Just a few weeks ago, Kristin wrote a blog post about what she called aboutness. She explained that for many books, what the title is actually about can be interpreted or described in completely different ways to pull a reader in, depending on what details are highlighted. Today I want to give my own example of this, and how it relates to allowing patrons to understanding marginalized experiences by disguising it behind more initially digestible plots.
Just a week or so after Kristin’s post, I had a perfect example of this happen when I recommended the book English Passengers, by Matthew Kneale, to a library patron. The patron was usually a nonfiction reader, hoping to break into fiction, and loved reading about history, particularly 18th and 19th century European history, as well as naval expeditions and piracy. English Passengers is a 19th century historical novel about a British scientific and religious expedition to the island of Tasmania, with plot points around British historical politics, piracy, mutiny, and surviving a treacherous journey at sea. Sounds like a perfect fit, right?
English Passengers truly is about British history, naval explorations, conniving sea captains, and religious and scientific mission work, but it is also a tragicomedy that examines the destruction against the native peoples of Tasmania caused by British imperialism. It does not shy away from discussing the racism based in the religious and scientific motivations of those on the expedition. Kneale is scathing in his descriptions of how the native peoples of Tasmania have suffered, from sexual violence to cultural erasure, and ultimately gives the readers, and the protagonists, a satisfying ending. And when I read English Passengers as an optional title for a British Literature course, these details surrounding the suffering and eventual justice for native peoples are the ones that made me choose to read it. The course focused on English portrayals of marginalized races in fiction, and the focus on the detrimental effects of imperialism on native communities is what drew me in.
I probably would never have picked up English Passengers if it had been described to me with the details I focused on when I recommended it the book to this patron, simply because I’m not generally very interested in historical fiction or sea voyages. And I can’t know for sure, but I would guess that the patron I helped wouldn’t have been as excited about this book if I had led with the details that drew me in. But that didn’t stop him from letting me know he enjoyed the book when I saw him a few weeks later!
I think that’s the beauty of genre fiction with diverse perspectives, from romance to sci-fi epics to historical mysteries. The books are more than just their genres or the identities of their characters, and allow readers to explore themes they might not otherwise be interested in. For me, that meant a book featuring native communities I wasn’t familiar with acting as a gateway into historical fiction, but for others it may be the opposite. With other books like Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, some will be pulled in by details of a witchy murder mystery, but stay for the trans love story and search for acceptance from family. The Kiss Quotient will be a hit for some people because of the well-written romantic comedy, while simultaneously giving insight into an autistic person’s search for acceptance. The Fifth Season has attracted tons of readers with its award-worthy world-building, but an additional draw is how it pulls the reader into discussions of racism and climate change. No matter what genre or plot point pulls the reader in, all of these books create opportunities for readers to grapple with struggles of marginalized identities amid digestible, engaging plotlines.
To check out English Passengers, Cemetery Boys, and other titles that blend genre fiction with discussions of marginalization and identity, check out this list.