Coloring in the Lines: Diversity in Publishing and Mainstream Literature

manjit-thapp

We occupy an incredibly tumultuous global moment. Politics permeates everyday action and bleeds through everyday inaction. Pressing questions of identity, race, culture, tolerance, freedom and representation fuse together to cause mass confusion, trauma and pain, felt and experienced most sharply by those who are marginalized. For many people, and what should be for more, literature can serve as a vehicle to deeply explore, illuminate, excavate, process and nurture crucial issues surrounding our current socio-political climate. Literature lends complexity and nuance to a myriad of issues, for instance police brutality, model minorities, harsh beauty standards, queer discrimination etc., within the open and accepting space of a narrative. It leads to greater empathy and understanding of these issues that can ultimately provide the educated impetus to appropriately combat them in more tangible forms. Langston Hughes’ poetry from the Harlem Renaissance contributed to a movement for black pride and power in a racially segregated America. Jose Rizal’s novel Noli me Tangere indirectly influenced the Philippine revolution against Spanish colonial power. There is no doubt that what we read shapes our images and beliefs of society and how it is, and could be, constructed. In short, literature is political and books have power.

Even living in Botswana, a majority black country in southern Africa, my friends and I grew up reading stories about people with pale complexions. People who lived in places with sunny, comfortable names like Fairfield, and were called Hannah and Elizabeth, names that spill smoothly off the tongue – names completely unlike our jagged ones. Many of these stories were riveting and well-written; they are undoubtedly good literature. But they are not ‘our’ stories.

This is why it became so important for me to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Junot Diaz and Maya Angelou, Haruki Murakami and Khaled Hosseini. Literature, after all, should be more than one colour. In my reading, I realized how much I had in common with a teenage girl from Nigeria while simultaneously learning about British colonial influence, tribal tensions and pogroms that had taken place in that region. I was both comforted and discomforted, by the knowledge I was absorbing. I learnt about magical realism and dreams as a way of navigating quotidian life, while picking up names of Japanese prefectures and political uprisings occurring there in the sixties. I identified with the loneliness of a middle-aged man from the Kansai region. I cried over an Afghani woman’s death as if she was my relative; she did not exist physically but I came to know her and love her as though she did.

It is quite clear how much power literature wields when it comes to provoking empathy for people who are completely foreign to us, or the “other” we may say, people from seemingly unimaginable places who we would not be able to even try to understand if not for our meeting within the pages of a book. And it is important that this meeting is long and extended, delved into deep and stretched out with conflict, tension and most importantly, complexity. Because that is the nature of human interaction – gorier and messier than a tweet or caption, which has arguably become the more accessible and toxically popular method of global communication and personal expression. The limitations of flash-communication like that is that it narrows down and shrinks the space created for nurturing true understanding and empathy. Whereas with a book, the flat blocks of blossoming text push the margins outwards with their words, emptying them into the centre, bringing fringe stories to the fore. That mirrors reality, where diverse literature is capable of highlighting marginalized voices, bringing their narratives to the forefront of social consciousness.

The onus then lies heavily on writers, publishers and educators, those who are in control of the production and circulation of literature, to make sure these books are brought into the market. But the more I read about and experience the world of literary production, the more this responsibility seems to have remained unfulfilled. The question becomes: what can the agents of literary production, particularly publishers, do to increase representation and diversity in mainstream literature? To start with, increase representation in all aspects of literary production, starting from the actual writing itself.

The literary industry needs to take an honest look at who holds the power over who gets published. Because as things stand now, writers of color often find themselves navigating a world that makes them feel unwelcome. This was an issue I experienced first-hand while interning at a small press in one of the most diverse cities in the world. This organisation prides itself on publishing books that illuminate various cultural encounters and give a voice to marginalized writers; as such, a lot of its books are translations. It’s a very noble mission and I would argue that it does contribute to it quite well. However, I also noticed some problematic aspects, which apparently, have been noted in the publishing industry as a whole.

Though a few writers of color seem to be getting more shine, the demographics of those working behind the scenes in publishing remain almost entirely white. An article on NPR cites a survey, in which over 40 publishers and review journals participated, which reported that across the board, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed who worked in publishing self-identified as white. Within Marketing and Publicity in the publishing industry, 77 percent of employees are white. These are people who make decisions on how to position books to the press and to consumers, and if and where to send authors on tour — critical considerations in the successful launching of any publication. For writers of color, the lack of diversity in book publicity departments can feel like a “death knell”. Within my own, albeit tiny, workplace, I noticed that all my bosses were white. Those in the highest positions were male. However, giving credit where it’s due, the company actively recruits women of color for internships. Out of seven interns, five of us laudably filled this criteria.

Nevertheless, maintaining high posts in publishing as seemingly exclusively white spaces inhibits the kind of progress that may take place by hiring lower employees of color. I will use my own experience as an example. During an editorial meeting, I had to propose two manuscripts as potential publications. The first was a docu-memoir of sorts, written by a veteran war journalist who had briefly been captured in Syria. I thought the manuscript was exceptional and provided appropriate evidence to back up my pitching points. One of my bosses launched a barrage of questions my way, casting doubt on whether the book would sell well, if it had poorly performing comparative titles, and how much money it would bring in. Although I felt a bit startled, I took the questions in stride and put it down as a normal workplace incident.

The second manuscript I was proposing was a novel about a group of young Muslim boys who exist on the fringes of their society in Belgium; the title they use for themselves sounds foreign and is in another language. I pitched this book as working well in conversation with and illuminating important issues about perceptions of Muslim image in the West, and interestingly in a smaller European country not always at the forefront of the media. The writing was insightful and unique, reminiscent of Albert Camus’ The Outsider. I was met with a similar barrage of demands, except the questions began to feel frustrating and incredibly hurtful. Is this book relevant? Is this story relevant? The title [which is the name of the boys’ group] sounds too foreign. Wouldn’t it be too niche? Do you think it would sell? Do you think people would care? What would make them pick it up today? Would this still be relevant in five years? Is it universal enough?

I was stunned. Not a single one of the other manuscripts had been questioned this way. There were other arguably ‘niche’ stories too, concerning marginalized groups and similar narratives, and they had not been attacked. I was hurt and disappointed. I had come to work at this particular company to escape and specifically combat this kind of rhetoric in publishing and yet here I was, being met with it again. A marginalized voice being questioned, again. Too much, too different, again. Who would it not be universal enough for? The Hannahs and Elizabeths of the world, that I had to grow accustomed to at age eight, never reading books with people like myself? What was not universal enough about the emotions that united us as a species, regardless of our labels? Hadn’t every single human on this earth once felt isolated or like an outsider at some point? Hadn’t every human experienced the pain of feeling misunderstood whilst growing up? Who was this audience the work was deemed too niche for? The only conclusion I can come to is an audience that has not experienced widespread dismissal, marginalization and oppression of their skin color/culture/religion/ethnicity/nationality. For this, people of color can never make the cut.

What further baffled me was that there were similar manuscripts pitched by other interns of color and they did not experience anything like I had. Later on, the other interns commented on what had happened, condemned it and consoled me. I went home asking myself, why? Was it because I was brown? The question itched at me but honestly, I do not know if that’s true and it would not make sense. But I should not have to be asking myself this question in the first place. This kind of incident should not be occurring, especially at an organisation that seeks to diversify mainstream literature and highlight marginalised narratives. These values should not have to be sacrificed for capitalistic purposes, because that is already the unfortunate norm in so many other systems.

Too often, publishing companies say they would publish more diverse books, but the market just isn’t there for them. But many, myself firmly included, don’t buy it. “Your ability to imagine that there is a market has to do with your ability to imagine that those people exist….And if [you] can’t imagine that people of color actually exist and can buy books, then you can’t imagine selling books to them. That’s not just about a company corporate diversity policy; it’s about actually knowing what’s going on in communities of color.” And naturally, this could be tackled through hiring a diverse set of people in all ranks of publishing and literary production. This proposed diversity does not just entail fulfilling a people of color quota, as that just maintains the white dominance and hierarchy, but emphasizes various cultures/colors/nationalities/languages occupying both high and low positions, providing more nuanced perspectives to each discussion happening within the workplace. This prevents any person of color acting as a defined spokesperson for their culture or for people of color in general, at the workplace. A person of color, or from any one marginalized culture, is not a monolith.

The novelist Angela Flournoy has said, “I think it’s an undue burden for the writer of color that’s just trying to get people to care about their book as much as other people’s books, to then also be the one to have the answers.” And she’s right. If we strive for a more accepting and egalitarian literary and publishing landscape, all writers, regardless of color, should have equal opportunity when it comes to pitching their works. Relevance and universality should not have to be extra burdens to consider for writers of color; the only concern should be to write well. When a big publishing house does take a chance on a writer of colour, that writer faces pressure to be commercially successful in a way their white counterparts do not:
“There’s this trial effort. ‘We will put you out there, we will give you this spot, and if you don’t make it, that’s your fault.’” Thus, too many writers of color today, myself included, face pressure to write explicitly about identity politics or milk their experience in order to be deemed as “hot property” for publishers. There has been a common perception that white writers are experts at writing and diverse authors are experts on diversity. Diaspora writing, with writers such as Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rupi Kaur, has become a trend, proving to sell well due to the controversial and candid subject matters it often discusses. But the nature of this problem is deeply worrying: we have a predominantly white publishing mainstream being exploitative of marginalized narratives to profit from them. The act is almost a kind of appropriation, where those that have historically enabled people of color to be marginalized, use the very, often painful, reality of that marginalization to make money and reap profits that largely go to them.

The concept of multicultural literature is also related to the concept of multicultural education, which shapes beliefs and sows the seeds of tolerance and empathy in young children. A diverse literary syllabus’ desired effect [is] to…ultimately fulfil the promise of a truly democratic egalitarian society by making possible full meaningful participation of all its citizens, without regard to race…all of whom [feel] victimised, oppressed, or discriminated against in some way by the dominant majority. For instance, it is important that a British-Nigerian child learns British history but then also learn a minimally biased narrative of the British interference in Nigeria as well. Every child needs to know of the complexity of narrative, whether that is to do with a World War, a playground fight or their own identity. As humans, we inhabit several damaging power structures in society at once and if a child is not taught so, and taught to recognize these structures as spawning complex narratives with no clear winners and losers, they can end up indulging in harmful thought patterns both about themselves and others. The right books taught at school can raise helpful questions: What function do stereotypes serve? For whom? Is an author trying through a book to persuade readers to adopt a particular attitude? To what end? Whose voices are being heard in the literature in the classroom? Which voices are missing? Why might that be so? These questions also help us realize what should be the norm but remains as a goal, that all students of all backgrounds, languages, and experiences need to be acknowledged, valued, and used as important sources of their education.

With this reflection, I continue my literary career more determined than ever to continually highlight this issue, so that one day my own child reads about, sure, some Hannahs and Elizabeths, but also Chiamaka, Suraj, Gabriela, Zaheer, Bame, Xinyi and many, many beautiful, jagged others.

 

 

 

Bibliography
Bascaramurty, Dakshana. “Reflected on the page”. Globe and Mail, 28 July 2017. Web.
Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Perspectives 6 (1990). Print.
Ho, Jean. “Diversity In Book Publishing Isn’t Just About Writers — Marketing Matters, Too”. Code Switch, 9 August 2016. Web.
Neary, Lynn. “To Achieve Diversity In Publishing, A Difficult Dialogue Beats Silence”. Code Switch, 20 August 2014. Web.
Nieto, Sonia. Affirming Diversity (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1996).
[1] Neary, Lynn. “To Achieve Diversity In Publishing, A Difficult Dialogue Beats Silence”. Code Switch, 20 August 2014. Web.[2] Ho, Jean. “Diversity In Book Publishing Isn’t Just About Writers — Marketing Matters, Too”. Code Switch, 9 August 2016. Web.
[3] Neary, Lynn. “To Achieve Diversity In Publishing, A Difficult Dialogue Beats Silence”. Code Switch, 20 August 2014. Web.
[4] Bascaramurty, Dakshana. “Reflected on the page”. Globe and Mail, 28 July 2017. Web.
[5] Bascaramurty, Dakshana. “Reflected on the page”. Globe and Mail, 28 July 2017. Web.
[6] Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Perspectives 6 (1990). Print.
[7] Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Perspectives 6 (1990). Print.
[8] Sonia Nieto, Affirming Diversity (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1996).

 

Artwork by Manjit Thapp

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