BOOKS

What I'm doing differently in 2016: reading more writers of colour

Publishing has a diversity problem. Book reviewer Anna James wants us to take action, not just talk about it

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By Anna James on

A lot of my job is talking about the books that I think are special in the hopes that people will go and buy or borrow some of those books and that they will love them. In order to know which books are special, I read a lot of them - around 200 a year. Being an ex-librarian and general nerd I keep a fairly extensive spreadsheet charting what I’ve read. When I look at what I read last year, only 16 of the 197 books as of this weekend were by BAME authors. The inevitable upshot of this is that when I decide which books to pitch for review or feature, when I’m writing best of the month or year lists, there are stories and voices that I’m just not taking into consideration. 

Diversity is something we’re talking about a lot in publishing at the moment. And talking is good, it shines a light on issues and challenges people’s ideas. I see myself as someone who is aware of various types of privilege and prejudice but clearly I’m not doing enough about it. Talking is only good if it leads to action. Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of publishers because when I look at the books I’ve been sent there are barely any by non-white authors. And when I’ve looked through catalogues there are less books by BAME authors to choose from. When I emailed one publisher telling them I was consciously trying to read more diversely next year, particularly books by women of colour, I was told they didn’t have ANY they could send me. 

This is not about tokenism, I am still reading books that I think sound wonderful. I am still writing and talking about books that I think are special

But ultimately it is my own fault because, mostly, I choose what I read. And the tiniest bit of effort reaps great rewards; yes, there is a fundamental issue in the publishing industry about seeking out these stories but I have easily found books to read now I’m getting my act together. And crucially I have easily found books that appeal to me as a reader. This is not about tokenism, I am still reading books that I think sound wonderful. I am still writing and talking about books that I think are special. And to me, this part is key; I am consciously reading more diversely but once I’ve done this I read the books purely as books, because to do otherwise is a disservice to the writer. 

Read diversely because our world is diverse. It’s should be sheer nonsense to do otherwise. When people say that all the stories have been told it is laughable. I don’t even believe that all the stories by straight, white men have been told (although please, no more novels about the woes of white men having mid-life crises, you would not believe how many novels with this premise I am sent) - but to even suggest that we’re done when there is a clear dearth of novels from many minority voices is embarrassing. There are so many stories we are not hearing.

I really don’t want a gold star for this because this should be normal. When I think about the rage I get when men want praise rained down on them simply for being decent non-sexist human beings it reminds me to keep this all in perspective and just get on with trying to do better. Change in all things comes down to doing something; it’s about asking how you can do the right thing or make a change in your sphere of influence. For me, that is the fact that sometimes I can affect which books people might read and so in 2016 that’s what I’m doing differently. 

Here’s what’s on anna's reading list...

 

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta 

Okparanta has already received rave reviews for her short stories and was chosen as one of Granta’s New voices in 2012 so I’m really excited to get to this love story set during the 1968 Biafran war in Nigeria.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

I adored Lahiri’s last novel The Lowland and would read whatever she wrote at this point. Add to the mix that it’s essays about her relationship with language, Italian in particular, and I’m so sold. 

            

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I try to never feel embarrassed by the books I haven’t read as I’ve read so many I’ve loved but I really have no excuses with this one, especially after winning the Baileys Prize Best of the Best award. 

Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy

I grew up in a Christian church that required me to cover my head so I have a deep fascination with headscarves and the role of women in organised religion so this look at why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution is high up my to read pile.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

I’m a bit of a nervous fantasy reader but I’ve heard nothing but great things about this on Twitter. It promises Regency-set fantasy featuring magicians, romance and a heroine called Prunella Gentlemen so I have high hopes.

                  

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