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Diverse characters bring range of cultures to life

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- This is my seventh year of highlighting books that are diverse, but not about diversity. In other words, stories featuring people who are not the usual protagonists of mainstream novels but aren't interesting solely because of their race, gender or ethnicity.

It's a genre that is a bit difficult to describe.

For instance, I finally read Kevin Kwan's "Crazy Rich Asians," a delightful novel and soon-to-be movie (August 2018) about the intersecting lives of some seriously wealthy -- as in, beyond all our wildest dreams -- Chinese families living in New York, Silicon Valley and Singapore.

There's a wedding full of familial intrigue that everyone flocks to in their luxurious private jets. Secrets come to a head as a scion of one of the clans comes out as a super-millionaire to his girlfriend, a lowly "commoner" the family disapproves of.

It's a fun book in a campy, soap-opera way, and the author relies on some of his personal experiences to mine issues of heritage and assimilation while still entertaining us. To be sure, anyone who is not Asian could (and should) enjoy this story, but it's not an obvious pick for a category of fiction that breaks out of the ethnic literature genre and presents people of color as ordinary components of the American fabric.

That said, here are three books that do cast diverse, frequently stereotyped people as featured characters that truly reflect universal experiences and aspirations.

 

My first favorite of the year, "New People" by Danzy Senna, could be considered African-American literature, simply by virtue of having been written by a half-Irish-English and half Afro-Mexican woman who frequently includes mixed-race people in her stories.

But "New People" doesn't explore race as much as how young people approached the big questions of life -- What do I want to do when I grow up? Who should I marry? -- in the '90s, before the proliferation of the internet and smartphones.

Call me age-biased, but reading about fully formed humans with charms and idiosyncrasies in the luxurious silence of a non-digital lifestyle felt decadent.

Yes, "New People" is a fascinating look into how youthful, multiracial people who were "woke" long before being "woke" was a thing, maneuver emerging adulthood. More importantly, it's a well-written, interesting story about a young woman trying to find her way in life.

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