Diverse December – Why Do It?

The simple answer is that BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers are largely ignored. Underrepresented on agents’ books, publishers’ lists, review pages, prizes lists and recommended reads.

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The catalyst for this particular initiative was the revealing of the UK’s World Book Night list last week. In case you’re not aware of WBN, the idea is that members of the public sign up to be a giver. They choose a book from the list they’d like to distribute to non-readers and, if their application’s successful, are sent 20 copies of their chosen book. It’s a great initiative and I’ve been a giver myself. However, this year there isn’t a single book by a BAME writer on the list.

Responding to this, writer Nikesh Shukla wrote a piece for the Bookseller titled ‘Where Are World Book Night 2016’s BAME Writers?’ In it, he says:

…having BAME writers will encourage more BAME readers to become givers or to take a book, but also it’ll show that, on lists, we belong just as much as everyone else. Because we certainly belong in the prizes – look at this year’s incredibly diverse Man Booker shortlist. It was so inspiring.

Unfortunately, some people didn’t feel the same way, going as far as to suggest that including BAME writers on the list would be ‘tokenism’. Using that word in this context provokes some very grim connotations.

Let’s think about that in terms of statistics for a moment. 16% of the world’s population is white, which means 84% is not. 84% of people in the world are black, Asian or minority ethnic. In the UK, the 2011 census showed that 14% of the population identify as black, Asian or minority ethnic. In the USA, the 2014 census puts the equivalent BAME population at 22%. In both countries the white population is declining. While white people only make up 16% of the world’s population they still dominate it politically, socially and culturally, meanwhile the 14% of BAME people who live in the UK are barely visible and if we include them on a list of books it’s ‘tokenism’.

In yesterday’s Guardian, Shukla commented further on the issue with regards to the publishing industry in the UK:

“When you criticise prizes and review coverage and lists for not being diverse enough, you’re told it’s because of what publishers are submitting, that it just reflects what publishers are putting out. So you say OK, publishers, and they say what they publish reflects what they’re sent by agents, so you say to agents, ‘where are the brown people?’ and they say they don’t discriminate, they just aren’t getting submissions through.”

“So you say it’s the writers’ fault. So you speak to writers, and they say they look at the prizes, the lists, the reviews, the bookshops, and they don’t see themselves reflected. So whose responsibility is it?”

Shukla says he’s taken on the responsibility of shouting about it. So who’s listening?

Yesterday, Galley Beggar Press, the small independent press who published Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, tweeted that they estimate 85% of their submissions to be from men and suspect that 80% are white men. They’ve applied for funding to appoint a ‘Diversity Editor’, a role which will include making contact with writers and writing groups around the country, actively seeking work from people who might not otherwise submit their stories. Clearly they’re listening.

My friend Dan is listening. When I returned to Twitter following the negative comments about Shukla’s Bookseller comments, Dan had begun a hashtag #diversedecember and suggested that people read and recommend books by writers of colour for the whole of the month of December. He’s written about his reasons for doing so on his blog.

I’ve joined him because I think this is important too. I wrote back in January that I was aiming to read and review more books by women of colour because my unconscious bias meant I was almost entirely focused on white women. When I was asked to be Guest Editor for Fiction Uncovered in May, I wrote about being an outsider in literature and what it means not to be represented in the stories you read. I also suggested that it was time for readers to let the publishing industry know that we want a wider range of stories by a wider range of writers.

Next time you’re choosing a book, whether it’s physical or virtual, from your own shelves, a bookshop or a library, consider the writer for a moment. Are you choosing a book by a white man or woman over a book by a person of colour? What’s the reason for your choice? Is it the time to try a book you might not otherwise have picked up and see whether it’s for you?

I’m aware that possible answers to these questions are ‘I don’t see colour’ or ‘How would I know the skin colour of the writer?’ The latter’s easily answered by looking at the author’s photograph on the inside of the book jacket or with a quick internet search of their name. The idea that someone doesn’t see colour is a more complicated one, however. In a society dominated by white narratives, if we don’t see colour we don’t see black and Asian narratives. That makes us complicit in the maintenance of a dominant white narrative. It’s not a statement of equality, it’s a statement of ignorance and it’s a dangerous one.

If you really don’t believe you have an unconscious bias, have a go at Harvard University’s Implicit Association test. I did it yesterday and came out as having a strong automatic preference for light skin. Did that result make me feel uncomfortable? Yes it did. Did that result contradict everything I think I believe about how I conduct myself as a member of society? As someone who supports student teachers? As a stepparent? Yes it did. But now I’m aware of it, I can move to correct it.

The Harvard University tests don’t just cover skin colour, they also test for gender bias, sexuality bias, able body bias and more. Which leads me nicely to noting that I’m aware that diversity is about more than skin colour and if a person’s identity intersects with a number of non-mainstream categories or communities the less visible they become. Try and list books by brown-skinned members of the LGBT communities for starters…then move on to those differently abled. What about BAME writers, differently abled and identifying with LGBT communities? How many did you come up with? How many of those were women? Working class?

It seems pertinent here to mention positive discrimination. Someone (white, usually male) always says that surely most people would want to be recognised on merit rather than being given ‘a helping hand’. Well, yes, of course, but, as I’ve already mentioned, there’s an unconscious bias towards white people that’s allowed them to be positively discriminated towards for centuries. They’re less likely to live in poverty and so more likely to have access to the structures that allow them thrive. One of the outcomes of this has been some very high-profile appointments of people who proved to be mediocre at best.

On a personal, anecdotal note, in 2014 10% of the books I read were by writers of colour. Those books made up 12.5% of my books of the year list. So far this year, 30% of the books I’ve read have been by writers of colour and in the draft list of my books of the year I created a couple of weeks ago, books by writers of colour make up 40%. It might be a crude measurement but it seems clear that there’s a basic correlation.

If all that has convinced you to join us in shouting about books by BAME writers, it’s really easy. Use the hashtag #diversedecember and tweet about the books you’re reading. You can also use the hashtag and the Twitter account – @DiverseDecember – to find suggestions from other readers.

If you want a few ideas to get started, I highly recommend the following:

Citizen by Claudia Rankine – a blend of flash fiction, poetry and essay looking at what it’s like to be black in America in the 21st Century

Passing by Nella Larsen – a novella in which childhood friends Irene and Clare rekindle their friendship in 1920s Harlem. But Clare’s been passing as white and her racist husband doesn’t know.

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik – Sofia’s split up with her boyfriend who wants them to live in adjoining houses with his whole family; her mother thinks she shouldn’t wear a hijab, and her publishing house boss wants her to write a Muslim dating book. Sweary, funny romantic fiction.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay – an essay collection on feminism, popular culture and Scrabble.

Springfield Road by Salena Godden – a memoir about Godden’s childhood and her largely absent father.

There are more suggestions on my ‘Women of Colour’ tab at the top of the page; the Guardian Reading Group are selecting a book from the Caribbean for this month, so you might want to read along with them, and below are a selection of great bloggers of colour who have plenty of reviews to choose from:

Folklore & Literacy

Les Reveries de Rowena

The Poco Book Reader

Brown Girl Reading

Kinna Reads

Looking forward to seeing everyone’s choices and selections throughout the month on #diversedecember.

41 thoughts on “Diverse December – Why Do It?

  1. No issue with positive discrimination – until everyone can be raised (thank you Mindy Kaling) with the entitlement and opportunities of a tall white blond man it seems like the only way to level the field.

    • Quite. I think people who are critical are scared that they’ll miss out in some way. Like people of colour and women and those in LGBTQIA communities and the differently abled have been for years. Yesterday when I was searching for articles on it every negative piece I found was by a white man [insert shocked face].

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  3. Excellent piece on why it’s important to support #diversedecember…

    Outwith books I’ve committed to, to read for review purposes, I’ll definitely be supporting this initiative… and applaud you, Dan & Nikesh for driving it☺

  4. To me, this is in part an issue created by a society where some have many opportunities and others have few, or even none at all. It’s probably true that most writers of enormous talent will eventually make it (though not always). However, it is all too easy for some to publish good, mediocre, or even poor novels, while for other groups in society publishing is a distant dream – one they might not even consider. Positive discrimination is the only answer to such inequality because nothing else works.

  5. Excellent blogpost! I’m definitely participating in #diveredecember! Here are some books by BAME authors that I’d recommend: The Wishmaker by Ali Sethi, The Crow Eaters by Bapsi Sidhwa, The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed, Kartography by Kamila Shamsie, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Muhammad Hanif, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto, Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, and and Open City by Teju Cole. These are some extremely well-written books that everyone should read

    • Brilliant. I love the Teju Cole but some of these I’ve never heard of. I’m going to look them up and tomorrow I’ll tweet them from the Diverse December account. Thank you so much.

  6. This is so great Naomi, thanks to you and Dan. I’m already 100 pages in to Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi and hope to manage another two before the end of the month. I’m trying to spread the word as well and hopefully make it a great month!

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  9. Hi Naomi – this is an excellent post: thought provoking from many angles and as usual you’ve given us statistics as well as links to books, authors, articles, and the Harvard U Implicit Association test. I’m going to check it out and see if it reveals my hidden biases. Before December ends I’ll post about it. And thank you for including my blog in your line-up of “great bloggers of color” —I aspire! Hugs!

    • Thank you, Leslie. I’d be really interested to see if you have any hidden biases. I have no doubt that being white leaves most people less likely to notice and question the messages which pervade western society. Just so you know, I would totally include you in a list of great bloggers too but particularly wanted to highlight book bloggers of colour after some people have mentioned there aren’t many…

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  11. I LOVE this. I write overwhelming about books by minority authors on my blog, because its so hard to find the content on other blogs. I can’t wait to see what stuff everyone is reading this month for #diversedecember!

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  15. Thank you so much for the recommendations. Octavia Butler is currently my favorite novelist of the twentieth century.

  16. Great post Naomi and great to see the list of familiar bloggers who have been a great source of reading recommendations over the years. As you probably know I love to read books that cross cultures and particularly those written from within different cultures/communities than my own, and I find blogs and twitter are a great way to connect with those who champion writers from outside the traditional anglo-sphere. And then there are writers in translation as well, so few women writers get translated and then women of colour, well, all the more reason to champion I say, I will never stop, I find all their stories endlessly fascinating, insightful and entertaining.

    My most recent foray has beeen into Carribean literature, the likes of Maryse Condé, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Cristina Garcia all of whom I highly recommend.

    • Thanks, Claire. I’ve got an number of books on my shelf due to your blog, two of which are by Danticat and Kincaid, so I’ll definitely be looking into the others. I agree that stories from outside the anglo-sphere are fascinating. I really hope more people will find these books and begin championing them too.

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  18. I’ve shared this belatedly on my blog, because I figured it was absolutely worth flagging up again later in the month. This has made me pull books off my shelf that I’ve been putting off reading for a long time (for various reasons, including what I’m assuming must include unconscious bias/’it looks too hard’/because I have a lot that I haven’t read overall) and buy others, and it’s been brilliant. A list of recommendeds is building up in a word doc, too.
    Thanks also for the link to the Implicit Association test as well; I grew up in a not-very-ethnically-diverse place for much of my life (until Peckham for nearly eight years:)), and it’ll be interesting to see what my subconscious is up to.

    • This is brilliant. I’m so pleased you’ve taken books off your shelf and found others to read. It’s made my day! Thanks for sharing my post.

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