda. I read the two novels simultaneously, each word shaping, transforming and completely and utterly changing me. I remember closing the books, my eyes swelling and tearing before I even realized I was emotional, let alone why. I sat in the silence of my bedroom, feeling more seen than I’ve ever been.
The Mirabal sisters in Alvarez’s novel encapsulate the indescribable love and difficulties that come from the incredibly close bonds of Latinx familial life. Walker created a beautiful love story between Shug and Celie that persevered despite their racist and patriarchal worlds. I was speechless. Women exist on the page; queer people exist on the page; people of color exist on the page. All three can simultaneously exist on the page. I can, do and will exist on the page.
Reading these texts allowed me to lift the veil my education had placed on me. I don’t have to keep making excuses for white writers and for educators who exemplify their voices. Literature existed that was for and by people of color, and it just had been hidden from me my entire life. Where was it? Why had no one ever shown it to me? Why was I never taught these texts?
I was angry that it took me so long to be exposed to these texts. I was ashamed of myself that I never looked for it sooner. I was furious that my education failed me so greatly — making me believe I didn’t have other options and needed to settle for the texts being shown to me. I prepared to take the books off of my desk and put them back on the shelf, symbolizing my time with those stories would be over. I was devastated. I didn’t want the bliss of being seen to leave so soon, but I had other things to read for class, so my moments with those books came to a close for the time being.
Since my experience with Alvarez and Walker, I’ve never been able to go back. It is painfully clear how much work still needs to be done to highlight voices of color in literature. Every book I read has been so alienating and exclusive, since I no longer allowed myself to be forced into the perspectives of these white authors. Even “Jane Eyre,” which I loved so dearly, became a symbol of exclusion as Jane uses racially charged language to describe the gothic. She takes me out of her world, making me no longer believe in the type of feminism she presents.
As an English major, I am always reading, always exploring the classics and always dedicating myself to the understanding of them. But how am I supposed to do that now, when I am so overly aware of how much these books fight against the core of who I am?
Brontë, Shakespeare, Austen, Milton and Blake never intended for people of color to read their stories. Their texts are sprinkled with problematic language, and the perfect worlds they present are ones I could never partake in. Even worse, sometimes problematic texts are even celebrated. Students still have to sit through professors’ praise of Alexander Pope’s use of epic tropes in his sexist and violent “The Rape of the Lock.” And here I am, a woman of color, not only reading these texts, but interpreting them, writing about them and making claims about them.
Sometimes, the only way to go about my day without combusting from anger or despair is to simply ignore the lack of representation in class. I chose to study English. I chose to go down this route. The English language was planted and grew in a white world, so of course it will be dominated by white people. The best thing I can do is accept it and hope things will get better for future students. But white people lost their right of keeping us out of their literary world the moment they forced their language onto our tongue and teeth.
This language belongs to every person of color, regardless of anyone’s racism or bigotry. We belong in the English language, the English curriculum and the literary world.
Keeping this at the forefront of my mind can be exhausting, especially since it can sometimes feel like I’m the only one who feels so strongly about it. It’s also easy to blow off as melodramatic. The classics obviously have value, and there are options to take specific cultural literature classes. These, however, have limitations as well.
Chicanx literature courses may be offered at UC Berkeley. They are the closest thing I will get to studying Latine texts, but what about all of the other countries not included in that realm? Do they not deserve a place in academia? These classes aren’t required for the English major either, meaning many students will not be exposed to them and, like me, will continue to lack exposure to literature by people of different races, sexualities and genders. How will they know where to start or what to look for?
Maybe one day, I won’t feel dejected or discouraged when I receive a reading list or as I trail my finger across the spines of books on the library shelves. Maybe one day, I won’t have a hard time envisioning someone with a name like mine on a book put on display at the front of a Barnes & Noble. Until then, do not settle for whatever you have been told to read. Find voices that you want to speak for you and for humanity. Allow the pen to be a universal instrument of expression, humanity and life — not another tool of silencing.