Afshan Lodhi: To be black, or to be published. That is the Question
Quaint. A word that would usually put me off a bookshop, but I had some time to spare while waiting for a friend and decided to venture in. I’ve become one of those people who buys most of her books online – the majority from Amazon: I know, but I’m young and skint. The first thing that struck me was the complete lack of books with anyone who wasn’t white on the cover. That might not have been unexpected in the middle of the Lake District, for example, but this shop was in the middle of London, a city with an ethnic minority population of over 55%. Big publishers based here only have to walk out of their front door to see the multi-culturalism that is London – What’s their excuse?
I made a decision about a year ago to only buy books by black authors or by underappreciated women (except for reference books – which white men seem to have a monopoly over. Maybe being white gives you an automatic qualification to make whatever you say true.) The lack of books by black people upset me. The three books I saw which were by black authors, were Malorie Blackman, Bali Rai and Zadie Smith – 3 very popular names. The names surrounding them were names I had never heard of before. I had to do a quick Wiki search for some of them and came to the conclusion that they were white. It occurred to me that these small book shops didn’t have a motive to show books by ‘unpopular’ black writers, or books with black protagonists. I did some research and found that bigger bookstores did a Black History Month showcase) but apart from that had a ‘World Books’ section which consisted mainly of Danish crime novels.
Is this the future of books by black writers? To be pigeon-holed into a corner no-one goes into? Clearly black people read books too, is it too much to ask to see books by black people for black people?
I’ve worked in publishing for the past 3 years and have fortunately worked with people in the industry who strive to publish more women and black writers. Yet the state of the publishing world still surprises. Most publishing organisations are white led, they have no reason to have more than ‘one black author on their books’ (This was said to a friend of mine by a fairly big publisher). The blatant racism that is conveyed through which books are published is alarming. You only have to look at the way Muslim women are portrayed in book covers – veiled and over looking water – to know that this ‘saving the Muslim women’ trope doesn’t really help. There exist, publishers that run solely for the purpose of publishing work by black writers and do them justice. Peepal tree press is one of them, but their presence in their mainstream market is lacking.
The state of the book industry is almost worse when it comes to children’s fiction. I remember being in the school library (a fairly big library in a private school and looking for books that mentioned or discussed race. I picked up Darren Shan to start with, thinking it said Darren Shah. Upon realising that it wasn’t a book by a black writer who would possibly mentioned things I could relate to, I put it back down and finally found Malorie Blackman. Being starved of books from black writers I read the Noughts and Crosses Trilogy cover to cover (unfortunately due to the library not having enough copies, I read them backwards!) I found Bali Rai, and finally I found a book that talked about issues I knew. I didn’t have to read through books and books where the protagonists would have boyfriend problems. Their first day of school didn’t mean they encountered weird looks and racist remarks about headscarves.
It made sense when I was a kid. Why would white people want to read about brown kids??! What I didn’t think about at that age, was that I was being forced to read about things I had no idea about or even interest in. I was being forced to relate to the experience of my white classmates who I had little in common with. This world where the characters were never racially abused or attacked, where they didn’t have to constantly defend or explain their religion was something I began to idealise. I began wishing I was white. Just so I could fit in. Maybe if I’d had more books that related to me I wouldn’t have been a child that had a difficult relationship with her skin.
I almost gave up when I watched the Harry Potter series (I read the books first of course) and found that Sirius black wasn’t dark skinned. My favourite characters were the Patel twins, who for some reason featured more in the books than the films. Both the Patel girls functioned as a reminder that brown girls could feature in mainstream stories. I didn’t even care back then that they were minor characters.
As an adult the problem continues, but as children there is nothing to keep them reading, if they can’t find themselves reflected in any book.
In a time where black authors are told by big reputable publishing companies that their story of migration from the African continent to the UK has already been done and that they ‘have already filled their quota’ what can we do to increase diversity in books?
There are organisations out there that are trying to rectify this uneven representation of diverse characters in children’s fiction. At the moment there is only one organisation in the UK that is dedicated to finding and publishing diverse children’s fictions, Commonword. Through their Diversity Writing for Children Prize which is in its 3rd year, they support diverse writers and diverse children fiction. Deadline for submissions is the 1st of September. More details can be found here: www.ihaveadream.org.uk
Afshan Lodhi is of Indian/Pakistani descent. Though she has spent the majority of her life in Manchester and only 4 years in London, she calls herself a Southerner. She is a freelancer which means she has many different titles and none at the same time. She writes plays, prose, performance pieces and occasionally passive aggressive Tumblr posts. She has worked with Z-Arts, Manchester Lit Festival, Commonword & Cultureword,The Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, Dog Horn Publishing, Young Enigma, Edinburgh Free Fringe Festival, Polari and one day hopes to take over the world.
Follow her on Twitter @ashlodhi or visit her website, one she never updates at www.afshanlodhi.com