Thursday, 30 October 2014

Colour Bind

Words And Women member Claire Hynes has written the lead article in the current issue of Mslexia. Her article Colour Bind investigates the extent to which the publishing industry pigeonholes black women writers. It also uncovers shocking research, which shows that black women writers comprise only 0.5% of listed authors with 3 of Britain’s biggest literary agencies.

Claire and Mslexia have kindly given us permission to publish Colour Bind on our blog. It’s a great article but as it’s long  we’re dividing it into three. Part 1 appears below and parts 2 and 3 will appear on Friday and Saturday respectively.

Colour Bind: Part 1:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that until a novel manuscript is completed, the big old world of publishing should be ignored, or so I thought, when I showed up at a recent literary event attended by industry big wigs. Once the speeches and panel discussions were over, I had no inclination to engage in the business of schmoozing. My sole game-plan was to secure a glass of wine and a tasty looking canapĂ©, before braving the London Underground.

A literary agent, who had been part of the final panel discussion, had beaten me to the refreshments table and somehow, over a plate of smoked salmon blinis, we began to talk. I soon forgot that I was in the presence of a powerful member of the British publishing establishment. The agent was a friendly, likeable woman. She was a fellow mother. Our children were the same age. We had lived in the same area of south London. Like me, she struggled with bedtime routines. Like me, she was horrified by the unraveling Jimmy Savile scandal. Like me, she was passionate about women’s rights in the UK and elsewhere and the books that she talked about were books that I had read and loved.

Finally, wine glasses empty, my woman buddy asked me the big question: what was I working on? When I told her that I was writing a coming-of-age story set in urban south London, she became thoughtful. “The problem is,” she said. “Black British fiction had its day in the 1990s.” I was stunned. By virtue of my skin complexion I was passĂ©. “Besides, the black British readership is very small,” the agent added.

So, whether I was in or out of vogue at any given time, the job of writing was limited to my own “community.” Surely someone should have warned me that I was the wrong colour for this game: the University of East Anglia where I studied creative writing, my writer friends, anyone? At least now I knew that black women write local, unimportant stuff for a minority group, whereas, as we all know white men write the big universal stories for a worldwide readership…right?  In less than one minute, I had transformed from fellow woman to outsider.

“It sounds pretty depressing,” I said. “Perhaps I shouldn’t bother with writing?” The agent tried to reassure me, and failed: “Perhaps you’ll be the lucky person to break through.”

Finding time to write, in between parenting and paying bills, was difficult enough, and I had never envisaged myself having to take on an entire establishment.

The agent’s words felt all the more disturbing since only one other person of colour was present at this large literary gathering, located in multi-cultural central London. I’d become accustomed to a distinct lack of diversity at events such as this. I’d felt disorientated sometimes as a result, but I’d never felt unwelcome. I’d never believed that discrimination was ever intended, but if people of colour are notably absent from certain spaces, it begs the question why?”

Claire was one of the 12 writers commended in our 'About' competition. Her short story 'In Her Hair' has been published in the Bath Short Story Award anthology 2014 this month. Claire has a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from UEA, where she teaches creative writing to undergraduates. She is also a director and editor at Gatehouse Press. 

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