Bare Lit, one of the first literary festivals to exclusively feature non-white authors in the UK, is fast approaching. As venerated writers from various BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities prepare to share their work with eager listeners, the way in which politics of class, gender and race impact the literary world have once again been brought to our attention.
The general lack of diversity in publishing is something that has gained necessary promulgation from a handful of media outlets and independent bloggers over recent months. The Writing the Future report, commissioned by writer development agency Spread the Word, is one of the first of its kind to quantify the number of BAME authors being published and represented in the UK. Out of the 203 UK-based published novelists polled, 30% came from a BAME background – but only 4% were being invited to read at the country’s major literature festivals. Looking at the industry itself, the report also showed that while 28.8% of the working population of London are Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic only 7.7% of those working in publishing are from a non-white background, with only 4% of editorial staff deriving from a BAME background. 96% of those in executive positions were both white and male while the rest of the industry consisted of roles filled by white women. In poetry an even greater disparity exists, with only 1% of published poets coming from a Black or Asian background.
I have been working as a writer, educator and publisher for the past six years in London. One of the key issues I’ve seen affecting BAME writers, including myself, is that larger publishing houses don’t seem to be interested in representing narratives that don’t reflect the traditional British canon. So much so that any writing which thematically or stylistically attempts to address issues and lived experiences not conventionally seen as ‘literary’ is crudely branded as Alt-Lit, Chick Lit or Urban Lit. When we think of the term ‘alternative literature’, we must ask ourselves: who exactly finds the content alternative? To these authors and a lot of today’s British public, these stories and poems are incredibly real and immediate. Labelling non-white writing as ‘other’ does nothing but fortify the current monoculture dominating the way stories are being told and authorised.
The effects of this are toxic: I ran a workshop in a school in South East London and when we got onto the subject of reading and books one boy at the back muttered, ‘but reading’s for white people’. This happened over three years ago and I still haven’t been able to shift the tragedy from my mind. The idea that one group of privileged people somehow have a monopoly on culture, literature and intelligence is deeply perverse. I once asked a group of sixth formers to describe what intelligence looked like and almost all depicted someone resembling Stephen Fry or David Cameron.
If you go onto YouTube and search for poems to watch you’ll be pleased to see a plethora of BAME writers from across the world speaking, reading and performing their poems on stage, under delicate lighting and in front of a discerning audience. Go over to the British poetry shelf of any bookshop and you’ll find a plethora of predominantly white, male English authors with the exception of Benjamin Zephaniah and possibly Derek Walcott or John Agard depending on the store’s location. If you go to an online bookstore it becomes even harder to find a writer whose work reflects the experiences most familiar to BAME readers. Compared to twenty years ago things have definitely progressed, but we still have a long way to go until we have an industry that is both proportionate and plural.
It’s not that BAME writers aren’t interested in literary careers, it’s that publishing houses aren’t willing to invest in the imaginations and experiences of BAME readers and writers because of systemic racism. All too often, BAME authors can only succeed in getting their stories and poems out there if they compromise the authenticity of their work by making it more stereotypical and unsurprising, or if they are able to make an attempt at self-publishing.
Bare Lit isn’t looking to inspire some kind of power shift, or to exclude white audience members from coming and enjoying the vast range of writing. Ultimately what it boils down to is this: if you’re not offered a seat at the big table then you’re left with no other option but to build your own kitchen. Bare Lit sees writers who have historically been marginalised at or excluded from major literature festivals coming together to create a necessary platform for their work to be seen, heard and celebrated. Writers of colour have long needed a literary festival that places them at the centre of their work – there’s nothing ‘alternative’ about it.