Dr. Miller sheds light on creating diversity in the literary world
Although she’s conducted research in Latvia and India and analyzed diaries, documents and interviews from World War II and the Partition, Olivia Miller, is not a historian, anthropologist or journalist. Rather, she researches the past to create her historically accurate fiction.
Miller’s first novel, “Balance of Fragile Things,” published in 2012, explores a family of Indian and Latvian roots in a setting of environmental unrest in upstate New York. Through the dynamics of a multicultural home, the balance of American assimilation and upholding personal cultures is challenged. Miller discusses topics she resonates with through themes of racial tension and nature. In an outdated publishing world, she finds it imperative to bring diversity to readers.
Raised by a Latvian mother born in Germany and an Indian father born in Pakistan, Miller was born in Illinois, raised in New Jersey, and grew up in Southern California. Miller identifies as multiethnic. Yet, she does not let this identity define her. While her ethnic background provided the core in the shaping of her novel, it did not construct the piece.
While she was earning her doctorate in English and creative writing in Binghamton, N.Y., the rustbelt town experienced an environmental disaster from a toxic plume of the volatile chemical trichloroethylene (TCE). The difficulties of living in a place where the air and water were contaminated inspired her to create an environmental devastation as the setting of her novel to spread awareness.
However, the characters were from her imagination, and the setting was from not only her personal experience, but came to life through extensive research. Following the construction of her novel, Miller experienced firsthand the lack of progressiveness in the publishing sphere.
“The world tries to put you in a box with the most marginalized thing about you, like your gender identity and race. The publishing world is going to expect you to write about that and it forces you to seek questions about your identity,” said Miller.
As a multiethnic writer, Miller sought publishers who understood her mission and wouldn’t try to confine her to a certain box on what she could and couldn’t write about. For her that was the Ashland Creek Press, a publisher dedicated to publishing books with a world view. She explained the importance of caring about what one writes about, and not simply writing for the market.
“Publishing books that reflect the diversity of our world helps to extend compassion and understanding and to see that our similarities are far greater than our differences,” said Midge Raymond, editor at Ashland Creek Press. “‘Balance of Fragile Things’ was such a good fit for us due to its environmental focus…The stories of this Indian/Latvian family and its two American teenagers are both unique and universal.”
Miller mentioned a group she promotes in her Twitter biography, We Need Diverse Books, who advocate for just that. Their mission: “Putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children.” People want to see themselves in books. Books should fairly represent the population, however, they are currently lagging behind, according to Miller. She aims to teach this ideal of diversity and freedom of expression to her students.
“The demographics of America are changing but the publishing industry isn’t keeping up with that trend,” said James LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. This organization is similar to We Need Diverse Books because it advocates for diversity in books that reflect the nation’s population.
As a professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Miller takes pride in teaching and developing a community of writers with her students.
“Teaching is so fun because I get to see [students] at their most curious…I love that opportunity. I feel so humbled by my students because they write so beautifully and have so many dreams,” said Miller.
“Professor Miller’s passion for writing inspired me to write my final paper on water and the environment. She pushed our class to write about what matters to us,” said Andrea Bonato, 20, former student of Miller’s honors writing course at CU. “She is confident in her intelligence and it taught me to value my own.”
Miller became more animated as she discussed her students and how they give her a fresh new perspective with their wonder for the world.
“I was a nerd in college. I loved books so much, I collected them and read everything, spending days in the library. I’d go to all my professors office hours,” said Miller. “I wanted to drink the world.”
Her most important advice for students is to be curious. She encourages them to take as many classes as possible in fields like history, anthropology, sociology or journalism. That will not only create a diverse writer, but make their writing more diverse.
“Examine your assumptions about what you think you know, and keep learning more,” said Miller. A well-rounded writer creates well-rounded, diverse writing. And that, according to Miller, is what the literary world needs.