What is Multicultural Literature?

What Multicultural Literature Means to Me

Multicultural literature is a term that is perhaps most familiar to extreme book lovers, English majors, or those interested in the world of publishing. I happen to belong to all three groups, and even I have struggled to determine a detailed definition of the term. That is because there really isn’t a concrete, singular definition. In general, the term multicultural literature is used to identify and describe stories that are by and about the experiences of marginalized groups. However, things become trickier when trying to decide who and what falls under that category.

To answer this question – one that has frustrated me for awhile now – I’ve spent hours scouring other literature-based blogs, articles, and journals, only to come away even more frustrated. The definitions appeared to be infinite, and the task of combining them all into a simple, easily explainable, singular definition for you seemed impossible. So, I decided to do away with the notion of a singular definition entirely.

Instead, I want to provide you with a few different definitions that I appreciate in particular – and a few that I don’t.

When I decided that I wanted to start covering the topic of multicultural literature, the definition I initially operated under described it as “literature about people who are considered outside of the mainstream of society and have been in some manner marginalized.” I appreciated this definition because it includes stories about people from all kinds of racial, ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic, sexual, and religious identities.

However, I also gravitate toward simpler and less formal descriptions because they better reflect the experiences that I have as a (mostly) casual reader. For example, multicultural literature can be used to describe books that represent voices that are often excluded from the traditional literary canon. This is simply another way to say that it represents stories by and about people from underrepresented and marginalized groups. This would include, for example, any stories about non-white, non-hetereosexual, non-cisgender groups because traditional canon focuses heavily on straight, white, cisgender stories.

Not only is it important to define which groups are included in multicultural literature, it’s also important to understand how those groups are included. Multicultural literature doesn’t simply include characters from non-dominant groups. Rather these characters and their identities are central to the story. In multicultural literature, these members of these groups serve as main characters and the plot is relevant to their actual lived experiences.

There are, however, a few definitions I don’t include in my personal understanding of multicultural literature. That is not to say that they are objectively wrong or inaccurate. Again, there is no singular definition to describe multicultural literature. I personally find certain definitions too limiting or too broad.

For example, many people often consider multicultural literature to simply be literature about people of color. I’ve often seen this definition used in academic settings. While I believe that stories about people of color are included in multicultural literature, I also believe it extends to other identities including class, gender, and sexuality. This is not to say that these are all mutually exclusive, and I will be discussing the concept of intersectionality in the future.

There is also an argument that multicultural literature should (and does) include white cultures. Although I’d also like to discuss this further in the future, the argument is essentially that by including only marginalized cultures in multicultural literature, we create a dichotomy wherein the marginalized groups are not considered just “literature” in the way that white (European) stories are. This definition is also limiting because it ignores the fact that multicultural literature can include more than just race and ethnicity. For my purposes, it is also too broad because I want to focus specifically on groups whose voices are often underrepresented in the mainstream.

Most simply, multicultural literature is about diversity. It explores sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, physical and mental disability, and other important cultural factors. Multicultural books have these groups as the main characters and the stories include themes that are relevant to their specific experiences. It allows voices from underrepresented groups to be heard, understood, and appreciated.

When I sat down to write this post, I was determined to nail down a single, conclusive definition of multicultural literature. However, I realized that I can’t ( and maybe shouldn’t get to) determine how it is defined. Instead, I can only offer you my understanding thus far with the intention that this will be your starting point to go in search of your own.

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