Let me start this by telling you an embarrassing story about me.
When I first started as an agent, I never wore my hair in its natural state. This is because, like most black people, I had been taught from a very early age that natural textured hair is seen as unruly and therefore unprofessional. Now I am not going to bring you the long-tortured history of black hair, but needless to say no one in the workplace, saw my hair as anything other than straight and my edges as anything less than laid. And then one day, my hairdryer broke – right after I washed it.
Here was the dilemma: wet hair, full on curl-fro, 8.25am; meeting with Charlotte Mendlesson, well respected author and editor at Headline at 10am. Shops do not open until 10am. This is 2013 and not even Amazon could save my ass.
It is at this point I seriously, completely consider calling in sick. As in I have some hideous gastric flu to get me out of this meeting, because this hair is full on right now. I am sitting there genuinely contemplating telling an editor I cannot leave my bathroom, rather than allow them to see my natural hair because I am terrified of the impression I will make. But you see, that is what assimilation can do to you. And to explain, let me tell you an embarrassing story about us.
In 2008 I sat in an acquisition meeting where a book was rejected because it was deemed to be too Irish. Irish in 2008 was considered exotic. So yeah, the hair thing – this was a real issue.
In 2013, I somehow manage to realise that this is a level of insanity even I cannot allow myself to fall prey to. In my head I imagine all the thoughts that would go through people’s heads when they saw my utterly untamed self, walk through the gloss halls of the Hachette building. So I go to the meeting and I talk too much and laugh too loud and in general am overcompensating because I don’t want this editor who I respect so much to think…think what? Well, you know what. In the end I find myself apologising for the damp curls, for the large fro, for the messiness.
And then Charlotte does something which I have never forgotten. She leans her head, looks at my crown and says, "I love your hair. Why on earth would you apologise?" (God love that woman.)
And the reason, I want to say but didn’t have the courage to – is that I’m sorry I don’t fit.
There are so many of us in this industry who felt and still feel as if we do not fit. When I first started the only black people working in the publishing company I worked for, were the ones in IT. Regional accents were as thin on the ground as snow in June. The money question was never asked because it was assumed you were of a background which already had the answer. And maybe that was true, or maybe we were all pretending it was true of us so as not to stand out, not to show our difference, because we already felt we didn’t belong and we didn’t want everyone else to know it.
Publishing has changed since I first started – it’s not what it should be, or what it could be, but it has changed. Thank God. However whatever it does, it does so full on and so full hearted, that instead of finding a balance, it causes a course correction so severe it is just extremity in another label.
In The Guardian this week, I read how the acclaimed and white author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld pulled out of translating the poetry of the acclaimed African-American, Amanda Gorman, into Dutch, after their publisher was criticised for picking a writer for the role who was not also Black. Gorman had selected Lucas herself as a fellow young writer who had also come to fame early. And yet, this has been overruled because of an uproar I do not understand and cannot condone.
There are many times and spaces when those outside of a white middle-class arena, were denied entry. And it is imperative that we find a true balance, however inclusion cannot be meaningfully achieved through exclusion. Those who have traditionally had to fight to be in the room, want to be heard, we want our voices to count just as much as those who have always taken this privilege as their right. But I do not feel comfortable reclaiming what should have been rightfully ours through denying others.
This is an over-correction that genuinely worries me and one I seriously hope does not become endemic throughout our industry. Because this feels like segregation under a different label. This feels like a division where only those of a similar background can work with others from that background, which can only hurt us not help us. I have always fought for those outside of the typical centre to be included in the conversation with as much fervour and respect as anyone else; not to be given their own conversation where no one else can enter.
There is also a worry for where this kind of exclusionary thinking can lead. I have authors from ethnic backgrounds with white editors at their helm – is that going to be a problem in the future? As an agent who is mixed race but identifies as Black, does that mean I am not going to be able to agent someone outside of my racial spectrum or class background? Or nationality? Where do we draw a line? I applaud publishing finally being openly interested in celebrating and sharing other voices and cultures outside of the ones they are only exposed to behind a TV screen or an advertising campaign. But while I desperately want more diversity in the room, I am also afraid of a path which will see designated spaces where we are separate from one another because of our differences, instead of using our differences to enrich each other’s lives and work.
I should not have needed a white woman to tell me it was okay to wear my hair in a natural state eight years ago; but I was and am grateful that she didn’t ignore my difference and reminded me to have the courage to celebrate it.
As Audre Lorde once said, "It is not divide and conquer, but define and empower.” It is not giving you a table outside in another part of the building but claiming your seat among your peers. We learn from each other, we can grow together to achieve a meaningful balance that works for all of us. Because otherwise it is separate but equal and we all know from history, where that can lead.
Nelle Andrew is an agent at RML. She was nominated for Agent of the Year in 2018 and was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2016.