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Roxane Gay strives to diversify the literary conversation

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For the next two weeks Roxane Gay will be blogging at The Nation about new books by writers of color. Gay, author of the story collection “Ayiti” as well as an essayist and editor, has dedicated herself to calling attention to the lack of diversity in the way we talk about books in this country and to pointing readers toward talented writers of color that she says the media is overlooking.

Gay has been down this road before — in the summer of 2012 she counted the number of reviews of books by writers of color in 2011's New York Times. That year, about 12% of the 742 books reviewed by the New York Times were authored by people of color. After publishing her findings on The Rumpus, Gay crowd-sourced a list of writers of color as a corrective gesture aimed at editors and readers who responded that they just don't know how to find writers of color.

When asked about the response to these earlier essays, Gay, who spoke by phone Tuesday, said she “felt like it brought more awareness to the issue, and people responded really, really well.” But, she says, “It's certainly going to take more than just a couple blog posts on The Rumpus to really create the change that's necessary. Quite honestly, it's going to take the editors of these major publications just making clear mandates about including diverse coverage.”

At The Nation, Gay's short inaugural post updated her count with a few different types of reviewing venues: the 50-year-old New York Review of Books, 19-year-old Bookforum, National Public Radio and the Los Angeles Review of Books, a 17-month-old independent online review. “I kept it pretty short,” she says, “because we know the numbers, and because the numbers don't move the people in power. There's no financial imperative for them to change. It's a moral imperative, and until there's a financial imperative, they're not going to change. I've accepted that, but what I can do is talk about books.”

The idea is to engage critically with the actual work of underrepresented writers -- to “move beyond the numbers.” The blog will feature mostly reviews and interviews. Gay sounds excited when she says she's “going to be talking about the books themselves. Because they exist.”

Organizations like VIDA, which provides annual charts detailing the percentages of female bylines and female authored books reviewed across a selection of media, can't possibly tell the whole story. Gay says that VIDA has her support, but adds that “as long as we're still in our individual places, doing our own individual efforts, how much change are we really going to create?”

This week, Gay also began editing a section at Salon that will publish feminist nonfiction and criticism from writers of color.

“We can't think of gender without also considering race, class, sexuality and ability,” Gay says. “As long as we keep thinking of diversity as, 'Oh, we need more women' or 'Oh, we need more people of color,' we're not even beginning to understand diversity. We're understanding token diversity.”

Her goal with these projects, she says, is "to see the conversation move beyond these simple binaries. It's a messy conversation, but it's OK, because after the mess we'll have something productive.”

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