Diversity in literature

Published on: 8 Mai 2012 Author: Bali Rai

Bali Rai, Catherine Johnson, Malorie Blackman and Malaika Rose StanleyOne of the topics, which I've given talks and interviews about again and again, is the question of whether young adult and teen literature is diverse enough. Does it accurately reflect the lives of non-mainstream characters, often enough? It's something that I feel is extremely important and one of the main reasons I started to write. I often feel that this debate is hidden from the teen/young adult audience, and goes on behind closed doors. So, in keeping with my mission to treat you as I would an adult audience, I decided to ask three British writers about the importance of diversity in books for people like you. Here's what Catherine Johnson, Malorie Blackman and Malaika Rose Stanley told me.

Catherine, it's great that you could take part. Tell me, what does diversity in literature mean to you?

In an ideal world diversity would mean the availability of stories that reflect a wide range of British backgrounds and experiences including class and race, written by a wide range of people. And in this ideal world there would also be a wide range of stories from overseas, European, African, Asian, and South American, in translation.

Malorie, you and I have discussed this issue on many occasions and appeared on numerous panels. Is it just about the books themselves or is there more to it?

Diversity in literature, for me, means diversity right across the publishing spectrum. It means publishing houses where a variety of ethnicities, ages, cultures and sexual orientations are represented in all employment areas. It's not just about multicultural books, but writers from culturally diverse backgrounds as well. We need children's books that reflect more than just one worldview.

Ros - is this something you'd agree with too?

Yes. To me, diversity means recognising, accepting and valuing difference. In children's and young adult literature this means the inclusion of positive characters and stories that represent, reflect, celebrate - and question - the lives of everybody - not just the dominant, majority population.

But why is such diversity important, Malorie?

Because diversity in literature fosters knowledge and understanding of others outside our own sphere of experience. It is only through knowledge and empathy of how others live that we can attempt to communicate and connect with each other.

What about outside of the personal arena, Ros - can it help there too?

It is important on a personal and political level. Children and young adults feel respected and validated and their self-esteem is enhanced when they see themselves and their wider communities reflected in books. Literature can challenge the under-representation, negative stereotyping and discrimination in society - based not just on ethnicity, but also on religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability - in an age-appropriate way and help promote equality.

Catherine - can diversity create new readers then? Perhaps appeal to those who are reluctant to read?

Diversity is about making new readers and empowering those who read already. Introducing as many of our young people as possible to the fact that reading is a wonderful pleasure and that they don't always have to read about a society that excludes them. Of course many of us who grew up without any black characters in books are more than used to projecting ourselves into white or into male protagonists. And reading can be aspirational too.

In what way?

If you live on an estate you still want to read about wizards or magic as well as to recognise your own life experiences. And maybe you might want to read about life on an inner-city estate if you live in a castle in Scotland. I think the problem is about class and race. Of course you can find books that feature working class and non-white protagonists, but you are going to have to look for them. It is about making culture belong to all of us. Inclusivity is beneficial to everyone in society in the long term. Ultimately that's why it's important.

Is there a difference between a publisher's outlook and that of a writer, Catherine?

Perhaps. Publishers are not about social engineering - they are about selling products. As Malorie has shown, if you can hit on a subject that touches a nerve, it can be done. But writing a book, for the writer anyway, never feels like a product - it's a labour of something close to love. It's definitely not about the money - although I wish it were!

Malorie, do we talk about diversity too much? After all, between us I'm sure we've discussed the issue at least annually for the last decade.

I think that the answer is no. Until the literature presented to all of our children is truly diverse in nature, we can never talk about this subject too much.

Ros - you're nodding. Is that what you feel too?

It's not always easy to raise the subject of diversity without being accused of being 'chippy'. Yes, we talk about it a lot - but only in relation to the lack of action or the limited results - so no, it's not too much.

Catherine - what do you think?

I would be totally happy never to talk about it ever again! I think it makes me/us look chippy and disruptive and ungrateful and it makes me feel fifteen years old all over again. There is no point. Write the best you can. Things are as they are and didn't your mother tell you you'd have to work three times as hard as the next person? And if your books aren't selling it is because they must be rubbish (that is the inside of my head talking).

Ros - in your experience/opinion, is publishing in the UK more or less diverse than when you began your career?

I wrote my first published book in 1996, partly motivated by a lack of young fiction books featuring black boys that would appeal to my sons. Since that time, equal opportunities and multi-culturalism have morphed into diversity and in my opinion, publishing is more diverse, but there's still a long way to go.

Would you go along with that opinion Malorie?

My first book was published in 1990. The major reason I decided to become an author was because of the dearth of books featuring black protagonists and the dearth of Black British writers. Whilst there are now more BME (black and minority ethnic) writers who have had books published in the UK than when I started my writing career, there are still nowhere near enough. I also believe it is much harder to get books published nowadays than when I first started writing.

Why is it harder?

Commercial pressures on publishers unfortunately dictate that a book must make money in the short term, rather than an author making money in the longer term.

Catherine - what do you think?

It's changed - but very slowly and not by very much. There are a few black and Asian editors now (I can think of two) where there were none. There are more British Asian authors published - people such as Sarwat Chadda, Narinder Dhami, Sita Bramachari, Irfan Master, Savita Kalhan, Nai'ma B Robert etc - and a few more black authors, like Ellie Daines and Jasmine Richards, who is an editor too. It is notable that some of these authors write books that feature white protagonists. Not that we can't write whatever we want of course...

What about booksellers, Catherine?

I have met a few black booksellers in mainstream (as opposed to community) bookshops (actually when I think about it I mean one!). The book business remains overwhelmingly mono-cultural.

But why is there such a lack of diversity, Malorie? What, if any, are the barriers to better representation?

The major barrier to diversity in my opinion is the belief that the first priority of a story is to make money. Of course, no publishing house would last very long if they ran their business as a hobby, but it seems to me that a longer term view is required and that longer term view should surely be to nurture and encourage those writers with potential.

In my experience, many people from my own background think writing is a weird, almost exotic thing to do. It's something we don't really do. Would you agree?

Writing needs to be presented to more BME children as a potential career path from a very early age. I absolutely believe that all children have a voice and they should be encouraged to express it via whatever creative, constructive medium suits them best.

Do non-white central characters sell books, though, Catherine? I always say that if Harry Potter had been called Harish Patel we'd never have heard of J K Rowling! It's a controversial area isn't it?

I have been told that non-white protagonists do not sell as well as white ones and this fact is undeniably true - if only because there are so few books with non-white protagonists. So if I were to advise a new author who wanted to get published it would be sensible to tell them to write white and middle class. The statement that 'stories with non-white protagonists do not sell as well as those with white ones' is a major obstacle in itself. It ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. I expect in the 1950s and 60s record companies thought white audiences would never listen to black artists too.

I've heard people say that publishers should take a stand and make changes so that things get better. Thoughts?

Why do we expect publishers to take the risk? Publishers are companies who exist to make money and they need to sell as many books as possible, so every time they publish someone who is not a name, it is a gamble. Why do we expect publishers to be philanthropic? Except, it could be argued that the next J K Rowling is out there, being ignored, right now.

Ros - what about the industry itself?

The barriers include the fact that the workforce of the publishing industry itself is not diverse enough. The industry is subject to the same bias, discrimination and racism as any other part of UK society and there are too few people in decision-making and gate-keeping positions who themselves represent and understand the differences within it.

So, in your opinion, there is much that publishers can do?

I constantly hear - and read - that agents and editors would welcome more submissions from black and Asian writers, for example, but that they don't receive them and/or that the quality doesn't meet the demands of a highly competitive industry in a time of recession. It seems to me though, that when publishers do have one or two black authors, they are sometimes less motivated to find others or they look for others in the same mould, who are then compared and pitted against each other. In addition, some people believe that there is only a limited appeal and demand for books by and/or about black and Asian people - or with images of brown people on the cover. Diversity is often seen as a series of separate bolt on 'issues' that focus on the 'other'. Issues that can be addressed through special initiatives such as competitions and prizes, rather than as an everyday, integral part of publishing policy and practice.

Where do the next wave of non-white, British writers come from then Catherine?

Perhaps the new Black and Asian authors will come via e-publishing. But writing takes nerve, confidence, perseverance and the luxury of time that is lacking if you've got work and/or kids. Also if you have had a lifetime of being told you are shit at school, you are less likely to think it's a good idea to spend hours and months and years writing in the hope of getting published.

Publishers say they would be interested in publishing more diverse authors and stories but routinely say 'oh the quality of writing we get is awful'. They want another Bali Rai or Malorie Blackman. Only a few want even one Catherine Johnson!

Ooh - that's a bit controversial, Cat!

Agh!!!! - See how chippy and ungrateful I am? Of course writing is a terribly competitive field. Every day, I wake up glad that SOMEONE is willing to publish me. But I do think that anyone who isn't married to a steady earner (not me - my husband is a musician by the way) would be mad to want a career from writing.

How will that affect things do you think?

What I think this will mean is there will be more and more writers who are from the dominant culture. They will write some lovely books and they will write some lovely books about other people from diverse backgrounds, because that's what we writers are good at - pretending stuff. And there will be no need for real poor or non-white people to write another word. Sadly stories that do well - even when concerning marginal, more diverse groups - are usually mediated through the lens of dominant culture, whether concerning race or class.

Ros - can you see a day when we stop thinking, debating and talking about this issue? Personally I'm sick to death of having to consider it but it's also far too important not to debate. We desperately need more diversity in teen and YA publishing. Will there ever come a day when we'll be happy?

Someone who commented on my recent blog post about diversity said, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we reached a stage where such posts were irrelevant? When writers were just writers, and characters were just characters, with all their glorious differences.' Well, quite! I couldn't agree more.

Thank you Catherine, Malorie and Ros for your time - it's been great to hear what you've got to say.

Check out Bali's book

Rani and Sukh

Author: Bali Rai

A vivid, fast-moving take on the Romeo and Juliet story, exploring the experience of young urban British Asians as they negotiate their way through two cultures

Read more about Rani and Sukh

Bali Rai


More from Bali's time as Writer in Residence.