On being a writer of colour – the tide is finally changing

From the dawn of time, stories have been integral to the development of communities. It is the way we have successfully passed down our culture, heritage and truths. But what happens when one story is suppressed and another made dominant? Enter the current publishing industry.

As it stands, the amount of diverse voices in the U.K literary scene is pitiful. A survey by bookcareers.com of more than 1,000 people working in UK publishing, has found that more than 90% currently in the industry classify themselves as white British. Of those being published, a report by Spread The Word in 2015, found that out only 30 per cent of 203 novelists came from a BAME background. What’s more, once into their publishing career, 53 per cent of BAME authors remained without an agent against 37 per cent of white authors. These kind of statistics prove that the issues in publishing are very much real. There are simply not enough diverse voices both working in the book trade or being published.

But why is this? Why is it so difficult for writers of colour to get an edgeway into the publishing scene?

Well, it seems the issue lies in the systemic and traditional structures of the U.K. book trade that means it only caters to the white and middle-class. This was shown in a survey by the multicultural children’s publisher Lee & Low Books, which found that 79% of staff in American publishing were white, and 78% women. One of the publishers, Jason Low, commented on “the tendency — conscious or unconscious — for executives, editors, marketers, salespeople and reviewers to work with, develop and recommend books by and about people who are like them”. And this narrow way of thinking has undoubtedly been found in the UK publishing industry.

But finally, the tide is changing. Diverse voices from BAME writers are entering into the publishing industry in full force. In the U.K. this has been the result of a variety of organisations and initiatives doing their best to bridge the gap. One organisation doing this is The Good Agency, a space dedicated to find and develop black and minority ethnic, disabled and LGBTQ writers. The Arts Council is helping to support the new initiative, with a £580,000 fund that will keep the project running for three years. Author Nikesh Shukla and literary agent, Julia Kingsford recognised that problematic ‘insider networks’, low pay and unequal opportunity meant that diversity in the London book industry has in fact ‘gone backwards’. But they are determined to change this through nurturing new and upcoming writers and helping them get into mainstream publishing. Their meaningful work sits alongside other independent publishers such as Canongate, Oneworld, Bloomsbury, Unbound and Cassava Republic who have also continued to support writers of colour.

Literary Natives is another important initiative that represents the coming together of a diverse writing community. It is a monthly meet-up for writers of colour and is dedicated to supporting those on their publishing journey. Importantly, the new space will help build a crucial network for BAME writers that they have been denied of for so long.

Salma Ibrahim, Co-Founder of Literary Natives said:

“I loved the universality of writing and reading, so I chose the name Literary Natives in order to celebrate this literary heritage. It affirms the idea that writers of colour do belong and should belong in the literary world. I wanted to strive towards this by carving out a safe space in which BAME writers could feel like they belong with their ideas and experiences.”

In such that Literary Natives is part of a new movement in the publishing industry to introduce new voices. A unifying of young people who are determined to create long-lasting change. And this is already evident in the type of books being published. One of the authors on the panel, Muhammed Khan’s latest book, has a young Muslim female protagonist on a journey of self-discovery. ‘I am Thunder’, breaks book norms by giving life to a previously unexplored perspective. It is also particularly poignant in a time when Islamophobia is rife, with a negative narrative that engulfs the religion. The book addresses that narrative head on and explores the role of identity and self-discovery in a belief system.

Other writers on the panel, Victoria Princewill, the author of In The Palace of Flowers, to be published by Cassava Republic, a platform dedicated to showcasing the African experience through high-quality fiction and non-fiction for adults and children alike. The book explores a story that has never really had its own limelight, of two Abyssinian (Ethiopian) slaves living in 19th century Iran. Hailed as an “atmospheric historical debut novel” which was inspired by the only existing first-person account. So, it is clear these spaces are small compared to well-established publishing houses but, continue to empower the BAME writing community to get their exciting work out there.

And these books are a sure money maker. In the past few years, fiction and non-fiction alike consistently sell and remain in high demand. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and published by Bloomsbury went on to be a Sunday Times’ bestseller, with over 30,000 copies sold since June 2017 in the U.K. It was also longlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction. Nikesh Shukla’s own book, The Good Immigrant; a collection of essays about race and immigration published by Unbound, sold more than 50,000 copies and was named the British public’s favourite book of 2016.

And this makes me very proud and hopeful. Writers of colour, who were once only getting the crumbs of the publishing riches— have made their own goddamn pie. No longer should we allow the talk that these stories aren’t commercial enough. The truth is, they don’t have to be. Their magnificence comes from being completely unique, yet universal at the same time. We are made up of a multitude of experiences as rich and as important as the last. So, I find myself encouraged, to continue writing my truth and ensure that the next generation of BAME authors do the same for true long-lasting change.

Speaking of diverse writers, make sure to check out our coverage on British Nigerian author, Tola Okogwu. She’s changing perceptions of race and gender roles with her series of children’s books. Read more here.