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‘Literary ghettos’: how do we make sure diverse authors are included in mainstream publishing?

A picture of a blooming gum tree with red flowers. I missed these trees when I was away from Australia. I would like that these flowers represent my feelings of hope and support of indigenous Australian authors who are also often forgotten in the publishing industry.

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I am drawing today’s discussion inspiration from author Nesrine Malik and her amazing book (seriously, go read it now!) We Need New Stories. In her chapter entitled “The Myth of the Reliable Narrator”, Malik brings up the question if and how we should judge authors by their writing. More specifically, are authors allowed to write about what they don’t know? In this case, could white authors write about black experiences in a fiction novel? The answer is complicated and I have touched on a bit of this before in my previous review of American Dirt. Although, I feel as though this deserves its own discussion.

Book cover of Nesrine Malik’s book We Need New Stories.

Before I begin with my own thoughts, I wanted to share with you Malik’s words:

There is a thorny but also potentially fruitful conversation to be had about the limits of authorship and where they intersect with cultural or racial tender spots. Personally, I think there should be as few limits as possible – and preferably none – because there is jeopardy of a chilling effect, that good novels are not written because writers fear a backlash. Limiting authors to only what they know or have experienced in fiction also reinforces the minority ghetto in publishing as an unintended consequence. Nevertheless the question of sticking to what you know or have experienced is an interesting cultural juncture of contemporary discourse and should be navigated.

Malik, We Need New Stories, p. 222-223

Malik has talked about a minority ghetto, however, I have borrowed this term to specifically talk about the literary world which includes the publishing and scholarly aspects of books. I would love to know more about what Malik thinks about this, as she only mentions it in passing in her book. Malik, if you are reading, I hope you can write more books. I am also not sure if other authors have addressed this before. I imagine, however, that the topic is rather uncomfortable for a lot of people. Although, at Bound2Books, I hope to start positive and constructive conversations.

I want to break this discussion up into three parts. Firstly, to describe and talk about what a literary ghetto is and what that means for authors, publishers, and readers. Secondly, I want to think about ways in which we can make sure that diverse authors are included in mainstream publishing. I use the term diverse, because I am not a massive fan of minority groups and I don’t want to write a lengthy list referring to all marginalised groups each time. So in short, I try to use the term diverse authors. Lastly, I want to ask the open-ended question: How can we write about what we don’t know? Especially, in relation to race, but also to a larger degree gender, ableism, and class, etc.

What is a literary ghetto?

To answer this question I want to first look at the definition of a ghetto. It can be understood as a poorer area, often times it has been called a ‘slum’, and it is generally occupied by marginalised groups. These have existed all over the world and the complexities of race and religion are often at the forefront of the creation of ghettos. I want to also include in my definition of ghettos that they are generally created with the intent to segregate and isolate certain groups from the majority of (white) others. There is a very nefarious motivation behind this. Ghettos have been used in the past to cripple and control certain minority groups through poverty and heavy policing. It is still being used today in parts of the world. Ghettos can also experience higher rates of violence, but that is also complicated by the nature of the ghetto that can deliberately trap people in cycles of poverty which is then compounded by over-policing.

The difficulty with discussing the term ghetto is further compounded by the fact that many ghettos around the world have been established for extremely long periods of times. And with that, sometimes these minority groups feel connected to their homes, suburbs, and surrounds. Meaning that the term ghetto has often been reclaimed by minority groups to signify something else all together. In reshaping this term, ghetto also embodies a community connection rather than oppressive segregation. Ghettos are where certain groups of people can find each other and connect through culture, food, and religion in a way that the mainstream white world would not accept. They can provide a kind of safety for some people.

I wanted to talk about these two sides of the definition of ghetto because I feel that it can be seen as both a positive and negative force. These two sides of the definition also link with my discussion of a literary ghetto.

So what could a literary ghetto mean? As I see it, we can think about it in two ways. On the one hand, it is a place for minority groups to connect and share stories about their experiences. Where authors are understood and celebrated by their readership for both fiction and nonfiction works. It is a space for opportunity and a place for people to read and feel heard. On the other hand, it can also be a segregated space cut off from mainstream white publishing. Where one token black author might make it through, but generally those authors stay on one side of the tracks and white authors on the other. It is a double-edged sword.

This does not mean that I believe authors of colour should pander to white readers. On the contrary, what I want to see in the publishing world is authors of colour as well as queer authors, female authors, neuro-diverse authors, and so many more, being treated as equal to hetero white male authors. This is my fear for the literary ghetto. That mainstream publishing doesn’t want to treat all authors equally because it doesn’t have to. Publishing companies use the excuse of a literary ghetto to get away with treating authors differently. Publishers make assumptions on potential readership based on many things like race, gender, queerness, religion, and the list goes on. This can mean that many publishers won’t give as much money or credit to authors who they think won’t bring in the white dollars. It is amazing to see that in 2020 so many companies, not just publishers, forget that minority groups also spend money.

For the scholarly world, the literary ghetto can be even more complicated, but I do briefly still want to touch upon it. Just like a literary ghetto, I think we need to be careful about creating ghettos in academia where only black people research black history, culture, literature, or medicine. The same can be said about any group that is marginalised by society. I don’t want only female academics writing and using feminist theories, just as much as I don’t want only queer scholars doing all the heavy lifting in gender studies. Again, this does not discredit the value and need for these voices. Too long, has academia ignored the scholarly works of many minorities. They were not allowed in academia’s hallowed halls for many years, and they also had to toe the line to whiteness. Who am I kidding, they are still struggles with this. These voices should be celebrated, supported, and most importantly, read! But, again, I think we should be careful that we don’t just leave them off in a corner, or ghetto, while white academia remains unchanged.

How do we make sure minority authors get the money, rewards, and treatment they deserve?

Here are some things we can do to achieve this. I have decided to put this in a list form as it can be a great checklist to come back to.

  1. As readers, we are not completely powerless in what we can do. We can make sure we buy diverse books, review diverse books, and support publishers who promote diverse authors. Although, I would argue that we need to have an major overhaul in the publishing industry.
  2. The publishing world needs a major overhaul. We need more diversity in publishing employment – from PR teams, editors, proofreaders, cover artists, etc. There is a great Organisation called “Pull Up for Change” on Instagram that is asking companies to show their staff’s racial diversity, or lack thereof.
  3. We need to have transparency in what authors are getting paid to ensure that they are being treated equally by publishing companies.
  4. We need to educate people that minority stories are not just for minority readers. If I hear another literary critic wax lyrical about how ‘universal’ stories like Moby Dick are, to then later say they wouldn’t read a book because it was ‘chick lit’, I might actually throw up! WHAT IS UNIVERSAL ABOUT A WHITE DUDE WHO HAS AN OBSESSION WITH ALBINO WHALES? The only thing that story tells me, is that whales can be used as a metaphor for white male perfectionism and fragility.
  5. If you use a local library, ask them to by books by diverse authors.
  6. Decolonise your bookself.
  7. If you love an author, support their work. Follow their social media accounts, go to their author events (whenever we are allowed outside again).

How should we write about what we don’t know?

When people have talked about authors writing about what they don’t know, the main argument I hear usually goes like this:

Why is this author who wrote a racially inappropriate novel being attacked when fantasy or sci-fi authors can write about and invent completely different worlds without being harrassed! They aren’t writing about what they know!

To this, I sigh. On the one hand, they sort of have a point. And I believe that this is a small part of what Malik is referring to as well. On the other hand, they are completely tone deaf.

What I think is a great start in the publishing world is that some authors as asking for sensitivity readers. These are basically editors who are paid to read and give comments on a work that relates to a certain minority group. This is a way to ensure that if authors are writing about experiences that they don’t know, they are being checked and discussed by someone from within that group before they go off to print.

Sensitivity readers aren’t perfect. When I think about the benefits of them, I also find myself asking the question: why not just get someone who knows about this to write about it instead of getting someone to check it?

As someone who has done academic research on black – specifically African American – hair culture, who does not come from that cultural background, it can be extremely daunting. You want to ‘get it right’ and you want to make sure you aren’t making a total arse of yourself when you do it. But that is why reading diversely is so important. Make sure that you are including authors from all walks of life in your reading and even more so if you plan on researching or writing something about a specific group.

If you want to include the perspective of someone different from you in your writing, ask yourself: why am I doing this? How can I do this and be respectful?

This post doesn’t have all the answers and nor should it, right now. I would love to hear about what you think about literary ghettos, and if you can think of any other ways in which we can promote diverse authors as well as shake up the publishing industry. As always, share the reading love.

Buy your copy of Malik’s work here.