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March 8, 2023

Reflections on representation: why readers need to engage with stories they otherwise might not consider

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we commissioned writer and editor, Zoya Patel, to share her reflections about the representation of women and girls in literature.

From as early as I can remember, I liked to dream myself into the worlds I consumed in culture. I was a child obsessed with stories, prone to scrawling wiggly lines on paper from when I could sit up, aware, even though I had no concept of reading or writing, that words on a page held a sort of magic. 

But the stories I was told as a young girl were infused with the morals of my culture – Indian folklore, Islamic tales of prophecy and faith. In these stories, women played a role of facilitation, obedience, community-building. They were rarely the heroes. 

So when I was able to choose what stories I consumed, I gravitated to books that embraced rebellious women. Living in country New South Wales, on a low income as my parents found their feet in a new country, a lot of the books we read were secondhand or from the library. 

As a result, the representation of women and girls in their pages varied drastically. We had a box of old Sweet Valley Twins books, which gave us the Wakefield twins – blonde-haired, blue-eyed, middle class girls in California, living a life that looked nothing like ours. But I related to Elizabeth, the studious, nerdy sister, who had a strong moral compass and didn’t care much about fitting in. 

From Elizabeth Wakefield, I could almost draw a straight line to Jo March from Little Women, Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables, Sophie Hatter from Howl’s Moving Castle, Hermione from Harry Potter, Lizzie Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, and so on. 

I leaned into the trope of the headstrong, fiery young woman who is aware of the shackles society is placing around her in the form of gender norms, but who is unafraid to speak her mind despite expectations, and despite the damage to her reputation. 

I’m conscious that I’ve listed characters who are all white – but that was the norm when I was growing up and reading these works, and although I did feel some dissonance even then, I still found so much joy in these characters. As more diverse writers filtered into my consciousness, I gratefully devoured books by Toni Morrison, Arundahti Roy, Alice Pung, and so many more, finding a dual sense of representation in their diverse female characters. 

Over the past decade, as I’ve developed my own practice as a writer and engaged in these spaces as both a consumer and creator of literature, I’ve seen the way ‘representation’ has taken centre stage in many of the conversations we have around the value and impact of literature. 

We want to see diversity across all aspects of the publishing industry – authors, editors, executives – and also on the page itself. And I think there is no question that this is an important and necessary area of change and growth. 

But a part of me has always felt sceptical of the idea that this diversity is urgently needed because otherwise, readers won’t feel represented. I say this because even though I knew the difference between myself and the characters I read as a young person, I didn’t struggle to imagine myself into their lives and worlds. 

In fact, one of the key strengths of good literature is the way a writer opens up a world to the reader, allowing them access to lives and experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have, giving them the chance to understand and empathise with experiences outside of their own. 

I learned early, and perhaps due to a lack of alternatives, that I could relate to the emotional heart of a character regardless of our cultural and physical differences. This is the same for people of all marginalised backgrounds, and indeed of women for centuries, while literature has been dominated by straight white men. 

Where I see the opportunity when it comes to diversity and representation in literature isn’t necessarily just in making minorities feel seen, it’s about offering the majority – the readers who occupy a world that is built with them in mind – the opportunity to engage with stories they may not otherwise consider. It’s the potential of literature to improve understanding, to foster inclusion and empathy. 

My biggest concern as a writer of colour who wants to tell stories that engage in cultural difference, racism, minority experiences, is that mainstream audiences won’t be interested in my work. And I don’t think this is entirely an unfounded concern – we have seen that male readers typically prefer reading books by men featuring male characters. It follows then that the appetite for stories by diverse writers about diverse characters may be driven by diverse readers, who can only represent a portion of the broader market. 

I want to see white readers love characters of colour with the same fierceness that women love Jo March, or Lizzie Bennet, or Anne Shirley. I want to see our collective imaginations as excited by a queer love story as everyone was by Connell and Maryanne from Normal People. I want to see our imaginations stretched and challenged until we stop counting the ratio of diversity on our shelves because it is a given that we will find women, men, queer, gender diverse, brown, disabled writers on any shelf, any time. 

I am so grateful to the women characters in literature who helped to raise me, instilling in me the value of independence and individuality. They were paving the way, and we are now at the base of the next hill, tools in hands, ready to carve the rest of the path. 

Zoya Patel is a writer, editor and communications professional, based in Canberra. Her debut book, No Country Woman, a collection of memoir essays on race, identity and the diaspora is out now through Hachette Australia. Her novel, Once A Stranger, also published by Hachette Australia, is out now.

Zoya writes a regular opinion column for The RiotACT, was a co-host of Guardian Australia’s Book It In podcast, co-hosts the Margin Notes podcast alongside Yen Eriksen, and has written for a number of publications including the Australian Financial Review, SBS Voices, Guardian Australia, The Canberra Times, Right Now, Junkee, Women’s Agenda, and more.

Zoya was the Chair of the 2021 Stella Prize judging panel, and was also on the judging panel in 2020. In 2015, she was named ACT Young Woman of the Year for her commitment to raising the profile of women’s voices in the media.