Diversity, Community & The Ways in Which Words Can Save Us

During the discussion panel on ‘Why Diversity Matters in YA Fiction’ at the Singapore Writers Festival this year, Nicola Yoon, author of ‘Everything Everything’, mentioned,

Diversity is a personal thing – growing up, I didn’t see myself in a book. It’s always a white leading character. Diversity is not politics, but it becomes it. Now I learn the importance of allowing everyone the full measure of their humanity. Why not make the main protagonist someone who looks like me? I can be the hero of my story. Diversity shows you what’s possible for you. It can also be a window to someone else who’s not like you. You breed empathy when you read books of diverse characters. It’s hard to hate what you understand. Books can save the world in this way.

This struck a chord with me because I had felt the same. I grew up with plenty of Johns and Alices in a world full of English backyards and treacle pudding, but never with Sitis or Ahmads playing soccer under the HDB block, or tinkering with masak-masak sets to play pretend cooking. I’m thrilled to see schools spearhead this change – the content of the books in the syllabus are increasingly more inclusive as topics like the main festivals celebrated by the different races in Singapore are gradually being introduced. While reading mainly these books growing up was not necessarily a bad thing as I did gain a stronger grasp of the language due to reading anyway, one effect it had was that I was predisposed to think that one worldview or being is better than another. It was limiting and it affected my conviction in my own identity. I constantly felt like I was residing in this liminal space of belonging, and also not belonging. I knew I was a member of a minority race, but on a greater scale, I felt small and out of place. The frequent spotlight on the whites in the media had made them seem as though they are the race par excellence, and every other, is well, othered. I did not realise back then that this thought had subtly permeated my mind and gnawed on my self-confidence. As I grew older and explored more books, I consciously picked more diverse books written by diverse authors who offered a much genuine and sought-after perspective of the world. That’s when I realised, this was what I, and so many of us, sorely needed – a diverse selection of voices to listen to. To read. To understand. To empathize. Reading and writing should work towards that. The power of words should never be underestimated. Writing heals – either an individual or a community.

As writing holds the power to heal, this meditation is more necessary than it is just a hobby. Writing should be a medium to freely express, as what Linda Collins, the author of ‘Loss Adjustment’, which is a recount of her daughter’s suicide, had brought across during the panel that discussed ‘Language and Trauma’.

“Writing is something that you had to do. It helps to put into perspective. I had to re-traumatise myself; to write well, I’ll have to go back in the moment again. It was a harrowing time but it had to be done. It was not cathartic like how people might put it. It’s just something you have to learn to live with. An adjustment.”

It was a fluid and dynamic conversation which emphasized the importance of community, storytelling and narration, which can collectively help to make sense of things that don’t. We as a community should continue to shed light on these issues, to talk about it, share it, because it is the only way to acknowledge that this anxiety, this depression, this trauma, are all but a very human experience. We don’t run away from it. We confront it. We notice that something is attacking our spirit, we notice we’re broken. So we pay attention. Inward. While holding hands with those who are there, ready to heal together and lift each other through words, and through ways that will best raise us up.

I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions I had sat in this year at the festival. The links between language and colonialism, the refugee crisis, trauma healing, and diversity, were well fleshed out, and it reminded me again of the timeless power of words. I look forward to more of such conversations in the future. It was refreshing to listen in on such topics which were eye-opening, thought-provoking, urgent, real.

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