Authors of colour are still a rare breed.
Published authors of colour are still a rare breed.
The world may wish to gorge on the idea that people of colour just aren’t interested in writing, but of course, this isn’t true. Attempting to ignore the reality of ignored and overlooked authors of colour, groups of not-so-silent voices continue to assert that publishers only publish novels based on their merits, meaning it’s merely coincidental that the majority of ‘good’ and ‘publishable’ books are written by white authors. The idea that writers of colours have been unable to produce anything of merit, leading to a minuscule list of books published per year, is difficult to believe or even entertain. People are choosing to believe that people of colour simply lack talent and possess inferior skills, instead of recognising that there is a problem with the system.
As an author of colour, I’m lucky to have my book published. It took a lot of time to get here. A few larger publishers came close to saying yes, agreeing it was good, but my novel didn’t fit with the others on their list. When I look at their lists, I suppose I would have to agree. Whiteness reins on bookshelves. But there are writers of colour, people will argue. Names like Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro pop into our minds without much resistance. Their works are brilliant. Yet, have you noticed, that the people of colour who come to mind have produced literary masterpieces, worthy of awards. Almost as if the bar for writers of colour has been set a lot higher. Can you recall the names of any commercial writers? Have you read any of late?
A writer of colour has a lot to prove. Publishers care about making money. Writers of colour need to battle with editors’ doubts over there whether or not there is a market for our fiction – that our stories are worthy of being shared and read. Even when works are acquired, it’s not uncommon for publishers to reject or push for changes, labelling the work, not ‘exotic’ enough, or even too ‘exotic’. Unfortunately, the publishing industry also suffers from a dearth of editors of colour – meaning an author may have to defend their choices themselves. These authors will also be missing the gentle hand of an editor that can help them shape their work to be the best it can be, while also creating something culturally sensitive. Instead, a writer of colour must use their own judgement, often stuck in a team of one.
Whether writing novels, writing for the screen or even the theatre, writers of colour can feel the responsibility of representation weighing on their shoulders. We have our own experiences to draw from, yet we worry about ‘getting it right’ for our communities. White people may write characters as they please, never concerned that others may draw conclusions about their entire race based on their writings, free of the worry that other white people may not see themselves in the one book available to them, leading them to feel disappointed and let down. There are thousands of other books for the white reader. Thousands of opportunities to find themselves reflected back at them.
I remember when I received one review from another woman of colour. She didn’t like that I chose not to resolve some deep-rooted cultural issues presented within my novel. A set of parents fail to recognise the damage they’ve inflicted and are not harmoniously reunited with their son. She felt that others would believe that we, as a community, are incapable of changing and are narrow-minded. Yet, the version of events I presented feel correct for my story and reflect on my own experiences and, what I’ve seen to be a reality for many British-Asians. My goal was to show what needed to be fixed, not to fix it, However, I can understand her desire for a happy ending. How many other books will she have access to that depict the same cultural issues? How many of these will have the happy ending she desires? How many show these issues being resolved?
As readers of colour, we are aching for more representation and we have our own ideas about what perfect representation looks like, using our own lives to model this. Unfortunately, we also incessantly worry about white people will think of us. Yet, our stories must not be adapted or changed in order to appease or impress the white gaze. Writers should feel free to paint the good and the bad aspects of their culture – to write their realities with honesty and nuance. Why can’t our primary audience be our communities? We can think of Toni Morrison, who refused to write for the white gaze. Her novels were for black people. We can choose to write for ourselves too.
When we write from within our marginalised communities, we know there are millions of experiences out there – we hold the awareness that our culture is full of richness and beauty. It would take a large, beautiful tapestry to capture the complexities and the world of experiences playing themselves out. White people have had time to build several tapestries. Yet, when one book is published by a person of colour, we have one thread. Perhaps we see the one thread and latch onto it with overwhelming appreciation, or we may feel anger and disappointed that we aren’t getting the representation we hoped for. We are prone to becoming more critical of the works being produced by our authors and screen writers of colour. It’s completely understandable! We want to see every facet of ourselves. We don’t want crumbs. Yet, we need to understand, that even within our own communities and cultures, our experiences differ.
For example, even though one person may be dealing with liberal parents, another from the same community may be dealing with a traditional family, therefore, what may be relatable for some within a community may not be for all. Both families deserve representation and are mirroring somebody’s truth. To reflect what it’s really like to be a person of colour, we can’t rely on a single voice or show. We need more shows – more threads to weave the tapestry – to capture the messy, complicated, beautiful whole. Right now, we cannot expect one voice to represent an entire community, but we can recognise that this voice is one of our own and see it exactly as it is – a single voice.
Writers of colour continue to push through, in the hopes that someone who is white will deem their work worthy of investing time and money into. Our writers are dealing with criticisms from their communities, telling them they’ve not done enough to connect with everyone belonging their communities, or that they’ve failed to produce a positive enough or different enough image to challenge the existing perceptions of the white gaze. Right now, we need to focus our energies into getting our stories out there and we need to support the voices rising from marginalised communities. With enough space, all our stories will emerge, destroying stereotypes and misconceptions as they grow. But first, we need to demand space for us and begin with a single thread.