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Being in university, we’ve all grown accustomed to reading research papers and academic studies. Unless you’re taking English or literature courses, your novels are probably collecting dust or waiting to be read during a break. But when that time comes around, you’re so tired of reading that you’d much prefer an activity that doesn’t involve consuming long passages of text for hours on end. Last year, when I was drowning in scientific papers and textbook readings, picking up a novel felt less like a leisurely learning experience and more like a waste of time — something that would distract me from my other courses. Reading fiction is often associated with entertainment rather than learning, however — as I have discovered — it is probably the most eye-opening and true-to-life literary genre.

The amount of reading required in our academic careers can be overwhelming. It’s easy to see why some people would underestimate seemingly superfluous genres. We think of fiction as basic stories of monstrous creatures and magical Greek islands, when really these tales have a lot to teach us about the world we’re living in today. The Odyssey cannot be reduced solely to a king battling various mythical monsters on his journey home. What are the lengths someone will go to return to their family? When a great hero is on his knees begging to go home, one can’t help but be reminded of the importance of loved ones. Fiction does not solely provide entertainment; it teaches us lessons about our world and ourselves.

It is probably the most eye-opening and true-to-life literary genre to exist. 

Reading literary fiction can even improve our empathy. It asks us to step into a character’s life and understand his or her choices. In Frankenstein, the creature is presented as a monstrous being, undeserving of love from the perspective of his creator. The novel challenges us to consider the perspective of multiple characters, including the creature. We are asked to be active readers and assume different roles as the narration shifts from character to character. Despite subjective interpretations of the piece, every reader undoubtedly learns how to relate. If we can step into a fictional world and empathize with characters we come to know in the span of two hundred pages, we can apply that skill to our own lives. The way you form strong bonds with people and connect with others depends on your ability to see the world through their eyes.

So is fiction a waste of time? It doesn’t detract from your schoolwork. It enhances your perspectives and critical thinking by allowing you to see the world in a new light. You cannot come away from a few hours of reading unchanged. When you read fiction, consciously or not, you relate differently to your own life. Whether you have to escape to Ithaca, or pay a visit to Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory, you gain insight into humanity. Even if you may not recognize it, you are learning.

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Growing up, I always found it difficult to fully empathize with the leading characters in young adult novels. Often starring an ambiguously White female lead with a token Black or Latina BFF, the books of my childhood didn’t mirror my coming of age experiences. While most of these stories were set in some North American city or town, and I could often relate to that element, the plot lines were portrayed through White eyes and never touched upon the challenges I faced growing up, or the simple quirks and differences between my childhood and that of someone White growing up in a White home and a White world.

Now that I’m a grown adult who has constant access to the Internet, I’ve recently started to spend a considerable amount of my free time looking into books that feature lead characters that I can relate to. Below are four of my choices if you’re looking for a similarly diverse reading experience:


Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Set in 1970s small town Ohio, Everything I Never Told You tells the story of a mixed race Chinese-American family with three children. The story is centered on the family’s dynamics after the death of one of their children, alternating narrators between the parents and children. While I don’t come from a directly mixed race home, I did grow up in a family that has a long history of mixed race ancestry and what I’ve grown to refer to as decades of cross-cultural pollination. For this reason, the book did hit home. It touches on the intricacies of family and cultural burdens, and how the notion of acceptance changed across the family’s male, female, racialized and white characters.

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Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

This was the first book I ever read that was by and about a woman of colour. It is technically young adult fiction, and I did read it when I was 13, but that doesn’t make it any less well written and relatable. The novel follows the teenage journey of Dimple Lala, an Indian-American girl growing up in New Jersey in the early 2000s. It spends a lot of time addressing issues among social circles, especially those related to having friends from different backgrounds, and therefore being treated differently by peers. The book also spends a considerable amount of time reflecting on the choice to pursue a career in the arts when coming from an immigrant American family, and even touches on gender fluidity and cross-dressing. I recommend the book for all ages with an interest in intersectionality.

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The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson 

Only released this past spring, The Star Side of Bird Hill tells the story of two teenage sisters from Brooklyn. They are uprooted from their home and sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados when their mother can no longer care for them. The story is relatable for anyone who feels they have two homes — the one where they grew up and the one that answers the question, “where are you really from?” The two sisters learn about their family history when they move to Barbados and are able to learn about aspects of their grandmother and mother’s lives they could never have imagined. But at the end of the day, they are torn between choosing which country is truly their “home.”

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If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

I will admit, I have not actually read this book but it has been on my reading list for the last few months and I have read the pages in the Amazon free preview. If You Could Be Mine tells the story of two queer women living and falling in love in 20th century Iran. This book is different from the other three on the list because it does not directly touch upon North American culture and race relations.  It does however deal with the queer identity in third-world communities, and eventually touches upon the prospect of gender reassignment surgery as a method to bypass unjust laws against same-sex marriage. This is also considered a young adult novel, but it is still on my reading list.

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