Sunday, 2 November 2014
Colour Bind: Part 3:
The final part of Claire Hynes' article on the lack of diversity in the UK publishing industry:
“In the introduction to her book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison asks: “What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be “universal” or “race-free?”
Catherine Johnson, who is of mixed Jamaican and Welsh parentage, has enjoyed a 20 year career writing books for young adults and scripts for film including the acclaimed Bullet Boy (2004), directed by Saul Dibb. Yet she struggles with the kind of emotional conflicts Morrison alludes to.
“As writers we are all scared and busy living in our own heads. I sometimes have a fear that a book is not going to do as well as I hoped because of the ethnicity of my protagonist. But then I think, maybe it’s simply the case that I’m not a good enough writer?”
“I think many publishers would love to find more black writers but it’s difficult to encourage the talent, and as a writer you need to have time and money to fail. I was lucky. I started out with a small independent publisher who sent me on courses and looked after me really well. That kind of hand-holding just doesn’t happen in the current climate.”
Johnson believes that there are less books by people of colour for young adults now than when she started her career: “I’ve definitely noticed a decline,” she said. “I look at the major young people’s literary festivals and it’s commonplace to find an all-white line up of writers.”
I did some research into this and discovered that the line-up of 47 events for the Edinburgh Book Festival this year features only one non-white writer, Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman.
Things were more hopeful in the 1990s, which was undoubtedly a time of increased confidence for black British women writers. African-American authors, most notably Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison had been championed by women’s publishing houses like Virago and The Women’s Press and sold books in there millions, but only after mainstream publishers expressed disinterest. Here was tangible proof that black stories could sell.
Meanwhile, novels about the black British experience were published by a grassroots publishing outfit called X-Press, established in 1992. Frustrated by the lack of black British books, X-Press founders Steve Pope and Dotun Adebayo decided to publish stories themselves. Their authors included an impressive number of women, among them Marcia Williams, Karlie Smith, Phyllis Blunt, Naomi Richards, Ijeoma Inyama, and Shed Campbell. The 1990s also saw the popularity, among black British women of a black literature reading events called The Write Thing. Hundreds, and in some cases thousands, would attend events to hear authors read and talk about their work. When African-American author Terri McMillan visited the UK to promote her novel Waiting To Exhale, she was met by an audience of 4,000 at Brixton Academy. So much for the well-worn myth that black people don’t read.
It was in this energetic climate that Sussex-born novelist Oonya Kempadoo first arrived on the literary scene. Kempadoo’s coming-of-age novel Buxton Spice, about a young girl’s sexual awakening in 1970s Guyana was published in 1998, following an auction between major publishing houses. The New York Times described the novel as “Superb and superbly written” and Kempadoo went on to be named as a Great Talent for the Twenty-First Century by the Orange Prize.
“Being reviewed as a woman and ethnic person I found myself exoticised. I didn’t have anything to compare that too, but it was not something that I felt comfortable with,” Kempadoo said.
Her second novel, Tide Running, written in the Caribbean vernacular of Tobago was, she said, more problematic. It was considered by publishers as more of “a black story” with a limited appeal.
“An agent told me that the French market wasn’t interested in a black male Caribbean story. The scale of the market was considered too small,” she said. Kempadoo’s most recent novel All Decent Animals set in Trinidad amid carnival was published last year.
Like Okojie, Kempadoo’s literary agent is Elise Dillsworth. “It’s a different dynamic to when I was agented and published at first. It was a very white male dominated world of business and literary discussion and I found it intimidating, unfair and unattractive.”
The UK publishing industry has since the 1990s launched various initiatives in order to encourage a more ethnically diverse workforce. Yet Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, said the results have been poor: “The industry tried to change but it didn’t have a material effect, certainly not at the middle management and upper management end. It got some people into the trade but you have to train people and promote people. Maybe it’s a long process and maybe the industry expected the spark to inflame,” he said.
But Jones has noticed encouraging signs of change. He cites the example of Random House digital account manager Crystal Mahey-Morgan, a former hip hop and spoken word promoter, who attracts non-traditional audiences to books through smart marketing.
“Digital speaks to a different sort of community. When we hold digital events we find that the audience is far more diverse than the typical publishing crowd. Publishing looks quite middle class white and posh in comparison, but the industry is changing from the ground up.
“If publishers aren’t finding audiences and publishing books which appeal, they are neglecting their responsibilities. The more culturally diverse we become, the more we can profit from a global digital platform.”
In The States African-American writers have invented the term ‘seg-book-gation’ to refer to the US industry practice of marketing books by black writers only to black readers, while similar books by white writers featuring predominantly African-American characters are marketed to a mass readership. I hope the changes Jones talks about will make this practice obsolete internationally.
And whether I really am passé as a black British writer or not, I understand that writers of all hues can feel excluded or pigeon-holed. Perhaps I need to learn from the legacy of women who have pushed forwards with creative projects regardless. I’ve recently become a director and editor at an East-Anglian based publishing house called Gatehouse Press. I’ll make damn sure that the range of writers we support is broad.”
With many thanks to Claire Hynes and Mslexia for permission to publish this article on our blog.