Thursday 27 February 2014

"This is an issue at every level of publishing." The S I Leeds Literary Prize tackles race, sex, diversity and literary fiction.

In April 2011 I was a panellist at a London Book Fair event on racial diversity in publishing, chaired by Shreela Ghosh, the former director of the Free Word Centre and current Director of Arts in South Asia for the British Council. The audience was very international, as befits a major publishing event (though not as major as Frankfurt in October), but 99% white. Still, by their presence in the large hall, they had shown their interest and concern about this issue. The panel was all non-white and made up of literary scouts, journalists, novelists, arts leaders, literary magazine editors and commentators. All of us described that moment when, feeling successful in our individual careers and thinking that things must be taking a turn for the better, we looked around a high profile event we were participating in and realised that we were the only non-white people in the room.

What emerged from the discussion was not a catalogue of outright racist incidents, insults or openly discriminatory and prejudicial events. It was more a question of types and stereotypes, of individual industry success stories like those of the major US publisher Sonny Mehta against a general backdrop of homogeneity in terms of race, class and educational background. At the same time, however, there has been a rise in acclaim for truly global authorial voices from Arundhati Roy to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kerry Young to Chibundu Onuzo, Ruth Ozeki to Xialuo Guo, Nadifa Mohamed to Chika Unigwe, Yiyun Li to NoViolet Bulawayo. The 2013 Man Booker Prize shortlist was hailed for its diversity and variety and said to be the best in the prize’s history. From this year forward, the rules of this defining English-language prize have been widened in order to be as inclusive as possible. I am a trustee of the Booker Prize Foundation and have written in full support of this widening here.

Resistance against this inclusiveness and globalisation has come from some unexpected quarters, and has been amazingly transparent. I was shocked when, after the announcement of the 2013 Man Booker Prize shortlist and the new eligibility guidelines, Philip Hensher wrote a Guardian article isolating the three non-white women on the list, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ruth Ozeki and NoViolet Bulawayo, and systematically, casually and gratuitously trashed them. He later picked another non-white woman, Xialuo Guo, who commented at the Jaipur festival this year that the worshipping of the English language (and, specifically, American literature) should not dominate the world literary scene. Hensher wrote, personally, nastily and incorrectly, “by the conventional standards of the English-language novel, Xiaolu Guo's work in English is poor” and that “it would take some nerve... if she were implying that what is needed is an entire change of critical standards in order to recognise her own work as a masterpiece.” He added, creepily and threateningly, “I saw Guo in the green room, looking jolly pleased with herself.”

At the same time there is a much broader cultural trend happening not only across literature but also theatre, television and film, of non-white talent achieving a certain level of success before colliding with the racial bar, hitting the glass ceiling, sliding off it and leaving the UK to seek opportunities elsewhere, often in America. This has been most obviously apparent if we look at the careers of TV and film performers like Idris Elba, Archie Panjabi, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Yet it’s also happening behind the scenes. The internationally acclaimed film-maker Pratibha Parmar, whose latest work, the documentary Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, has been winning awards at film festivals all over the world, has also relocated to America, where her career has exploded. Several weeks ago the British playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, now the artistic director of Baltimore’s Centre Stage theatre, gave an excellent interview in the Guardian, in which he spelled out the process of steady loss of faith and pointed out how much talent the UK had let go of because of it. I Tweeted him that day, “I too am contemplating leaving the UK permanently. #glassceiling.” I added, “This is not about failing but about flatlining, despite all one’s talent, shrewdness, strength and application.”

I stand by those words and by the article I wrote a few years ago about hitting the glass ceilingI am excellent at my job. Either I am offered a regular post, with a title, with a role, in an institution, with a contract, with a salary, commensurate with my expertise and experience, within the next 18 months, or I am permanently leaving the UK to join any society that is looking forward and outwards, not inwards and backwards.

After 21 years of an enjoyable and diverse freelance career, many small opportunities, a lot of working for free and a lot of running around town being delighted and delightful, there comes a time when you have to sit down, do the maths and do some counting. Who is getting the big jobs, the permanent jobs, and what are they being paid? Am I running as hard as I can, just to stay in the same place? Why am I the only woman/non-white person/both on the panel? Why did Mumsnet ask me so warmly and kindly to join their bloggers network, then produce Blogfest events in 2012 and 2013, each of which featured more than 50 writers, journalists, presenters, commentators, critics, experts and bloggers, of both sexes, which were 100% white both years? Do they think non-white people can’t write, speak or think? Look at the recent lineup - it just beggars belief.

It is easy to enjoy your daily life so much, and be swayed by people being nice to your face, that you lose sight of the reality of who is being given the opportunities, respect, representation, remuneration, payment, platform and permanence, and who is used casually, tokenistically, without tenure, without assurances, paid a token amount, kept at the margins and strung along insincerely without gaining any traction. 

It bothered all of us on the publishing panel that the globalisation among creators and audiences, voices and debates, was not reflected within British publishing itself. We advocated the mainstreaming of real diversity within publishing as an industry, so that the future body of professionals from agents and editors to publishers and PRs would look a lot more varied than the large audience we saw before us and comprise individuals of promise and passion from all backgrounds, not just those who attended elite universities, had the family funds to sustain unpaid internships or the social connections to gain casual appointments to the industry.

When we returned to the question of non-white authors’ narratives, a story emerged of fixed set-ups, stereotypes, expectations and assumptions. We all knew what the cliché narratives were: forbidden love among the lotus blossoms at monsoon time; how I became a terrorist; how I almost became a terrorist but not quite; my arranged marriage wasn’t all that bad; seduced and betrayed in a veil; I’m British and my parents don’t understand me; people of different classes fall in love; I was a geisha/concubine in the Forbidden City/floating world/jade palace and it wasn’t that bad at all; I was a geisha and it was very bad; I want to do this but my parents want me to do that; people of different religions fall in love; British multiculturalism is a tricky thing but still really interesting; look at all the different kinds of people you can get in London; I’m British and I don’t quite feel at home here, there or anywhere; I’m British and I’m really learning to appreciate my parents’ heritage; moving across hemispheres is hard and weird; non-white people take drugs too; brown cities are just as exciting as white cities; I was kidnapped as a child and forced to see a foreign city from the bottom up; foreign food is a metaphor for family, heritage, life, love and everything. 

The panel also discussed the issue of tokenism, of the maintenance of the appearance of diversity by having a stock amount of ‘international’ writers producing established and clichéd narratives for essentially bigoted audiences who wanted their prejudices, ignorance and stereotypes confirmed rather than destroyed. “I was working as a literary scout and I found an amazing novelist who happened to be from Antigua,” said one panellist. “I mentioned them to an editor at a publishing house, who said, ‘Oh, sorry, we already have one of those.'” I remember having brunch in 2011 with a highly impressive, vivacious, cool editor at a major publishing house. We were getting on like a house of fire and suddenly she burst out, “I love you! You tick so many boxes!”

In a must-read article about whether the Western publishing industry is institutionally racist, PP Wong, editor in chief of Banana Writers, describes a South Pacific Asian writer being rejected by a major publishing house despite impressing the editors there, because “the novel does not seem to fit into the genre of our current Asian authors”, as if race is a genre in itself and all writers of that race/genre must obey its racial/generic rules. The gaucheness, stereotyping and casual, unthinking racism of the editor’s comment makes me cringe. PP Wong adds in her report,
According to Creative Skillset ... just 4% of people in the publishing industry in England and Wales are Black/Asian/Minority/Ethnic.
Some commentators are also wary of the triumphalist celebration of British authorial diversity as being insincere, trend led and transient. The Guardian recently featured a nuanced essay by novelist Bernardine Evaristo, one of Britain’s finest and most distinctive voices, whose most recent novel Mr Loverman was one of the strongest fiction publications of 2013. The title of the essay was Why Is It Still Rare To See A Black British Woman With Literary Influence? Evaristo pointed out that while a few years ago there was a strong move towards a celebration of politicised, race-aware work by Zadie Smith, Diane Evans, Andrea Levy, Monica Ali and others, this had now been replaced by “polite acceptance”, despite exceptional and successful women like children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, author of the stunning speculative series Noughts and Crosses. And – as an aside – while every other Young Adult literary hit from The Hunger Games to Twilight to I Am Number Four to The Spiderwick Chronicles to The Dark is Rising to Divergent to Ender's Game to the Inkspell books to Beautiful Creatures to Mortal Instruments to the Bone Season series has been put into development with major film studios, the completely mixed cast of Noughts and Crosses still awaits its screen life. Meanwhile, even a cursory look at the books pages of The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Financial Times and the London Men’s Review of Men’s Books shows that despite one or two respectful mentions, the general demographic of representation is still extremely homogeneous. This is in addition to the extreme misogynistic discrimination perpetrated against women writers by the editors of major books pages, many of whom are themselves women.

I marvel at the countless insults which have been used over the years to justify the trashing, ignoring, undermining, exclusion and marginalisation of our work not only as authors in all genres, disciplines, styles and approaches but also as critics, reviewers and contributors. 

The insults used to justify cultural discrimination against us often contradict each other. We are slandered as shy, unambitious, narrow, nebulous, generic, unoriginal, too mainstream to be exciting or too niche to be broadly interesting. If we excel at romance, it is because we are pathetically limited by masochistic and unoriginal gender cliches. If we excel at history, it is because we are daftly sentimental. If we excel at science, it is only because we are exceptional, unlike the majority of women. If we excel at fiction, it is because fiction is easier to magic up at the kitchen table in our pretty little heads than the hard, confronting truths of non-fiction. If we sell a lot of copies it's because we flog undemanding trash to other women just as stupid as us. If we don't sell much it's because we don't have what it takes. If we excel at non-fiction it is because we lack the imagination, genius and creative spark necessary for fiction.

Obviously that's all bunk. Where women are undermined and excluded, misogyny and man-worshipping are the reasons. All the slanders thrown into women writers' faces are lies propelled by malice.  To ignore us is to ignore half the population, the half that sees beyond surface appearances, experiences the truth and dares to speak it. And it is women writers of colour who are able to cut through, describe and express the intricacies of the world we live in, because we exist at the intersection of the sexism and racism which have (in part) produced the power structures that dominate and destroy that world. We suffer it and are subject to it, even as we observe it. These things are the source both of our pain and our insight.

Despite flashpoints like the 2013 Man Booker shortlist and the trendiness of the multi-culti moment, overall trends still work against us: prospective works will be subject to narrow and stereotyped judgements; the people championing our work within the industry if it does get taken on will be operating in a virtually all-white environment; when it enters the market the Western cultural tendency will be to favour familiar Orientalist, exoticised, sexist narratives about suffering, oppression and dislocation; and as women (let alone women of colour) we have far less chance than male writers of receiving reviews, interviews, coverage or invitations to major book festivals to discuss our work. Although one book of ours might be published, the chance to create a career, build a lifelong body of work which is acknowledged, made part of the canon, taken seriously by the broader culture and incorporated into established literary history is far less than male and white peers.

It is for all these reasons that Bernardine Evaristo and I, along with Bonnie Greer, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and others patronise the S I Leeds Literary Prize for unpublished fiction by black and Asian women writers in the UK.

The prize is awarded every two years. The first award was made in October 2012 to Minoli Salgado for A Little Dust on the Eyes, and presented the Ilkley Literature Festival. Every year, three prize winners receive £2,000, £750 and £250 for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, as well as support through Peepal Tree Press's Inscribe programme for writer development. The first prize entry receives serious consideration for publication by Peepal Tree Press.

I was lucky to be granted an exclusive interview by writer and arts project co-ordinator Irenosen Okojie, the S I Leeds Literary Prize advocate, who told me more.

What inspired the formation of the prize?

There’s a big disparity between what we see reflected on the shelves and the wonderful diverse voices that are out there. The prize aims to address that imbalance somewhat and to provide a platform for marginalized voices that are largely ignored. Walk into your local bookshop and it’s glaring. It’s as if female writers of colour are invisible bar a few exceptions. As for the amount of black and Asian male writers published these days, the situation is even more dire. This is an issue at every level in publishing. There are also very few black and Asian professionals working within the industry which has an impact in terms of who the gatekeepers are. Who gets to decide what voices should be heard and which stories are worth publishing? I know of only two black literary agents, Elise Dillsworth and Susan Yearwood and five independent publishers that publish inclusively; Peepal Tree Press, Valerie Brandes of Jacaranda Books, Bobby Nayyar (Equip and Limehouse), Rosemarie Hudson (HopeRoad Publishing) and Smash & Grab. If we have more diversity within the infrastructure, that might filter through to work that gets commissioned. A national prize like the SI Leeds Literary Prize is about celebrating the voices of black and Asian women.

 Do you feel the current publishing scene lags behind what is really happening in terms of what writers are doing?

Yes I do. Publishing is often slow to change. I remember when the digital explosion first happened. Publishers seemed sceptical at first but slowly came round, now you have a few of the bigger houses with digital imprints such as Bloomsbury’s global digital imprint Spark and Little Brown’s digital imprint Blackfriars. Also, self publishing no longer has the stigma it once did; many writers are finding ways to get their voices out there with several being picked up after finding self publishing success. There are more independent publishing houses cropping up, taking risks mainstream houses won’t and publishing daring, innovative writing like the brilliant And Other Stories and Galley Beggar Press. Many writers are taking ownership of their careers and not just leaving everything to the publishing houses. They’re on twitter, facebook, making book trailers and maximising digital opportunities. They’re connecting with other writers internationally and tapping into opportunities. Equally, publishers could create more accessible pathways for aspiring authors. The industry seems to mostly care about authors who are brands. They’re used to doing things in a traditional way. Nobody’s saying they should get rid of traditional methods entirely but why not explore other ways of sourcing new writing? Like partnering with any of the writing development agencies and running a programme or Editors getting out to literary nights such as the Brixton BookJam which does a great job showcasing a wealth of talent. Writers are getting out there; they’re at festivals, spoken word nights, setting up online hubs, finding creative ways of reaching audiences.

Why are prizes important? Aren’t there too many prizes?

Prizes are important because they profile books that may otherwise struggle to reach a bigger audience. For example, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize highlights some of the brilliant translated works of fiction many book lovers may be unaware of, unless you’re somebody who actively seeks translated foreign works. There are several prizes but I don’t think there are too many and there certainly isn’t one like the SI Leeds Literary Prize. It’s uniquely positioned and the only one of it’s kind. I’m sure there’ll be some grumblings that it’s a prize which favours writers of colour. The reality is, it’s absolutely necessary. If publishing were a level playing field, there wouldn’t be a need for it. We’re thrilled to be able create opportunities for writers we engage with through the prize. It’s not just about giving cash awards but the developmental support they receive.  

What are the barriers to women of black and Asian origin in beginning and maintaining their writing careers?

It’s a complex issue on several levels. Some editors will say they don’t receive many submissions from black and Asian women which may or may not be true. From a writer’s perspective, not only is publishing very difficult to break into but throw in race and it feels like an even steeper climb. It doesn’t seem like the industry is very receptive bar some exceptions. Also, there is the risk factor. Certain editors may not necessarily think about commissioning diversely, they just commission writing to their taste. Others might do, but they limit the amount of black and Asian writers because they may see it as a risk. We’re all human beings and good stories transcend so I think there needs to be some myth busting done at both ends of the spectrum. There are editors who have commissioned black and Asian female writers in the past and now. The issue is that it doesn’t happen often enough and there are authors of colour whose books have sold very well. There’s also an element of things aligning at the right time; getting the right agent, the right editor and a publishing house invested in the career of the writer.

 How many years has the prize been going and who were the women winners?

It’s a biannual prize which has been running since 2012. The first winner was Minoli Salgado for her novel A Little Dust on the Eyes. It’s due out later this year so people should keep an eye out for it. The prize has stayed connected to previous short listed writers and is passionate about creating opportunities for them. We’re also open for submissions for this year’s prize so I’d really encourage people to submit!

 What does the prize aim to achieve for individual writers?

To build their confidence, to let them know there’s a space out there for their work, encourage them to keep working on their craft, to produce opportunities connecting them with audiences, to create pathways and support networks that take them through the tricky transitions of realising their publishing dream.

Finally, how would you like the prize to develop?

I’d like it to continue to grow in terms of profile and what it does for writers. Maybe have a short story prize as well and to keep forming strong, strategic partnerships with organizations and sponsors who are on the same page and keen to see more diversity in publishing.