Bursting the South Asian literary bubble

Today sees the launch of South Asian LitFest, a free, live online festival I've created to show celebrate and showcase authors both from the subcontinent and the diasporic South Asian writing community around the world. Why do we need it? Well, even as the publishing industry talks about diversity, more often than not, there is only room for one brown writer, or one story from a non-white person, per event, or project. We all have faced such situations, from an agent telling me that ‘I already have an Indian writer on my books’ or someone being told that ‘we have already covered the Asian story’.

I also know from my own research while writing my book Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, that people face stereotype threat: a lack of role models and representation which stops them from believing that something is possible. People then step into a domain already believing that they don’t fit in, which can affect their performance while also causing anxiety and stress. While there are challenges to being published, it is also true that so many of us are paving our own path, and writing stories that we want to read, ones that we wished had been written when we were growing up.

But are these being read, and heard? The same people get invited to the prominent literary festivals, and the same people get reviews for their books in leading publications, and the same books stay on the bestseller lists. What happens then is that people get caught up in their echo chambers, and only read the books that their 'tribes' and communities are talking about and reading.

We are evolved to observe our in-group members and people around us. We belong to a tribe. We want to belong to a tribe.This kind of ‘groupthink’ mentality leads to a buzz around certain books, while others languish and are never seen or heard. A quick poll on twitter reveals that most of our reading recommendation is limited by our echo chambers. In fact, from 250 people who responded to my twitter poll, 70% of people chose their books from social media and friend’s recommendations. This is likely to be influenced by our confirmation bias; we are more likely to be friends with people- in real life and on social media - who think like us.

I really want this festival to enable people to step outside these bubbles and get acquainted with some authors and books that they might not have considered or heard about. To overcome our unconscious biases and prejudices, we all need to hear diverse voices, stories and experiences. So far, just within a couple of weeks, there has been a growing interest in the festival, and the Twitter followers are growing. Since the launch of the programme just a couple of days ago, more than 400 people have very quickly registered for the various live sessions across the four days. This is so encouraging considering the festival is being run on a voluntary basis by a team of one.

However, on closer inspection, the picture is not so encouraging. More than 90% of shares and follows on Twitter are from people belonging to South Asian communities. Similar stats are seen on those who have registered for the sessions. Even if there are non-Asians, they are mostly those who are already researching India, or working in Indian in some way. The most encouraging reaction has been from people of colour. This means that even as the festival aims to expand people’s reading echo chambers, it is facing the same challenges that it intends to overcome.

Perhaps it is still being viewed as niche by the wider population, as something that is only intended for South Asians. I have created videos for Instagram, and for twitter, and have shared this in a few Facebook groups. I have also contacted bloggers and websites to help promote the festival. And, I have pitched pieces to various publications. So far, no response.  When I post about this on my Instagram, a woman asks me ‘why a South Asian festival? Should we care about the ethnicity of the author? Do you know how Jewish writers are marginalised?’ It makes me despondent, but also reflect on why we are so combative, why promoting a specific community leads to this kind of oppression olympics. Should we really care about the author and their background, or just judge a book on its own merit alone? And, is this why there are not more non-Asians who are interested in this festival? Is there a general feeling of ‘why should we care?’ I cannot say.

Yes, it is ultimately the quality of the writing that matters, but how often do we even give something a chance that might be outside our comfort zone, something that makes up stand alone within our community? When our own beliefs contradict those around us, this becomes a challenge because humans generally detest the notion of ‘standing alone’, and people can spend too much time copying each other and lose the ability to make their own decisions. It is disheartening to even consider the notion that non-Asian writers and readers might think that ‘this is not for me’. In some ways, as during lockdown, social media is really the only way to promote an event, it is becoming victim to the existing social media chambers and algorithms being shared and discovered by those who belong to the ‘Asian Twitter’ community. Can we sway people to step outside their echo chambers in such a short period of time, when something like this takes persistent and consistent effort to change fixed mindsets and behaviours?

It is exhausting that we have to take it upon ourselves to change people’s minds, to talk about diversity, to bring the stats and data to back our experiences. It is tiring to be the ones to have to make the change. And, so I am not aiming to do that. I am hoping that merely by being visible, and by showing and celebrating, by creating this joyous festival, we are doing our bit. It is then up to others to be courageous enough to take a step outside their comfort zones.

It might just be a tiny drop in an ocean, but it is one. A quarry becomes a pyramid, and as the Sanskrit text Hitopadesha notes, "With the falling of just drops of water, the pot gradually gets filled up.”