Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Diversity Pt 2: If We Aren't Opening Up Discussion, We're Limiting Ourselves to a Tunnel Vision

By Catriona Troth

In Part 1 of my discussion this month of diversity, I talked to Debbie Reese, who runs the widely respected blog ‘American Indians in Children’s Literature’.

In this second part I talk to Farhana Shaikh, MD of Dahlia Publishing, based in Leicester, which champions diverse and regional writing in the UK.

 To recap, May this year saw the publication of a new report on diversity in publishing, commissioned by
Spread the Word, diversity in publishing is once again a hot topic. The report, Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place, paints a bleak and depressing picture. It shows that the profound changes the publishing industry has undergone in the past ten years has resulted in an industry that is less, not more, diverse.

Like Debbie Reese, Farhana Shaikh campaigns. passionately for greater diversity in literature and publishing

If We Aren't Opening Up Discussion, We're Limiting Ourselves to a Tunnel Vision

Interview with Farhana Shaikh

Farhana Shaikh is the founder of Dahlia Publishing, the Asian Writer and Leicester Writes.

Hi, Farhana. Can you tell us a bit about your journey in publishing, and the relationship between these three elements of your work?

My love for books started from a young age, and I always knew I wanted to be a writer. Publishing was my chance to work with books and earn a living (or so I thought at the time!) and so I went off to study Publishing with English at university. I wrote while starting a family, and later decided to start a blog about raising the profile of Asian writers. Most of my work has been an organic process, and I didn't have a set plan when I started out. 

After three years of growing The Asian Writer, I set myself a new challenge to publish regional and diverse writing. I had the publishing background and confidence to dip my toe in the water - and never looked back. This year, I really wanted to focus on local writers and celebrate Leicester writers in particular and that's how I came round to organising an entire festival around new writing. There's definitely a relationship between all my respective work and it's building writing communities and developing new writing.

Writing the Future has highlighted the lack of diversity in the publishing industry in Britain today. How does that impact on opportunities for BME writers?

I think the report was damning in that it highlighted just how terrible the situation - in fact it stated that in terms of a diverse workforce it's worse than it was a decade ago - which is a real eye-opener. The opportunities for BME writers are scarce and we need to do more to build a more diverse workforce to ensure that BME writers aren't outsiders, that is, they aren't seen as different to any other writer and that their work isn't judged by levels of 'authenticity' but on the writing alone.

What role do you feel that Dahlia Publishing (etc) can play in countering this?

Dahlia Publishing counters this in its own small way. We have an open submissions policy and focus on publishing regional and diverse writing - so diversity isn't something we think about or talk about, it's just something we do. We're inclusive and want to attract the best writers and publish the best books. Through Dahlia Publishing and The Asian Writer we've encouraged submissions from new writers and set up competitions to find the best emerging talents. These often give new writers trying to break through a huge confidence boost and set them off on greater paths. We also ran a 12 month-long development scheme for British Asian women to develop their writing last year.

On an industry level, we're signed up to the Equalities Charter and since our inception have helped undergraduates develop publishing skills. For many years I mentored students from Loughborough University - 2nd year BME students - and that presented them with a fantastic opportunity to gain an insight in to the workplace and gain employability skills. More recently, we've had the chance to work with University of Leicester to offer e-placements to their final year students to give them an insight into the small press, and gain valuable hands on experience. 

Our WWJ colleague, Dan Holloway, was recently quoted in the Bookseller as saying, "What are [publishers] doing to get in touch with street artists and aspiring rappers, and out into the poorest schools and after school clubs to ensure that those kids whose parent(s) don't have a room of their own, let alone a space for their kid to do homework in, will be inspired, encouraged and enabled to convert the angers and passions and hopes of their experience into the great literature of 10 years' time? Because unless they are actively doing that, any pretence to be really interested in what's new and exciting is like dangling a bit of string over the side of a rowing boat in the Med and saying 'Hey, I'd love to catch a deep sea Humboldt squid." 

Do you agree with that, and what other places would you encourage publishers to be venturing into to find new talent?

Absolutely, I think the way we've been hearing about discussions around diversity in publishing tend to show how publishers aren't getting it and Dan illustrates this perfectly. 

If we aren't opening up discussions with the right people we're limiting ourselves to a tunnel vision of what publishing should look like and what literature is all about. It's strange because people read books because they want to explore new worlds - we need to start looking at ways to opening up doors for those who might not otherwise be represented - auditing the workforce is just the start. 

As for other places - it's not difficult. Diversity is all around us and I don't buy into this notion that diverse communities are 'hard to reach'.
Do you think BME writers get trapped into writing about certain subjects, because that is what publishers expect?

I don't know if that's entirely true. I think BME writers have varying experiences of publishers and it's important to recognise that. But, I think what happens is that the early career writer especially might feel swayed to write about a certain subject if they feel that is what sells, or is told to by their agent to write a certain thing. I've heard from writers who have asked me whether they should write about something (even if they don't want to) simply because their agent believes they can sell it. Writers want to be read - and that means some are willing to write what their told or what they believe is expected of them.

You have written about the issue of self-censorship. Can you tell me more about that?

Again - I think this happens when the writers themselves have fixed ideas of what publishing is about
and also in that early career when writers are still trying to find their voice - so they start off avoiding certain subjects, and sticking to a safe few. We need to give writers the right support so they know that they want to write about is important and meaningful. If everyone is always chasing to write something that's 'commercially viable' purely for that benefit then that's a depressing state of affairs. I would hope we can instill the sort of confidence in our writers to write something they truly believe in, that also happens to be commercially viable!

The question of whether writers can - or should ever attempt to - create characters from an ethnic minority they don't belong to is one that raises strong feelings and widely different opinions. Do you believe it is ever possible for white writers to write authentically (or at least well) from the point of view BME characters?

I don't see why not. And yes, it can be done well the other way around too. That's more of a question of the writer's ability to do it well enough so it's believable, than anything else.

Is there a danger that, even when they do it well, writers from the dominant culture writing about BME characters will drown out authentic voices, simply because they have easier access to agents, publishers etc?

When I read Beauty by Raphael Selbourne, I absolutely loved it - and as long as the experiences of BME communities is represented in literature I think that's more important than the question of who is writing it. Also I'm not sure how we qualify the authenticity - if we live in multicultural cities than surely our experiences are shared and therefore overlapping?

What changes would you most like to see in the world of publishing that would enable more diverse voices to be heard?

  •  more peer to peer mentoring perhaps between the 'diverse' small presses and the big six.
  •  editorial opening specifically for BME candidates
  •  diversity training for publishers
  •  commitment to publish BME writers 

To end on a positive note – can you point to any highlights in terms of recent good practice, strong BME voices etc?

There's been plenty of debate around diversity which in itself is a good thing. There's more awareness than say last year, with more articles, tweets, reports and events on the subject. This is all a step in the right direction.

Thank you, Farhana.

If this has whetted your appetite, here’s small sample of books from Dahlia Publishing. To find more, why not explore their website?

When Ali Met Honour  by Ruth Ahmed

Bombay Baby by Leela Soma

Finding Takri by Palo Stickland

You could also check these books by great BME authors you may not know. (Links are to my reviews on BookMuse. )

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani

Brenton Brown by Alex Wheatle

Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi

Finding Arun by Marisha Pink

Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali.

And if you are interested in creating characters from backgrounds different to your own, then you can read my article on Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's excellent book Writing the Other in the Triskele Toolbox.


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