Diversity's Not Just for December #ReadDiverse2016

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When my friend and fellow blogger Dan started the diverse December hashtag, I sent him a message that read ‘I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to tweet the shit out of #diversedecember. I think it’s a brilliant idea.’ It ended with us conceiving a plan to work on it together. However, neither of us could have envisaged how well it would be received, how many people would tweet recommendations and change their reading plans, nor that the hashtag would make the front of the Guardian Review.

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Fairly early on we began to discuss taking the project into 2016. I’ll let Dan take it from here with an extract from a post on his blog. You can read the full piece here.

I didn’t expect the reception to be so huge when I coined #diversedecember. Bloggers, readers, journalists and publishers have taken the hashtag and begun to explore diverse voices and stories. Although this initiative was conceived after the World Book Night list announcement, it’s clear that diversity needs to be considered at all times when reading. Over December, so far, Naomi and I have been inundated with recommendations for writers of colour, which is wonderful to see. We want that to continue and so we have decided that #diversedecember will carry on throughout 2016. Of course, we can’t use that hashtag any longer and there are many other fantastic initiatives promoting writers of colour, so we had a think about what we wanted to achieve.

#ReadDiverse2016 will focus on BAME books just as Diverse December has done, however, it’s clear from our interactions on Twitter that the hashtag has begun to touch on many ideas of diversity. Going forward, we hope to help and promote authors that identify as LGBTIQ, those who are disabled and those who suffer from mental health conditions. As this idea sparked from a lack of BAME representation, that will remain our primary focus, but we can’t have diversity without every single voice. Hashtags such as #TranslationThurs and #ReadWomen are already doing stellar work, as are The Green Carnation Prize. They each do a great job in highlighting books by authors that readers want to relate to – we’d like to add to that.

#diversedecember has taught me one very important thing – books are universal and everyone should have an equal opportunity to tell their story in their voice. Without Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic authors getting the recognition they deserve, we could be losing out on future generations of creative people who may believe that there is no place for them.

I hope that you’ll join in with me and Naomi as we promote diversity with the #ReadDiverse2016 hashtag on Twitter.

I’ll talk more about my plans on the 1st of January, I look forward to hearing about yours.

Redemption in Indigo – Karen Lord

Paama has left her husband. She went to visit her family and never returned. The family moved away. Now her husband has employed a tracker, Kwame, to find her.

Paama’s living with her family and has fended off the village gossip by way of just enough information to stop them enquiring and her fabulous cooking.

Besides, it kept Paama busy enough to ignore the nagging question of how she was going to tell Ansige she was never coming back. She will have to consider that question soon, for efficient Kwame has already traced her whereabouts and, not without a qualm, reported to Ansige.

And Ansige, in his desperation, will not be sending messages or servants this time. He is coming to speak to her, face to face.

The villagers are desperate to know what the situation with Paama’s marriage is. It becomes clear to the reader fairly quickly as we follow his progress to Paama’s village: Ansige is a glutton.

Truth to tell, his frame looked as of it would take far more than three days’ worth of racking to pare it down. Ansige was not flabby, no, but he was solid. Layers of muscle braced the fat around his arms, legs and shoulders. Only his belly betrayed him. He carried a prosperous paunch before him and occasionally stroked it as fondly as any expectant mother cradling her womb.

After his arrival at the village, we are told three tales of Ansige’s gluttony. In all of which he does something foolish and Paama rescues him, covering for him so the rest of the villagers don’t see the truth.

Another story runs parallel to the tale of Paama and Ansige’s marriage. At the beginning of the novel, we’re related a conversation by two unknown speakers:

‘She alone can safely wield the power that I shall take from our…former colleague.’ The last two words rode on the breath of a regretful sigh.

‘Will you really? I mean, to involve a human! Are you certain?’

These two unknown figures have plans for Paama, fate-like plans in which Ansige, if he is not careful, will be brushed aside like a fly. It is the pause point of the wave at its crest, the rumbling of a distant storm, the thrill in the backbone when the eyes of the predator glitter in the moonlight from the darkness of the trees and tall grass. Something is going to change, and it is for you to judge at the end of the tale who has made the best of the change and of their choices.

The unknown figures introduce a different world to the story: that of talking arachnids and insects, that of the undying – the tricksters and the djombis. The plans for Paama involve a Chaos stick, taken from an indigo coloured djombi and he wants it back.

Redemption in Indigo reads as an oral tale that’s being passed on to the reader. We’re guided by a narrator who interjects, pointing out the likelihood of elements of the story and making asides about characters. Lord uses a three-part structure for the tales of Angsie’s gluttony and Paama’s moments with the indigo djombi. I relate this to fairytales but I’m sure it’s typical of many other forms of storytelling too.

The fantastical elements of the book are outside of my usual reading sphere. As a result, I’m sure there are references I’ve missed but I did enjoy venturing into the world of spirits and talking animals. An interesting read.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere – ZZ Packer

Bar one, the protagonists who populate ZZ Packer’s debut short story collection are young women on the brink of discovering something about themselves, life or both. They push boundaries and challenge authority often hiding the vulnerability they feel from those around them but not the reader.

In the title story, a young woman, Dina, is one of the few black students at Yale. During an orientation exercise, students have to state which inanimate object they wanted to be. Having grown up being ‘good in all the ways that were meant to matter’, Dina says she wants to be ‘a revolver’ and ends up with a year’s worth of psychiatric counselling.

“You’re pretending,” Dr. Raeburn said…”Maybe it’s your survival mechanism. Black living in a white world.”

…Dr. Raeburn would never realize that “pretending” was what had got me this far. I remembered the morning of my mother’s funeral. I’d been given milk to settle my stomach; I’d pretended it was coffee. I imagined I was drinking coffee elsewhere. Some Arabic-speaking country where the thick coffee served in little cups was so strong it could keep you awake for days.

Race is mentioned in several stories: in ‘Doris Is Coming’ there’s a discussion about the phrase ‘flesh coloured’ and its inaccuracy; in ‘Speaking in Tongues’ as teenagers Marcelle and Tia meet in the bus station before Tia runs away, Marcelle says the bus driver won’t notice them, “We all look the same to them anyway”, and in ‘The Ant of the Self’, the young male narrator and his father attend a race rally in Washington, selling birds. However, besides ‘Brownies’, the first story in the collection, where a girl from a troop of black brownies, accuses a girl from a group of white brownies of calling her ‘a nigger’, the stories aren’t centered on race. They seem to root themselves equally in being female in a male world and on the protagonists finding their own path, or not. At the end of ‘Brownies’, the narrator, Laurel, says, “…and suddenly [I] knew there was something mean in the world that I could not stop’.

In ‘Every Tongue Shall Confess’, Clareese Mitchell, member of the choir at Greater Christ Emmanuel Pentecostal Church of the Fire Baptized, curses the Brothers’ Church Council who’ve decided the choir must wear white every Missionary Sunday ‘when her womanly troubles were always at their absolute worst!’ That’s the thin end of the wedge for her though as far as the behaviour of the Brothers and her patients she tends to at the hospital. While in ‘Our Lady of Peace’, Lynnea comes up against the barriers in the education system, the care system and those exploited by a police officer.

Two things stand out about the collection: the first is that the stories don’t rely on the jazzy, unexpected twist at the end. There are twists but they mostly feel more organic as though the stories could be real. ‘Speaking in Tongues’, in particular, feels as though it could be the real life story of a young girl who takes a bus to Atlanta searching for her mother and ends up in a world she wasn’t aware existed.

The second is Packer’s use of language which is precise and illuminating with regards to the human condition. In ‘Geese’, the group of young people sharing a room in a country that’s foreign to them struggle: Things simply made all of them cry and sigh. Things dredged from the bottom of their souls brought them pain at the strangest moments and the protagonist has a plan: Or rather, it wasn’t really a plan at all, but a feeling, a nebulous fluffy thing that had started in her chest, spread over her heart like a fog. While Tia, the runaway in ‘Speaking in Tongues’ describes her aunt’s love as: …a smothering sort of love: love because you had to, never getting the chance to find out whether you wanted to or not. And sometimes, she simply tells it straight, like in ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ where Dina’s expected to take part in the trust exercise where you fall back into someone else’s arms: Russian roulette sounded like a better way to go.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is an impressive collection: eight distinct stories with distinct voices, considering life (mostly) in America for a range of (mostly female) young people. Packer’s been working on her debut novel for over a decade now, on the strength of these stories I’m adding myself to the queue of people anticipating it.

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika Kapur

In the line at a train station ticket counter, Renuka Sharma meets Vineet Seghal, a thirty-year-old hotel manager who lives with his mother. They see each other several times a week on the station platform until they eventually strike up a friendship.

He had walked up to me at the station on Wednesday and asked me if I would like to go with him for a short outing on his motorbike, which had just come back from the workshop. See, I was not born yesterday. I know what it can mean, I know how it can feel, to ride behind a man on a two-wheeler. I know how the man could slowly lean back into the woman sitting behind him until his body is pressing into her chest, while the woman’s hands could move from the handlebar behind her to the man’s waist and then finally rest on his thighs as she leans forward against him. But I also know that this can only happen if a woman allows it to happen, which, obviously, I would never ever do.

If Vineet had asked Renuka Sharma any question about herself, he would’ve discovered that she’s thirty-seven-years-old and married with a fifteen-year-old son, Bobby. They live in a flat in Dehli with her parents-in-law, a flat they moved into when her husband, Dheeraj, a physiotherapist, went to work in Dubai.

Renuka works as a receptionist for ‘Dr Raghubir Singh…a world-famous gynaecologist and obstetrician’, a job that she took after her mother became ill and her father spent all his money on medical bills, suffering two heart attacks as a consequence. Her ambition is to ‘start a training academy for Office Management, Computer Proficiency, Personality Development and Grooming, Business English, everything.’ She is fastidious, making the cleaner at the clinic ‘use sellotape to pull off any fallen hairs on the carpet in the waiting room’. Very clear of her duties, the reason Dheeraj has been in Dubai working tax-free and sharing a flat with four other men for eighteen months is because they need the money.

Sometimes I want to ask these people, these people who go on and on with their pity, who make me seen like I am some stone-hearted witch, sometimes I want to ask them one question, just one simple question. When my inlaws’ medical bills grow into lakhs of rupees, when my son has to do his further studies, who will save us? Will love and romance save us?

She’s adamant that Bobby will do an MBA even though he wants to be a chef and becomes almost obsessive about buying him a suit.

The book is a character study, Renuka’s narrative moving between her meetings with Vineet and telling the reader about her life, her thoughts and feelings. Soon it becomes clear she’s not quite as prim and proper as she initially comes across. She tells us about the times she and her husband turned the washing machine on in their flat so Bobby wouldn’t hear them having sex.

And from time to time I touch myself and there is nothing wrong with that. A long time ago I read in one of the magazines at the clinic that masturbation, even for women, is normal and healthy, and a doctor wrote that magazine article…And, actually, many women masturbate. They are just too ashamed to say that they do. I know all about sex. I have been married a long time. I even know about porn…And I know how men think, I know what they want. At the clinic, for example, day after day men come in with their wives and take small, little plastic cups into the toilet to collect their semen. I think that some of those men think about me when they are inside the toilet. I see how they look at me.

The novel’s structured like a corkscrew: tightly wound, seemingly returning in circles to the same ideas – her husband’s absence, her need for her son to study for an MBA and wear a suit, her desire to start her own business – whilst swirling ever deeper and darker. The veneer which Mrs Sharma paints at the beginning of the book wears thin as it progresses and her private life, that which she contains within herself, is revealed.

I think this book’s as close to perfect as it gets. The repetition of thoughts and ideas while the action moves forward, the precision of the language, the slow cracking of Mrs Sharma, is all brilliantly done. The character and the atmosphere of the book reminded me of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs although The Private Life of Mrs Sharma is more restrained in its delivery. All the literary editors who called in people’s books of the year choices weeks ago should be kicking themselves, The Private Life of Mrs Sharma deserves to be on every list.

 

 

Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.

Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

Folks think a lifetime is a thing stretched out over years. It ain’t. It can happen quick as a match in a dark room.

Nazi-occupied Paris, 1940. Hiero, mixed-heritage born to a German mother and an African father, and Sid, Baltimore born and light-skinned enough to pass as white, head out to a café for breakfast. But Hiero’s got no papers and when the Nazis enter the café, he’s taken. As this happens, Sid’s making his way back from the basement toilet and sees it occurring from a safe spot on the stairs.

Hiero and Sid are part of a jazz band, along with Chip, another Baltimore born black man and Sid’s oldest friend. They’ve been recording with Bill Coleman.

But Hiero, wiping his horn with a blacked-up handkerchief, he turn and give Chip a look of pure spite. ‘Yeah, but, hell. Even at our worst we genius.’

Did that ever stun me, him saying this. For weeks the kid been going on about how dreadful we sound. He kept snatching up the discs, scratching the lacquer with a pocket knife, wrecking them. Yelling how there wasn’t nothing there. But there was something. Some seed of twisted beauty.

I didn’t mean to. But somehow when the kid turned his back I was sliding off my vest, taking the last disc – still delicate, the grooves still new – and folding the fabric round it. I glanced around, nervous, then tucked it into my basscase.

The novel disorders the chronology of events, moving forward to Berlin in 1992 when Sid is 83 and Chip 85 and backwards to Berlin in 1939 and then events in Paris in 1939 before Hiero’s arrest.

In 1992, Sid and Chip return to Berlin for a screening of a documentary about Hieronymus Falk. Hiero’s assumed dead, having survived Mauthausen but disappearing not long after being released but the night before they travel to Berlin, Chip reveals Hiero’s alive and living in Poland. He’s written to Chip asking him to visit. Chip had a second career following the rediscovery of the disc Sid kept back in 1940.

And, well, it made Hiero one of the most famous jazz trumpeters of his generation.

The kid’s existence might’ve been a fiction we’d all cooked up if that disc hadn’t survived. Today you ain’t no kind of horn player you don’t acknowledge some debt to Hieronymus Falk. He was one of the pioneers: a German Louis Armstrong, if you will. Wynton Marsalis praised Falk as one of the reasons he started playing at all: ‘Hearing Falk – man, that was it. It just blew my mind out. I was just a kid, but even then I knew I was hearing genius. His brilliance was that obvious.’

During the film, Sid begins to feel that something’s not right. This feeling builds until the point when Chip comes on screen and accuses Sid of betraying Hiero of practically handing him over to the Nazis because he was jealous of him – jealous of his talents and jealous of his relationship with Delilah, the woman Sid loved.

The rest of the novel explores this – was Sid jealous? What role did Delilah play? Why did the band only make one recording? What was life like in Berlin and Paris for black jazz musicians as the Second World War began? It’s also a book about male friendship in different forms. Chip is stuffed with bravado, cocky and determined to have the upper hand; Hiero is young and seems vulnerable, looking to Sid as an older brother; Sid fluctuates from jealously to wanting to protect his friends. However, when the extent of Sid’s actions are revealed, it’s a truly shocking moment.

Edugyan conveys Chip and Sid’s accents through the use of some grammar and vocabulary consistent with African American Vernacular English – ‘We ain’t get no…’, ‘…through a arched entrance hall…’. While restricting Hiero to only being able to speak German (rendered in English) and Sid as the only English and German speaker means that information can be miscommunicated when Sid translates.

Half Blood Blues is a gripping novel driven by the fear that members of the band could be taken at any moment; the excitement surrounding Hiero who is hailed by everyone including Louis Armstrong who puts in a guest appearance in Paris, and the tension between Chip and Sid in the (close to) present day chapters. A well structured, entertaining read.

 

The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandasamy

We told our stories to the court and to the commission. We testified on their terms. We were examined and cross-examined. In their words, we deposed. Since we saw with our eyes, we spoke about what we had seen. However, the Special Additional First-Class Magistrate was not very pleased with our versions.

Perhaps he wanted a single story: uniform, end to end to end. The ‘Once upon a time, there lived an old lady in a tiny village’ story. Sadly, we are not able to tell such a story. A story told in many voices is seen as unreliable.

The story that Kandasamy tells is that of the Kilvanmani massacre and events leading up to it in 1968. Kivanmani is a small village in Tamil Nadu, where the farm labourers haven’t had a pay rise for ten years. Any insubordination against the landlords results in beatings. When Communism arrives, landlords’ violence is enough to subdue it in other villages but not in Kilvanmani, where the local workers stand strong. But their strength results in a massacre in which 42 villagers, mostly women and children, are killed.

The Gypsy Goddess isn’t just about the massacre though, it’s about how to tell the story of a massacre. Kandasamy discusses how to begin, during which she skewers literary critics:

A first-generation woman novelist evidently working in a second language from the third-world country, literary critics may pooh-pooh and pin me down with prize-orange tartness after reading such a tame line, and prepare to expect nothing more than a domestic drama-traumatic tale. Let them jest in peace.

imperialism:

It is common knowledge that no land would ever be found interesting until a white man arrived, befriended some locals, tried the regional cuisine, asked a lot of impertinent questions, took copious notes in his Moleskin notebook and then went back home and wrote something about it.

and predicts the questions critics will ask, my favourite of which are:

Why can’t you fucking follow chronology?

I can. If you observe carefully, you will not fail to note that everyone gets fucked in the due course of time.

Is there a single story?

No. Of course, I’ve consulted Chimamanda on this too.

The tone of the narrative is smart and spirited, challenging the reader whilst pointing out the issues with writing a book that blends fact and fiction, particularly one in which the facts are so horrifying. Kandasamy does the latter with aplomb, however. The narrative voice recedes as events in the village become more gruesome, allowing the key events of the massacre to be told without interference. This gives them a particular power, one which is heightened by the list of the dead.

Kandasamy confidently merges a number of styles and structures including her inner Nicki Minaj to relate how the season of protest begins, which I partly tell you so I can share my favourite paragraph of the book:

Carrying the tales of their cunts and their cuntrees and their cuntenants, women cross all hurdles, talk in circles, burst into tears, break into cheers, teach a few others, take new lovers, become earth mothers, question big brothers, breathe state secrets, fuck all etiquettes and turn themselves into the truth-or-dare pamphleteer who will interfere at the frontier. And in these rap-as-trap times, they perceive the dawn of the day and they start saying their permitted say.

The Gypsy Goddess considers the oppression of the poor by the rich, the role of women in village society and the writing of the book itself. It’s an intelligent, layered, often very funny read and – apart from this being metafiction written by a woman of colour (how very dare she?) – I’m baffled as to why prize juries weren’t all over it last year.

 

Thanks to Atlantic for the review copy.

Beloved – Toni Morrison

A classic and one of the few books by women of colour included in the literary canon. I suspect I’m one of the last people to read this novel.

Beloved tells the story of Sethe and her children. It’s 1873 and Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live at 124 Bluestone Road. Her sons have left home to fight in the war and her daughter Beloved is dead. Her husband hasn’t been seen since her escape from slavery and her mother-in-law who was living with her died eight years previously. No one comes to the house because it’s haunted by a ghost they believe is Sethe’s dead baby daughter.

At the beginning of the novel, Paul D, a man Sethe knows from her time at Sweet Home where they were both slaves, arrives at the house. She hasn’t seen him for eighteen years. During Paul D’s first day at the house, he witnesses the power of the ghost:

It took him a while to realise that his legs were not shaking because of worry, but because the floorboards were and the grinding, shoving floor was only part of it. The house itself was pitching. Sethe slid to the floor and struggled to get back into her dress. While down on all fours, as though she were holding her house down on the ground, Denver burst from the keeping room, terror in her eyes, a vague smile on her lips.

“God damn it! Hush up!” Paul D was shouting, falling, reaching for anchor. “Leave the place alone! Get the hell out!” A table rushed toward him and he grabbed its leg. Somehow he managed to stand at an angle and, holding the table by two legs, he bashed it about, wrecking everything, screaming back at the screaming house. “You want to fight, come on! God damn it! She got enough without you. She got enough!”

His reaction displaces the ghost. Sethe and Paul D begin a relationship although Denver is clearly not enamoured with Paul D. She’s angry that he’s removed her only company from the house.

A few days after Paul D’s intervention, ‘a fully dressed woman walked out of the water’. When Sethe, Paul D and Denver arrive home following a trip to the circus, she’s waiting outside the house.

“What might your name be?” asked Paul D.

“Beloved,” she said, and her voice was so low and rough each one looked at the other two. They heard the voice first – later the name.

“Beloved. You use a last name, Beloved?” Paul D asked her.

“Last?” she seemed puzzled. Then “No”, and she spelled it for them, slowly as if the letters were being formed as she spoke them.

Sethe and Denver are convinced this is Sethe’s dead baby – she’s the same age as she would’ve been had she lived. Soon Beloved is exerting power over them and Paul D, wreaking revenge for her death.

The novel’s separated into three sections. The first, which spans more than half of the book, concentrates on Beloved’s arrival and the effect she has, particularly on Sethe and Paul D’s relationship. Interwoven with this are ‘rememories’ which make up the story of Sethe’s time as a slave, including meeting her husband Halle. There are also several sections given over to Paul D, including the point when he and a number of other men escaped. At the end of this section is the revelation of how Beloved died which is shocking and reveals the length a mother will go to in order to protect their child.

Section Two shifts focus. The first and longest part concentrates on Stamp Paid who has revealed to Paul D the nature of Beloved’s death. His part ends with him considering how few black people have a natural, peaceful death and ‘none that he knew of…had lived a liveable life’.

Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolk planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them blood, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.

It’s impossible to read this paragraph without thinking about how little attitudes have changed. It immediately brought to my mind the way black people are treated in their daily lives and also, very specifically, the nature of the deaths of black men and women at the hands of police officers and white terrorist gun men. It links back to the nature of Beloved’s death and the lengths a parent will go to in order to protect their child. It shows the oppression black people face by being expected to live up to white societal and cultural norms.

The novel ends with Morrison giving Sethe, Denver and Beloved their own voices, showing the power Beloved exerts. This feeds the final section of the book in which the power of community is shown.

Beloved is a haunting, powerful book which considers the aftermath of slavery and the psychological consequences for those who survived and were free in a basic physical sense. If you’re one of the last remaining people who hasn’t read it, I highly recommend you rectify this soon.

 

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.

DiverseDecember_logo1

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.