|(c) Mark Tillie|
Friday, 31 October 2014
Colour Bind: Part 2
“Matters of exclusion preoccupied black women immigrant writers of the twentieth century. For instance, Buchi Emecheta’s novel Second Class Citizen (1974) is the story of a resourceful Nigerian woman who endures countless setbacks in London, while Joan Riley’s novel The Unbelonging (1985) tells of an 11 year old Jamaican girl’s sense of alienation in Britain. Decades later, the themes still resonate with me, although I am British born, and half of my family is white English and Irish.
However, no-one can deny the success of a few black British women novelists,
Malorie Blackman, Andrea Levy and Zadie Smith among them. The publishing industry was surely not then a wholly rotten place for women of colour? I wanted to talk to published black British women writers to find out about their experiences.
Six years ago, Irenosen Okojie, won a place on Flight, a Spread the World initiative, set up to support emerging London writers through mentoring. Soon afterwards, she gave up her job as National Development Co-ordinator of performance poetry organisation, Apples and Snakes. Supported by her personal savings, she began to work full-time on her novel Butterfly Fish, set in modern London as well as Nigeria in both the 18th Century and 1950s.
Okojie, who was born in Nigeria and raised in Norfolk, tells me, “When you’ve finished the writing and think about the broader picture, you look at what’s on the bestseller list and what’s on the shelves and think: “That’s not my story”. There’s definitely a fear. Publishing feels like a colder land to enter. It feels so much more daunting and intimidating because so few black British women writers are part of it.
“I wondered whether there was space for my writing being a woman and a woman of colour. My writing is quite quirky and experimental and I worried that it wasn’t what was expected.”
Okojie was taken on by agent, Elise Dillsworth, one of the few black women working in UK publishing, and Butterfly Fish is to be published next June by Jacaranda, a small publishing company aimed at representing culturally diverse writing voices. But is it significant that this young British writing talent was not picked up by a major publishing house?
Perhaps so. Due to the lack of available statistics on the ethnic make up of published writers, I decided to carry out research of my own. I examined three of the biggest UK literary agencies: Curtis Brown, United Agents, and Peters, Fraser & Dunlop. I counted a grand total of 2,338 listed writers (it took a very long time). Around 55% of the writers were white men, 42% were white women and 3% were black or Asian. Black women comprised only 0.5% of the overall total. I was shocked.
According to Ellah Allfrey, one of the few senior black women working in the publishing industry and a former editor at Random House and Granta: “There’s no concerted effort to stop black British women getting published. However, there is a problem to do with how books are chosen and who chooses at the publishing stage.
“It’s simply easier to commission a story that you recognize. If everyone else in the acquisitions process is sitting around from a similar background, it’s more likely that certain stories will get through. If it’s a local, homegrown black British story which you, the publisher, aren’t familiar with, it’s more difficult.
“It’s also difficult for an acquiring editor who wants to be imaginative when they have to look at previous sales and look at what’s worked before. If you can’t answer the question: who is this writer like and who is the comparison, the selling of the book can be seen as more difficult, because the numbers aren’t there to prove that this particular book can work.
“But I actually believe that readers are more imaginative than the publishers, who are the gatekeepers, realise. We’ve all benefitted from the success of Zadie Smith and Bernardine Evaristo. Reading teaches us about ourselves and interesting stories are out there.” “