“Diverse books aren’t just for the diverse. They are for all of us. Books are more powerful than just a bunch of words. They can help build bridges of cultural understanding, promote tolerance, normalize identities unlike our own, and allow people to develop appreciation for the cultures of others.”
In April 2020, it was discovered that Mackenzi Lee, bookseller and author of ‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue’ and ‘The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy’, had signed Rin Chupeco’s book, author of ‘The Bone Witch’ trilogy, without her consent and knowledge as well as for books of many other authors including authors of colour. It was reported that Mackenzi Lee, after receiving a request to sign a book written by another author at the bookstore she works in, informed customers, thereon, that she would sign their purchases should they request this option as a way to support and promote the bookstore and, sadly, apparently for the purposes of questionable good ole fun. News and images of the defaced books appeared all over Twitter, and Rin Chupeco expressed her disappointment and hurt. Soon after, Rin Chupeco’s Goodreads profile was bombarded with one-star ratings. The bookstore in question, ‘King’s English’, without remorse and unwilling to be held accountable, opted to shift the blame onto their customers instead.
It was at this pivotal moment that I made the crucial realisation that the presence of marginalised identities in books, retailers, the blogosphere and in publishing does not always translate to material and tangible change in our conditions nor in the way we are treated, and that, sometimes, despite all the work of marginalised identities in the industry, we are left powerless and short-changed. It was an overwhelming moment and a tough pill to swallow that we have a very long way to go.
So, why am I even writing about diversity and representation in books and in publishing? Why are we still fighting for a seat at the table? The simple fact is that we love books. I know I was giddy with excitement when Sofia Khan navigated the tricky and frustrating Muslim dating scene, when Ifemelu explored the complexities of race on her blog, and when Raifa Rafiq mused over her love of Bollywood. There is comfort in the familiar. Books and characters that feel familiar teach me a lot about myself too and even open up a window of new perspectives that I had been grappling with for a long while. I thought I had learnt all I could know about the ways the media can play its role in further marginalising already marginalised identities when I read ‘We Need New Stories’, and this can only mean that you too can learn just as much as I am. But to create such meaningful and entertaining books for readers like you and myself, the publishing industry and retailers need to create a welcoming space for marginalised authors and employees and a lucrative industry for these authors too. Books and the publishing industry can and should be the starting point for realising greater possibilities in our own lives… and yours too.
I love books, and I love to read across genres, I love to escape to different worlds, I love it when a writer makes me laugh, when I can relate to characters, and I especially love when I get to walk a mile in someone’s shoes. We don’t often learn everyone’s backstory in our real lives, we can’t always truly know what people are going through, why they are the way they are, and we might even dismiss someone after a negative first impression. There’s no denying that reading improves empathy and studies have proven this. Would you honestly sympathise with Daenerys if you hadn’t been shown her tragic childhood and journey into adolescence? Or Sansa’s? Arya’s? We might have even dismissed the Queenie’s, the Khalil’s, the Ifemelu’s, the Amir’s, the Kaz’s, the Luna’s, the Izzy’s and so many more. It’s through reading we can foster understanding and unity and greatly reduce cultural gaps… if you would only read books by marginalised authors.
I have often wondered whether our need for representation is pandering for white acceptance. And sometimes it can be, sometimes it is defensive identity politics in response to the biggest identity politics ever played – white supremacy. We might even brand ourselves as “POC Book Blogger” on Twitter and unintendedly otherise our own selves. And I don’t blame you for doing it because sometimes a lot of us are fighting for our dignity and our lives, so of course we are defensive, we are quite literally defending our lives and our right to it. And that’s why we also need white cishet folks to read our books, amplify our voices and pass the mic. Because empathy is what will save us… and for that we need to be listened to, heard and understood.
It’s with great sadness that I say this: I have seen white readers dismiss my #ownvoices recommendations, but have then gone on to read an #ownvoices book when recommended by another white reader. I have to call a spade a spade… it’s racist. You might not have intended to, but the act is the act itself. The very decision to believe another white reader over a POC reader as a books worthiness to be read is embedded in the belief that the white person’s words are superior to that of the black and POC reader. That is what racism is after all, it’s the belief in superiority of one race over the other. Like when you see your boss abuse POC and black women, but your white colleagues get off scot-free. Of course, one is more noticeable and aggressive than the other, but passive racism is still racism. Both instances, though, are still rooted in the belief that white people are superior.
I have been grappling with and going back and forth to reach a state of clarity on books committed to tackling misrepresentations. Case in point: S. K. Ali, author, recently tweeted about the book launch of Once Upon an Eid, a collection of short stories by numerous Muslim writers showcasing the celebration of Eid. Included in the tweet is a commitment to tackle misrepresentations about Muslim communities. It brought to mind the story of the Prophet (SAWS) and his Companion, Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktoom, who was blind. The latter approached the Prophet (SAWS) to ask him to teach him something of the Qur’an, but the Prophet (SAWS) was preoccupied with delivering da’wah to the wealthy non-Muslim tribe of Quraysh and, thus, first ignored him and, when Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktoom persisted, expressed displeasure which the blind man could not see. Verses in the Qur’an were revealed which reprimanded Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) for this as his priority should have been first allocated to those already part of the faith. So, firstly, of course, the nature of Eid, how we celebrate it and what it means to us is an important message to relay to white and non-Muslim audiences just like how we need to give daw’ah to non-Muslims. Secondly, given that misrepresentations harm us and can cost our lives – The Independent reported that Islamophobic incidents rose by 375% after Boris Johnson compared Muslim women to “letterboxes” -, we are left with no choice, but to engage in defensive identity politics because, to reiterate, it directly threatens our lives; it’s an act of self-defence. Lastly, it should be about us too. Those of us who are already Muslims. It’s for those of us who have fasted in the month of Ramadan and celebrate Eid. More importantly, it should hopefully bring us closer to Allah (SWT), and the focal point shouldn’t always be about how we are viewed by white people, but how we are viewed by our Creator, our Lord. That’s what we were made for, weren’t we? To worship Allah (SWT). So, when you’re out doing your sales pitches to increase business and attract new clients, don’t forget your existing ones too.
Books are a starting point for greater possibilities that can potentially lead to material, tangible and beneficial changes to marginalised groups and greatly contribute towards the overall effort of unity, equality and inclusion. Books can change the world… if only our compassion and empathy is also extended to real people and not just fictional characters. You can’t only care about black people, indigenous people, POC, Muslims, Jewish people, non-binary people, LGBTQ and trans people, disabled people (with visible and invisible illnesses) and neurodivergent people in books. You have to also care about us in real life. You loved The Hate U Give? March. Protest. Amplify black voices. Don’t bombard black people with questions, asking them to teach you, just… listen and learn. You loved Ayesha at Last? Use your privilege and stand up for black, brown, Muslim and marginalised staff in your workplace when they’re discriminated against. We need an income, and we shouldn’t have to be driven away and lose it. Support Gal-Dem, #CharitySoWhite, Muslim Youth Helpline, Amaliah.com and more. There are so many ways that we can show compassion, respect and support.
We need to move towards real concrete goals and actions to make representation meaningful. What does progress look like? How can we make representation meaningful so that it changes the world or even the lives of a few marginalised identities? Does it create tangible and beneficial change for our communities? Of course, not every book aspires to be meaningful, some simply offer brilliant worlds to escape to and that too is very important, it grants you room to breathe and just be. And more often than not, that’s what we want and need. Because that’s why we’ve been fighting, haven’t we? So we can just be. But the more I see and face injustices as the years go on, the hollower representation feels when it touches on topics that I’ve experienced and continue to witness. That’s a deeply personal feeling, and you are free to critique it and not feel the same way at all. But our activism should go beyond books and reach into real causes. That’s why I spoke directly to second-generation mothers from the perspective of a CSA survivor. It’s why I wrote about race discrimination in the workplace. Even then, it still remains a starting point of my own personal contribution. We need to channel that hurt into causes, works and efforts that benefit us because if it isn’t making our actual lives better… what was it for?
So, how can we make books a starting point to realising greater possibilities? What does this look like? How do we create a holistic approach? Which areas do we tackle? Well, firstly, our books need to be read to bridge those cultural gaps and foster empathy which means that marginalised authors need to be marketed and sold well and retailers and teams in the publishing industry need to reflect the society we live in. 74% of staff in marketing departments in the publishing industry are white (bearing in mind that this is the lowest percentage of white employees compared to other departments), but simply bringing in diverse talent, whether experienced or fresh, doesn’t necessarily translate to change – with interns reporting as significantly more diverse, the research questions whether these interns will be retained and promoted. S. K. Ali, author of Love from A to Z, also adds, on Twitter, that an equity-based model should be applied to marketing campaigns for books by marginalised authors. The ‘American Dirt’ controversy revealed it was “backed by a hefty marketing budget” and by Oprah Winfrey. Can we say the same for books by marginalised authors? Are they championed as much and marketed as well as they could be? And then there’s the case of retailers, arguably just as important. Crystal Swain-Bates scrutinises how diverse books are sectioned or only showcased and pushed during heritage months which, in essence, denies books by marginalised authors the opportunity to be able to compete in a level playing field. So, it’s not only how much is spent on marketing diverse books, but also how they’re sold at major retailers like Waterstones and Barnes and Noble.
We need to champion marginalised authors, not just for the sake of representation, but so that writing stories can be a legitimate source of income for marginalised identities. BookTrust revealed in 2019 that only 8.62% of children’s authors and illustrators published between 2007 and 2017 were POC, and that POC were more likely to self-publish than white authors. This means that self-published black and POC authors are handling the editorial, design, marketing, distribution, sales, and rights aspects typically expected to be managed by each of the respective department at any publisher. I can only imagine what a cumbersome process it must be. Of course, some might complain that they just can’t publish every book by marginalised identities. But just as there are around probably a thousand books depicting a white cishet male professor who falls in love with his student and dishonours himself and has to make it out of the rabbit hole that is his existential crisis, so can there be a thousand Muslim characters taking on the dating scene. God knows, I would lap it up at every available opportunity.
Make it mainstream if you’re really about equality. Or we stay marginalised.
What are your thoughts on diversity and representation in books and in the publishing industry and how do we achieve it? What does progress look like to you? Should more white readers read books by marginalised authors, especially racialised identities? Let me know in the comments!
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