How are we today? Thank you for checking in on my blog – always appreciate your company and comments!
Today’s thought was inspired by an excellent article written by Nicole Chung (@nicolesjchung), author of the memoir ‘All You Can Ever Know’, in which she describes the burden - as an Asian writer - of the expectation that her writing should ‘educate’, as opposed to her white peers, whose books are allowed to merely entertain. (https://newsletters.theatlantic.com/i-have-notes/6272f75999d36800215ff453/asian-american-author-tokenization)
She writes; “I feel that the conscious or subconscious assumption that the Asian writers and other writers of color exist and work in order to translate or humanize our communities, dispel ignorance, provide education or promote empathy – implying that this is why our work should be read and discussed, particularly in a certain month or after tragedy occurs – does us and our readers a disservice.”
As I read this, I reflected on my experiences as a person of dual heritage, (my mother is white English/Irish heritage and my father Guyanese/Indian) lurking on the outside of the publishing world shop window, peering in and stuffing illustration postcards and writing samples through their already overflowing letterboxes! The world inside the shop looks very white, but I take heart that a ‘BAME’ corner does exist – In some shops it’s bigger and, in others, smaller, but it’s still there.
I remember receiving a text from one of my siblings in March of 2021 informing me with an eye rolling emoji; “We can’t use BAME anymore, or ‘half-caste’ I’m sticking with ‘Of the Asian Persuasion’ (laughing emoji!) “. I joked back that I wanted to be left alone and was a happy half-caste. We refer mockingly to ourselves as such as because that’s how we were identified in our school years on official forms and we still reel today that people back then thought that such a term was OK.
As a kid, I never saw colour, my mother was white and my father brown and we were sort of ‘medium-strong, milky tea-coloured’. We were exposed to all of our heritages, listening to Indian, English (lots of folk!) and Irish music, eating curry and naan with our fingers and fish and chips with a knife and fork. It was at school where our differences were pointed out and my questions about my own identity raised.
Back when BAME was a thing, I remember feeling OK with it – at least I had a category, albeit a rather vague one, and was mildly irritated when I was no longer allowed to identify as BAME , mainly because no one asked for my opinion, and not because I cared so much for the term. I’d only just figured out how to pronounce the acronym (I had to ask a white person as I’d heard at least three different pronunciations on the radio and was nervous of sounding ignorant!)
I am aware of the efforts and outreach to marginalised and ethnic communities by the publishing industries and am hopeful that these will slowly bear fruit and that changes will one day be truly significant. As a writer and an illustrator, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to submit my creative output in the hope that I will sooner, rather than later, be offered work. I’m excited to see many agents and publishers creating these opportunities, however, being totally honest, my initial excitement dwindles and my hope dies a little (sometimes a lot!) when I see that the judging panels are made up exclusively of white people.
Not because they are white, not because they lack our life experience; they are, generally, hugely experienced in their fields, and their openness as people to marginalised creatives is genuine and admirable. But, simply because, no matter how knowledgeable they are with regard to what is current, what looks good, what is funny, what will sell, their view will always, and naturally, be through their white experience and outlook. Meaning that they are less likely to favour or see potential in what someone from an ethnic minority with a different outlook might perceive as current, good, funny or sellable.
The people deciding what should and should not be published, and what will and will not sell are the people who are setting the literary and pictorial ‘menu’ for the public. Naturally, if those people aren’t made up of a diverse community, reflective of today’s multicultural society, the menu will always be safe and bland with the occasional nod to ethnic and marginalised communities. I recently attended a webinar for one very well-meaning opportunity for ethnic and minority communities within the education market, and the host acknowledged, somewhat apologetically, that the panel was exclusively white.
As an aside, when entering said opportunities, I don’t want to have the subtle pressure of having to consider how many times I’ve mentioned an ethnic food or the black to white character ratio of my illustrations!
It’s not all bad, though – the industry, as far as I can see, whilst still having far to go are, by and large, keen to change, and the people with that openness and attitude are the ones that will bring about true diversity.
I’m sure there are many others, but I want to give a huge shout out to Faber and Faber publishers and the Andlyn Literary agency for their support to whatever the BAME community is now called with their annual FAB prize (https://www.fabprize.org) for both agented and not yet agented children’s writers and illustrators. Their panel is made up of knowledgeably people from within the industries with diverse backgrounds, ensuring that different tastes and styles are catered for. They continue to offer support for all alumni and regularly touch base, headed up by Leah Thaxton (@leahthaxton) and Davinia Andrew-Lynch (@nocturnalreader) - two of those people actively bringing about that change.
David Higham Associates in conjunction with Orion Books are currently running ‘The Space To Write Project’ for adult fiction writers from ethnic and marginalised communities, headed up by Lizzy Kremer (@lizzykremer) with supportive webinars, demystifying the publishing industry, made up of diverse professionals and likewise, their judging panel . I’m also grateful to them for running these webinars on weeknights, making them more accessible to Muslims and Jews for whom events held on Friday nights through Saturday can be hard or impossible to attend. (https://www.thefuturebookshelf.co.uk/landing-page/the-space-to-write-project)
The wonderful charity, The Book Trust noted in 2019 that; “Over the past 11 years, fewer than 2% of all authors and/or illustrators of children’s books published in the UK were British people of colour.” They responded to this fact by setting up Book Trust Represents, offering advice and support to authors and illustrators and promoting diverse books in schools. (https://www.booktrust.org.uk/what-we-do/programmes-and-campaigns/booktrust-represents/#!?q=&sortOption=MostRecent&pageNo=1)
Planksters, this is a longer blog post and maybe slightly ‘heavier’ in nature than my usual, but I’m giving myself permission to allow my BAME-ish voice to be heard, so whilst I won’t apologise for it, I will be back next week with something lighter and more palatable – in the meantime, I’m off to scour the horizons of social media to find that next opportunity for [insert your preferred word for BAME] writers/illustrators to move inside the publishing shop and have a chance to get our books in the window!
With a glint of hope reflected in the corner of an otherwise lifeless dull brown eye,