It’s been said a million times before, I know, but “for as long as I can remember”, I’ve loved books. And it’s true. I am from a single-parent family. My mum has dyslexia and dyspraxia and learning difficulties, so she read what she could to me until I took over and started reading to her when I was about three. From then on, I read voraciously. There wasn’t a thing that I didn’t read. I was like a black Matilda... without the telekinetic abilities.
The thing that struck me, though—and still strikes me—is that there were very rarely any characters like me in the books I was reading. Yes, I read Malorie Blackman books over and over again—the announcement that Noughts and Crosses would be made into a TV series made the 14-year-old me (and 27-year-old me) paralytic with joy—and I sought out the Drummond Hill Crew series by Yinka Adebayo, which I had to Google to check that I hadn’t made up—and then immediately remembered when seeing how aggressively 1990s the covers were. I had to read these writers for some form of black British representation in literature.
In my tiny, naïve child’s mind, I assumed that even though there was minimal representation in these books, everyone would still know about black people in literature, and their stories. On World Book Day in 2002, I dressed up as Temi from Drummond Hill Crew: The Glamma Kids. I was asked repeatedly: “Who are you meant to be?” “I’m Temi? I’m Temi from The Glamma Kids, you know?” I replied... a lot. And nobody knew.
By lunchtime, I started telling people that I had forgotten that it was World Book Day and that I was just in my own clothes. It was at that point that I realised that BAME people need to work harder than anyone else to be seen, to be known, to have a presence that is even mildly recognised. And, like when I was younger, we’re still hiding ourselves, we’re having to integrate and adhere to the existing tropes of publishing to fit in, and to not offend. Because you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, you don’t want to be seen as loud, and as a black woman, you’ll have spent your entire life shying away from any confrontation, diluting your opinion and having to concede in many a discussion: in essence, trying not to be received as an Angry Black Woman, because being an Angry Black Woman is the literal worst.
Last year, having worked at 4th Estate and William Collins for 18 months, I created and launched the 4th Estate and Guardian BAME Short Story Prize. I had huge support from my team (4th Estate PR director Michelle Kane put her life and soul into securing the Guardian as a media partner), from the wider company, from the executive board and from the industry. This showed me, beyond any doubt, that there is support when it comes to BAME repre- sentation, that there are good intentions, and that there is space for it. But what we need more of is awareness. We need editors to look further than what agents bring to them, or to solely seek out what they know and like, and we need agents to diversify and broaden their client lists. Acceptance and good intentions are great, but sadly they’re not enough.
The short story prize proved that there are hundreds of writers of colour out there with brilliant, powerful and true stories to tell. Stories that are funny, stories that broke our hearts, stories that remind us that there is so much more out there than we see when we’re in our industry or social bubbles. And we all need to encourage and seek out these writers so that we can finally present to all BAME and white communities what they could be reading. We, as BAME marketers, editors, publicists and agents, work hard. We work hard on books that don’t cater to us and whose authors don’t have us in mind, and we don’t mind at all because we love books, and we love stories. But we need to see ourselves in these stories too.
Candice Carty-Williams is senior marketing executive at Vintage.
- Bob Dylan's Nobel: 'Yippee! I'm a poet and I know it/Hope I don't blow it'
- Jeff Kinney | 'I'm trying to write about childhood, looking at it from every angle'
- Mahsuda Snaith | 'I'm British Bangladeshi, and I never came across many books from that perspective'
- The devil you know
- Alexander McCall Smith | 'You have to know the places you’re writing about'