The burden of representation

The burden of representation

When Awais Khan’s In The Company Of Strangers came out in 2020, I couldn’t wait to support rising local authors. After all the Pakistani literary industry has been in the slumps for far too long, so any change was welcome. But as reviews started piling in, I came across more than a few comments claiming that the author was a misogynist and that his book was damaging towards women. The comments were based on a character’s misogynistic thought process around and description of the female characters in the book. There seemed to be an unfounded assumption that anything Khan wrote in his book was based on his own personal beliefs, and therefore if a character in the book had problematic beliefs, the author would too. 

It’s not just Khan that’s had to deal with this, but rather an increasingly worrying trend that seems to be taking over the literary world. While it may be easier to see that the number of writers of colour being picked up by mainstream publishers is increasing, understanding the nuances of the kind of literature these authors are putting out reveals a darker side to this so-called diversity.

Over the last two years, I’ve made it a point to read only authors of colour (and have succeeded at least 90%), in an effort to diversify my own perspective and move beyond the dominant white gaze. I’ve ended up learning something very unexpected. To a very large extent, there seems to be no diversification of genres with authors hailing from global non-western communities, at least not to the point where it’s been picked up by large scale publishers. Rather, regions across the world seemed to have been lumped into stereotypical narratives of what the lived experiences of people there are expected to be. And yet for all their assumptions, voices from within those communities are rarely given a platform on a global level. What that lack of representation does is create a narrative that pressures those that are given a chance to be heard to represent the whole of the community they are from. While that pressure in itself can be demotivating for young authors of colour - particularly those who face rejections because their work doesn’t fit what the industry expects them to say - it also goes much deeper than that. 

The burden of representation, coupled with this new push to increase diversity at any cost, attempts to portray any and all marginalised voices as being these heartfelt storytellers who put themselves onto the page in an attempt to be seen. Of course that isn’t to say that stories that do reflect global experiences aren’t equally important. In fact, in creating a pressure for all literature, even if it's fiction, to reflect the author’s personal life in some ways distracts from the stories that are indeed meant to put personal voices on paper. 

It also means that once again, anyone who speaks away from the dominant white narrative is once again being told what is and isn’t acceptable for them to say. By pressuring authors to speak from personal experiences, budding authors interested in science fiction, fantasy, YA, or any other genre are told there is no audience for their stories. It makes writers fear writing anything outside the norm because they’ll have to spend their whole lives justifying all the nuances of their work and how it’s not actually based on their lives. A friend of mine wrote a brilliantly penned story about female infanticide in Pakistan only to worry about putting her name in the byline because the whole world would think she was the woman in the story. 

Stories from Africa - beyond the fact that the very categorisation of the continent as a single entity is problematic - often revolve around gender oppression, poverty and white saviours; South Asia sees its share of partition narratives, terrorism, secret love affairs; and the Middle East once again revolves around stories feature gender, sexual taboos and of course war. Reading such sentences again can seem jarring and even upsetting for many to see their rich diverse cultures, identities and histories packed up into a mere few words, but that is the way in which authors are often asked to present the stories they put out, because anything other than that is “too niche” for a western audience. 

The cyclic nature of these expectations and norms is such that when authors like Khan do get the space to write fictional stories, they face pushback, because how could a South Asian author not write from personal experience? As audience members and readers, these trends have become so entrenched in our minds that we have started having these same expectations from our own communities, and that perhaps has become one of the main barriers in not letting global literature flourish. It’s also another face to the pressures faced by communities of colour in general to always have to be there to educate and help white western mindsets unlearn the stereotypes they know. To draw from the deepest parts of yourself can be exhausting, and making it so that authors of colour can only get a shot if they do the very difficult work of baring themselves to the world is as far from representation as the industry can get.

Anmol is a Muslim Pakistani freelance journalist, writer and avid reader who aims to champion for intersectional feminist beliefs with her work. She tweets @anmolirfan22.