A White Man Walks into a Bookshop: My Experiences With(out) Diversity in Literature

Writer and blogger Kaysha Woollery discusses diversity in literature and asks… ‘does the fight for diversity in our bookshelves further tokenise the BAME writer?’

I recently saw the live stream of Complicite’s The Encounter, recorded at The Barbican. It was enjoyable; Simon McBurney’s performance was excellent, but a moment in it struck me. A moment towards the beginning that made me question who his audience really was. In explaining a typical evening of reading bedtime stories to his children, he said something to suggest that maybe it wasn’t me:

“My children lie either side of me in bed. I’m sure many of you have had this experience. I’m reading them a book, a children’s book, and then they look at the pictures and they say ‘that’s me! That’s me!’”

I’m sure many of you have had this experience.

I don’t remember having that experience as a child. As a woman of colour, I very much remember my voracious appetite for books being ever so slightly dulled by my inability to find myself represented in any of them. I found it difficult to concentrate throughout the rest of the show, as this line triggered a flash-back to my student-hood. Think sixteen-year-old me marching into my English Literature classroom, armed with folders, portfolios, cuttings, clippings galore of the research I was assigned the previous day. I had worked up to this presentation, expecting to “smash it” and bask in the glory of the caffeine-fuelled graft of the previous wee-hours.

Our subject: The First World War. Standard stuff.
Our task: Collect stories from The First World War.

My main man, Tull.

My main man, Tull.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I took to the stage with stories about the contribution of West Indian Soldiers to the First World War. How over 16,000 men from the West Indies formed the British West Indian Regiment and were posted around the world to serve and protect our country. How Walter Tull went from playing football for Tottenham Hotspur to becoming the first mixed-heritage combat officer in the British army, celebrated for his gallantry, killed in action in Northern France. I was halfway through my second sentence, only to be–

“– No. That’s not what I wanted. Where’s Rupert Brooke. Where’s Wilfred Owen? Where’s Siegfried Sassoon?”

Ah. She wanted to know where all the white men were. Why the white, male authors we had been studying every day, all year round didn’t get a look-in on my five-minute presentation. She wanted to know why they weren’t being mentioned, acknowledged, why they weren’t a part of this narrative.

I can’t remember whether or not I’d clocked the irony, but I do remember one thing with clarity; the moment it dawned on me that literature wasn’t for me. It was for me, in the sense that I was allowed to read it. I was allowed to purchase the books and the anthologies. I was allowed to have a voice, so long as its sole function was to praise the literary genius of the authors and not to ask where I was in these stories, why my history was being wiped clean from them, relegated to only being acknowledged for one month a year. In a subject where the only characters of colour I encountered were The White Devil’s Zanche and the black housekeeping staff in Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, I remember the day I fell out of love with literature and dumped the books.

It's not me... it's you.

It’s not me… it’s you.

Cut forward to 2015. The USA has a Black President, the UK has a Muslim Great British Bake-Off champion, slavery is “aaaages ago, so we can like…get over it now.” 2015 is the year where racism is officially over, obviously. It’s also the year where not a single BAME author is listed on World Book Night’s giveaway list.

The collective reaction of “Erm…WHAT?” resonates through the winter air (especially given how varied the Man Booker shortlist was) and so did the explanations. One being that our exclusion was, in fact a noble shield, selflessly protecting us from the big T (that’s Tokenism to you). I think the most problematic one was that we apparently live in a meritocracy and BAME writers just weren’t good enough to make the cut this year. Not a single one.

Twitter logic.

Twitter logic.

 

 

 

 

Over the years, I’ve rekindled my love of books enough to know that there’s not a modicum of truth to that assumption, and am glad to know that there is an entire community who agrees with me. A community that reacted by interrogating the industry and doing their darndest to drive diversity in literature. Enter #DiverseDecember (now #ReadDiverse2016).

In December 2015, bloggers Naomi Frisby and Dan Lipscombe joined forces to create this powerful hashtag, urging readers to swap their Amanda Prowse for Ayisha Malik, their Stephen E. Ambrose for Sam Selvon, their Jan-Philipp Sendker for Janice Y. K. Lee; to introduce works from BAME writers onto their bookshelves and kindles. Backing the movement was Nikesh Shukla, quite rightly demanding where all the BAME writers were. Even Spread the Word was in on the action, commissioning the report: Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place, which you can download here. The white, middle-class, privileged mono-culture dominating the UK’s publishing industry was held firmly under the microscope, the noise online drowned out the excuses and, in the words of Shukla, the industry was forced to take “a long, hard look at itself”. Everyone was pushing for it to become more diverse. Well, almost everyone.

I read an interesting article by Khavita Bhanot, in which she expresses her discomfort with the term, “Diversity.” I won’t re-produce any of what she wrote in my article without permission but, to paraphrase in a way that’s is most respectful to her work, it seems that the term “diversity” establishes a neutral, default demographic of the white reader, privileging them and perpetuating their standards and expectations of which all narratives are required to meet. “Diversity” is how we discuss race when we don’t want to discuss race. It’s the smokecreen behind which we celebrate only the most prominent, established BAME authors for their proximity to whiteness. It’s the quick-fix to cultural enlightenment, the good deed feed, assuring people that they’ve done their part for the day.

Not to be the diversity-row’s answer to #NotAllMen, but I only agree with her to an extent. Do people and organisations regularly swipe their Get-Out-of-Guilt-Free cards to redeem their diversity points they’ve been saving up? Yes. Are you always going to get people inviting that one “ethnic” person to the table to balance things out without implementing any substantial change? Unfortunately likely, especially if – from my sad personal experiences – to secure funding for something. Is this the function that diversity serves for everyone? I’m not so sure.

Leftover diversity points not rolled over.

Leftover diversity points not rolled over.

I’ve been extremely lucky in my exposure to literature following my school days. I was able to study Drama and English Literature in university and choose the modules I wanted, not be prescribed someone else’s syllabus. Perhaps my access to literature from BAME authors posed a double-edged sword; I could experience the delights of Chinua Achebe, Maya Angelou, Andrea Levy, Derek Walcott, Ama Ata Aidoo to name a few, but only through choosing modules on Imperialism and Colonialism. BAME writers were in abundance when looking at world literature through the lens of the white reader, but were ten a penny on the Science Fiction, Children’s Literature and Contemporary Fiction reading lists.

That aside, does the fight for diversity in our bookshelves further tokenise the BAME writer? Or does it simply present choices for people who maybe haven’t had the privileges I’ve had? When you’ve had the opportunity to spend large aspects of your life, be that your education or career, immersed in your subject of choice, it’s easy to forget how much more likely you are to become more well-versed and informed than someone who hasn’t. If your job naturally exposes you to BAME authors, you’re more likely to know where to look for the literature. If you’re taking a specific degree subject, you’re automatically given reading lists not accessible to those who can’t afford to go to university. If you live in a multi-cultural city, you’re probably going to stumble upon more work from diverse backgrounds than if you can’t afford London rent or couldn’t get a ticket to the Bare Lit Festival. I know as a BAME Literature graduate from London, writing about diversity in literature, I have no excuse to know as little as I currently do about books that reflect my heritage and go much beyond Zadie Smith. I also know that resources like #DiverseDecember and #ReadDiverse2016 are necessary and valuable to those who want to learn more and don’t know how or where to start, for more acceptable reasons than laziness. And I don’t mean laziness in a negative sense. In terms of accessing art and culture that represents you, ease is a privilege that is still largely afforded by the white middle-classes. A white man can walk into a bookshop and find the vast majority of titles written for him, by him and with himself as the protagonist, a far cry from an account in Spread the Word’s Writing the Future:

‘…an elderly gentleman regaled me with his experience of asking for the Black books section in his local book shop. An incredulous assistant told him: ‘This is Cheltenham.’ When he then asked if the assistant could recommend some contemporary BAME writers, the assistant could not.’

#DiverseDecember and #ReadDiverse2016 are for people who don’t want to have those experiences in bookshops anymore, myself included. I want to be lazy. I want to be at a point where I don’t have to work ten times harder than others to access literature that acknowledges my existence as an individual, not a human prop to service a white protagonist’s needs. I like being able to take to Twitter and find a list of books that has me in the front and centre with the same ease as a white man browsing in Foyles or flicking through the World Book Night list for some new recommendations. So whilst the call for diversity has not yet fixed the publishing industry or solved literature’s problems within the month it was hash-tagged, it is a good start.

I like seeing diversity being demanded and craved, not merely tolerated out of obligation. I like seeing this common need connect people from all backgrounds and positions within the UK publishing industry, whether you’re a consumer or a literary agent who wants to have more variety on their list. I like seeing people unite and take change into their own hands, instead of waiting for a prestigious institution to grant people the permission to do so and, most importantly, I like seeing people help each other. I like positive change at the start of a hashtag and, whilst it hasn’t yet rocked the world, I’ve always been one for baby steps.

Kaysha Woollery is an upcoming writer and blogger based in London. She is passionate about art, literature, theatre, live events and performance and enjoys reading and writing about topics including, but not limited to diversity, feminism and navigating the world as a young person. Connect with Kaysha here: @kayshawoollery