Chioma Okereke

Jul 3, 2020

Are We There Yet?

Tired of stiff upper lipping the age old status quo, many professional people of colour in their fields took to communicating to gatekeepers how things, as they stand, are simply put unacceptable.

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As the tragedy of George Floyd’s death in the US triggered riots all over the globe, many industries were challenged about their record regarding inclusivity to date. Tired of stiff upper lipping the age old status quo, many professional people of colour in their fields took to communicating to gatekeepers how things, as they stand, are simply put unacceptable.

I have watched with great interest how things have unfolded within the publishing space as the bestselling novelist Dorothy Koomson penned a heartfelt letter on Twitter followed by the powerful call on the UK publishing industry from the Black Writers Guild to examine racial inequalities within its practices.

In the wake of this scrutiny, many publishing professionals within the field have publicly proclaimed an intention to do better, as well as industry heads insistent that this is indeed the pivotal moment for the change long since hoped for and earlier this week saw the announcement that two black authors (Candice Carty-Williams and Bernadine Evaristo) had won top British book awards — for the first time.

Yet again, the timing of this news is problematic as it leads to whispered doubts about the legitimacy of much deserved wins, much like the splitting of the 2019 Booker Prize also diminished Bernadine Evaristo’s richly deserved achievement and the incredible historical moment in a way that did no favours to either of the two remarkable authors.

It also makes me question — as I do each time the industry promises to do better — whether it’s all a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

I was published over a decade ago and realise that this by itself in an incredible achievement within the UK, where writers of colour are represented, achieve publication and are marketed disproportionately in terms of our contemporaries.

Having had the briefest of inside looks into the industry by virtue of a six-month Diversity In Publishing Traineeship across three departments (editorial, marketing & publicity, and sales) at three major publishing houses in 2007. (I’d been trying to secure a literary agent from 2001 without success and spotted the traineeship announcement (and my opening into that world) in a newspaper).

I saw firsthand how few BAME staff were represented, fewer still in positions of power, and also witnessed what being published could be like, which for an aspiring author was profoundly impactful at the time. What I also learned from an esteemed commissioning editor back then was that publication was by no means an absolute, and not just in terms of it coming down to the quality of my writing. ‘You’re the type of person that’s going to find it hard to get representation, but when you do I’m sure you’ll get published quite quickly’ were her exact words at the time.

What she’d meant at the time was that for me there was seemingly no marketing hook to hang me on. I was born in Nigeria, but grew up in the UK, in the boarding school system. I was also not telling the kinds of stories that were perhaps catnip to the publishers in terms of stereotypical tropes expected or sought from people of colour, whose purpose in the industry — albeit unspoken — appears to be to expose our ‘cultural ways’ (to educate) rather than to entertain. We aren’t fully free to write fiction, but must mine our experiences vis à vis race, politics, our upbringing, our ancestry and heritage, not get too greedy about extending our imagination beyond that. My life as a survivor of genocide in West Africa - great! My life as a bank manager or a Japanese tea farmer - not so much.

What that editor said to me back then was my truth: it took quite a while longer to secure my first agent and a couple months later I had signed a publishing contract for my debut novel.

What followed were the pain points that undoubtedly most first time authors experience as their book leaves their sheltered hands and becomes a commodity they can no longer control. What I found incredibly difficult was how different my own publishing process appeared to be from the titles I’d seen handled in my short time across three houses. I waged battles over storylines and the setting, which became less about a deliberately geographically unspecific place to align with what was required (due to expectations attached to my Nigerian name) for appealing to the white middle class audience that the industry as it stands presumes is the only audience — and viable market — for books. I bared my teeth on multiple occasions over dummy book covers which held every stereotypical African depiction from a non-African perception, right down to the free running chicken. (My fault - the book contained an incident about killing a chicken, but I never thought the episode would make the book jacket.)

I queried why this type of imagery was necessary when books belonging to authors like Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, or Hari Kunzru hadn’t looked that way. I received nothing conclusive in the way of an answer. I held my tongue when my press releases were sent to me with typos (and I was forced to point them out time and again), or when the PR person attached to my book couldn’t attend an important speaking event of mine because she’d secured concert tickets instead and told me to take some photos... When the marketing plan consisted of effectively me Facebooking my friends and strongarming them into buying more copies (despite most of them already procuring them at my launch). I told myself it was the same for everybody. Yet my gut told me differently.

Publication of my first happened relatively easily but it hasn’t been the case since then. My debut might quite simply not have been that good, and I might not be one of the great writers (yet). Not every book is a guaranteed publishing success, and even though my book received some notice and an award, my editor being made redundant early on in my publishing journey might have arrested my development as an author as I suddenly found myself without anyone in my corner.

Confiding in the handful of people I knew within the industry, I discovered that what I was enduring wasn’t entirely normal, and was reminded of what I had seen to be true; that there was a scenario where one was vehemently represented by their agent (especially where contracts are concerned), nurtured as part of a publishing stable, and supported beyond their debut. I witnessed it as my friends secured their deals with happier publishing experiences and I hope that I’d be luckier the second time around.

I’m fortunate in that the subsequent books I’ve penned routinely garner me the interest of agents. For many authors seeking traditional publication, that’s the first sometimes unscalable hurdle. But though each time I felt the enthusiasm of my agent, when my books went out on submission, each attempt proved to be unsuccessful. It was impossible to find any consensus within the feedback, then again, publishing is a largely subjective industry. Difficulty connecting with the characters, too small a story, too niche, and too risky were some of the usual suspects. Patterns began to emerge over time to the discerning eye, and it became clear that it was less about what one I was writing and more about who I was (writing the kind of stories that I do).

The Goldsmiths University report titled Re:Thinking Diversity in Publishing released in June 2020 dives deeper into how writers of colour have been historically excluded from the publishing industry. This has been done in many ways from the lack of creation in looking for authors, baseless arguments about the ‘quality’ of work pertaining to writers of colour or assumptions that our creations are too niche for the book buying public. Failings in terms of promotion or the resources given to books by BAME writers. The complexity around comparative titles that restricts a book’s success before it even sees the light of day, by lazy comparisons relating to ethnicity of an author rather than to the book itself.

The report found that “publishers’ focus on a very particular white, middle-class audience leads to the presentation of books by writers of colour in very particular ways.”

I’ve personally put this to the challenge in recent years by writing books set in Africa, USA, the UK, and France with different coloured protagonists of different ethnicities reflective of the diasporic and wanderlust nature of my upbringing to no avail. While Jessie Burton can write from the perspective of a Trinidadian girl in the late 60s in The Muse, the followup to her critically acclaimed debut The Miniaturist, or Jeanine Cummins’ 2020 novel, American Dirt, about a Mexican woman’s ordeal doesn’t ring any bells for publishers in terms of the author’s backgrounds in relation to their books, the same freedom can’t yet be said when it comes to fiction writers of colour.

Shonda Rhimes, the American producer and television and film behemoth, created Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice before her other award winning African American led but also ensemble television dramas Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder. While there is less focus on which ethnicity is penning various television shows that have global appeal across all colour lines, the same cannot yet be said of the world of fiction, where questions — now more than ever before — abound about authenticity, permission, and the right to write from certain perspectives have chummed already troubled waters.

As the only black girl in my boarding school in the 1980s in the UK I found solace in the cool quiet of the library. I loved stories, and lapped up whatever books we were required to read at that time as part of our curriculum and then some. I read the same books others around me were reading and had no problem doing so. I wasn’t distanced from Narnia because no one on its pages bore the shade of my skin; the powers of my imagination could thrust me into Tolkien’s world as readily as the Famous Five's. I devoured Jill Murphy’s tales about the Worst Witch despite me displaying no sorcery powers of my own.

As I grew older my reading tastes evolved and at my next school I discovered Mildred D Taylor’s books and discovered one of the first characters that actually bore my physical likeness in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Thus began my voyage into African American literature, from Toni Morrison and beyond. Bell Hooks, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Dorothy West, Ntozake Shange, James Baldwin... The list is bountiful and endless. Their history isn’t mine, but it was a revelation to see people of colour so widely published. Similarly too with the Heinemann press (particularly its African Writers Series) before it was no more.

At the same time I was devouring Andre Brink, Arundhati Roy, Doris Lessing, Angela Carter, Jane Harris, Françoise Sagan, Nadine Gordimer, John Irving, Jamaica Kincaid, Margaret Atwood, Sebastian Barry to name a few. There was no barrier to entry in terms of my reading preferences; as an avid reader — if the blurb on the book jacket or the first few pages grab me, I’m there for the ride.

The aspiring author within me was created in those early days in various school libraries and the way I read has shaped the way I write. All of those stories were open and available to me - the reader. It never occurred to me that I would have to write certain things if I wanted another little girl to one day reach out for my books on a library shelf one day.

As a young adult, I read Memoirs of a Geisha more times than I can remember but it never dawned on me who its author was until I started to write prose. Many books that have become my favourite over time have led me to read other works by the author as a result but the initial book is always the starting point. I don’t believe I’m that different from other readers out there when making choices about what to pick up next.

When Queenie was published in 2019, it received a rave reception but it is shocking how late in the day something of its kind was — 2019! How many other books where the protagonist doesn’t happen to be a Jamaican Brit have lined the shelves of bookstores, supermarket aisles and airports? Why do we have to wait for one book to ‘normalise’ the experience of many of us erased from popular culture until this point, and why will that now speak for many of us leaving no room for other authors, in the way of Zadie Smith before it — not the authors themselves pushing people out, but, as echoed by the poet Malika Booker in a recent Guardian article, by an industry that still acts as though there is only space for a handful of us at the table. That up until very recently relegated us to some forgotten separate shelf in many bookstores as though our lives and stories are so unique and distasteful they must be locked away in the hole rather than out in gen pop for everyone to potentially see.

I ask myself why I was squealing in the middle of Waterstones at the sight of the Queenie covers in all their neon coloured glory on the entrance table in the way I did when I ran out to buy Vogue Italia’s 2008 special edition featuring black models and women in the world or art, politics and entertainment. We should have been seeing reflections of ourselves on book covers and magazines pages all this time. ‘New’ is nothing new to us. Newsflash: we’ve been here all along.

I first discovered Bernadine Evaristo’s work when I read The Emperor’s Babe in 2002. It took almost two decades more until she became a household name. When I look at her long, magnificent climb, I understand why I am barely a footnote on both the African and the Black British radar. Many black british writers have been toiling away for years hoping for the acclaim/ notoriety of their peers. Diane Evans, Andrea Levy, Dirian Adebayo, Patience Agbabi, Sade Adeniran… all of whose works resonate beyond the black community.

When people ask me what I write I say life. I don’t qualify that by saying ‘my black life’. My life is my life, irrespective of the colour of my skin, my ethnicity or my nationality. I was proudly born in Nigeria, lived a large chunk of my life in the UK from six onwards and am now converting the French countryside to chilli peppers and afrobeat, one Tekno hit at a time.

Writers of colour are marginalised by an industry that is proving incapable of seeing us as only one poorly imagined thing. That purports to be invested in letting us tell our stories but only within the framework of certain parameters.

Who are you to tell us what those stories are?

BAME writers should not be pigeonholed into telling only a certain kind of story that sates your appetite about our continent or what you perceive our people to be.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has already spoken far more eloquently than me in her TED talk about the absurdity of treating Africa as a monolith and the danger of a single story, over a decade ago. I’d argue the same equally applies for the ‘black experience’ altogether.

So as publishers beat their breasts and peddle the same intentions about striving for inclusivity while the players around the table don’t change, I hope that this is the moment where something tilts, and genuine forward strides are taken.

What this looks like, isn’t a wave of hasty awards that paper over cracks as they only alienate people among us who believe that the only ways BAME books are published is out of some sense of tokenism. Nor should this be an apology by publishing a flurry of books on race, or snagging a few debuts containing the same ‘Afrocentric’ tropes still required from BAME authors and judging our work by the work, and not the person writing it, or having any genuine intention of nurturing those writers afterwards as though they are one-trick, one-race ponies. Publishing is indeed a business and publishers aren’t here to hold author’s hands as it were, but there is a level of support given, and faith invested, in the longevity of an author’s career that thus far has not been addressed with regard to the subject of race. I believe some element of this disproportionate support directly feeds into more buzz (even internally within publishing houses themselves before the finished book meets the public) that in turn leads to better marketing, and ultimately stronger sales that become the justification for why BAME books are considered a ‘risk’.

If we truly wish to arrive at a place of equality within the industry it will be when we let the books speak for themselves in the way they do with white authors; when we focus on the work and whether they are individually strong enough for the risky dice roll that is commercial success which isn’t guaranteed, instead of focusing primarily on the colour of the author.

In the Re:Thinking Diversity in Publishing report, as one ‘BAME’ respondent put it, “it places ‘expectations for [writers of colour] to write a certain type of book’ in order to fit into these kind of marketing categorisations. So writers of colour face either whitewashing or exoticisation. It is only once publishers start broadening their sense of the audience that we will see more diverse visual representations of race in publishing.”

In this endeavour on the publishing industry’s side to do better, I pray that finally diversity comes not just in the form of more writers of colour having their work genuinely considered and embraced for publication, but also in terms of the stories — what we’ve thus far been ‘allowed’ to tell.

Chioma Okereke

This article was also published on Medium. Photo credit: Suad Karmadeen (Unsplash)

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