I realised I had grown tired of diversity panels when I found myself sitting on one, in front of a sell-out crowd, listening to the person next to me reel off, for five actual (not perceived, oh I timed it) minutes, the names of every single person of colour their publisher had ever published in its entire illustrious history. We weren’t here to debate the merits and statistics of that publisher’s track record. We were gathered to discuss the very real barriers that writers of colour experience on the road to getting published. Barriers faced by people of colour on the road to having the commissioning power to publish important books by writers of colour, not books that offer a ‘white gaze’ of the ‘ethnic’ experience, but books with nuance, texture, realism and truth. I walked to the train station from that event feeling tired and upset by what I had sat through, because I realised how little we had moved on from the diversity panel I had sat on five years before. Even then it was a tired debate.
You just have to read the Writing The Future report produced by Spread The Word to know how hard people of colour find the world of books. There is statistical data and there is anecdotal data. And yet, often, when presented with clear evidence of marginalised communities not being represented in the world of books, the reaction is usually one of three things:
1) That’s not me. I’m just so very tired of being called racist all the time. I only publish the best books in the world ever. How can I be a racist?
2) I know it’s a problem. I just don’t know what to do about it.
3) I love diversity. It’s a great thing. I would love nothing more than to have the world of books represent the world but a) this is a business, and books by writers of colour tend to not sell and b) in order for diversity to be achieved in a meaningful way, I might have to resign my job and step aside for someone with a different unconscious bias to me, and I just will not do that. I have to make rent.
Here’s my retort to those three things:
1) It’s not about you. No one called YOU racist. They called the system racist. You can either perpetuate it consciously or unconsciously, but we weren’t talking about you, my friend. Please don’t centre yourself. That’s the last thing we need. It’s not helpful for anyone.
2) Okay, I can work with this. The will is there. Let’s do this. Meet me in the corner of the staff canteen. Bring hydration, protein and something to write with and on. We can do this.
3) Okay so a) this is a business, I agree, but if you think books by writers of colour tend not to sell, actually what I’m hearing is, you don’t know how to sell them. To me, this isn’t a case of business, it’s a case of laziness. Maybe find someone who does know how to sell books to those communities. Also, how fucking insulting to be told that my skin colour, my skin colour, is a marketing trend, and not a very lucrative one at that. b) I get you. Rent is important. But the reality is that pushes for diversity often come to a stopping point, and that stopping point tends to be someone with commissioning power. So which is it: step aside or change your ways?
A bunch of things happened after that diversity panel and each of them led to me deciding to approach Unbound in order to produce The Good Immigrant. I’ve spoken about them before. Check the editor’s note of the book when/if you buy it after reading this :insert winking emoji here: and you can read about the Guardian comment that made me realise I wished to no longer justify my place at the table. Or read about the conversation with contributor Musa Okwonga where he reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s quote, ‘if you don’t like someone’s story, write your own’.
I put the book together because I wanted to showcase interesting writers of colour, each one deserving their own exciting book deals to do whatever they wanted. There wasn’t a manifesto and certainly not a post-Brexit narrative that influenced the book: that unfolded neatly and nicely post-result. I remember, twenty minutes after the result of the referendum, having someone threaten to set me on fire and another person demanding I be sent back to ‘brown land’. I thought, okay, the book just attained a level of political legitimacy I hadn’t expected before.
The interesting thing about choosing Unbound was that I got to disprove the myth that books by people of colour don’t sell. Because what better way to do that than to crowdfund for a book where the audience said, before a word of it had even been written, that they needed the book?
We get so many young people coming up to us after shows saying ‘thank you. I feel represented. It feels amazing.’ And I’m reminded of the Zadie Smith quote from White Teeth: ‘There was England, a gigantic mirror. And there was Irie without reflection.’
People of colour in England have often felt like Irie. I’m hoping that, with this book, we can hold up a small yet significant mirror to those people who often feel unrepresented and marginalised. Because this is our country too. And because we all know and believe that books can change lives, celebrate them and give them significance, I’m glad this book exists, and that these writers got the opportunity to hold up a tiny mirror to England.
Without overstating my significance in this (and sorry if I sound big-headed, that’s not the point I’m trying to make but), I did this on my own steam. Thanks to Unbound and all the contributors. But I’m just an unknown writer with a day job in youth work and a young child and his own books to write, and I did this. So imagine what an entire industry could do with all its power if it had the will.
We all want diversity. Let’s make it happen. Actually. Realistically. In a meaningful, significant way.
Because none of us wants to sit on another bloody diversity panel again.
Read about and buy The Good Immigrant on Unbound here.
Seeing in colour: a series of essays written by people of colour working in the publishing industry for the Bookseller.