As a writer myself, I know that getting a book published is a marathon not a sprint. And if obstacles such as disability, mental health issues and discrimination are placed in your way, it’s difficult to complete the first mile - never mind reaching the finishing line.
I co-founded the charity Creative Future 10 years ago, when the lack of diversity in literature was neither acknowledged, nor viewed as a problem within the industry. At the time, I was a writer-in-residence at a day centre for homeless adults and struggling with my own mental health issues. I met many people with powerful stories and raw talent, but with no idea how to refine their skills, or get their work out there.
I established Creative Future to be the bridge for underrepresented writers to move from the margins to the mainstream. We support and develop writers who lack opportunities as a result poor mental health, disability, identity or other social circumstance, via our national competition, writing workshops, ongoing writer support, and residency scheme.
We get hundreds of entries to our annual competition from writers who face multiple barriers. Of the 12 winners in 2016, five had never even entered a writing competition before. As well as linking award winners to development prizes offered by our partners - The Literary Consultancy, Penned in the Margins, Penguin Random House Writers’ Academy, Myriad Editions and The Poetry School - we also offer them ongoing support based on our 10 years of experience.
For writers with mental health challenges (such as the 25% of our 2016 competition entrants), the barriers they face to the mainstream could be overcoming anxiety to attend a writing group. For others, it might be the prohibitive cost of a Creative Writing MA, or perhaps literary agent rejections due to the fact that they already have a LBGTQ writer on their books.
If people don’t see themselves represented on bookshelves, it’s easy to think the literary world isn’t for them. There are few successful role models for writers who are from the BMER (black, minority ethnic and refugee) or LBGTQ communities, for example. We’re really fortunate this year to have performance poet Dean Atta as our writer-in-residence who will inspire writers in a day centre for people experiencing mental health challenges - something that Dean himself has experienced. As our previous competition winners develop their writing, we hope to support their access into mainstream publishing, so they in turn can inspire new writers.
Visible role models and access to opportunities are vital in making UK literature more inclusive - needed not just because literature should represent the diversity of our population, but because it makes good business sense. People read books to immerse themselves in different worlds, and we need a diverse literature sector to provide diverse stories. The success of books highlighting different world views - James Bowen’s A Street Cat named Bob, Andrea Levy’s Small Island, Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English - to name but a few, show that there is real appetite for stories from outside the mainstream. More diverse literature will increase sales amongst established readers, but also attract new book buyers. In a world of increasing competition for our attention, the literary world has to change, or it’s in danger of fading into irrelevance.
We’ll keep fighting for change and supporting writers who are at the forefront of that change. As a charity, securing funding for Creative Future is increasingly challenging, but we’re fortunate to be working with some brilliant partners, such as those mentioned above. Meanwhile, our team continue to broker opportunities in the hope of turning good writers, into great ones. If you want to support us and our work, do get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.
Dominique De-Light is the co-founder and director of Creative Future, home to the Creative Future Literary Awards. The national competition is open for entries until 26th June. For more details visit the website.