"I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music."
I was a child when I first read this quote by John Adams and though I found it stirring, it also spoke a sobering truth: you can’t simply skip to the arts without a generation of accomplished professionals behind you—yet this is what I tried to do.
I was raised in a family of eight children in Britain’s worst area for child poverty, but aspired to "rise above my station" and pursue a career in writing. There were myriad missteps along the way, but here I am, earning a living.
There is much reflection and debate about ‘improving diversity in publishing’, but we seldom hear from working-class writers about the specific barriers faced and the tools used to overcome them. Here are five things I needed en route to publication.
Three years ago, I was invited to a careers day at my former school. I diligently printed out a hundred copies of a writing guide and prepared a display in the ‘Arts’ section of the hall. Then, I waited… and waited. I watched pupils flock to the NHS stand and gather booklets by the armful. Eventually, I abandoned my stall, slid into the crowd and pushed my guide into pupils’ hands, telling them that even med students needed to learn to write.
I understood why those pupils instinctively avoided the arts. Publishing poses a double threat; it’s an elite field with a high barrier to entry, but unlike law or medicine, it promises neither wealth nor stability. As such, even the most aspirational working-class pupils will seldom consider it.
This is why early intervention is so important. Diversity schemes which set entry limits at age 18 intervene far too late. Publishers should be visiting schools, running workshops and giving talks to convince working-class pupils that publishing is a viable career for them.
My own intervention happened when a teacher gifted me a notebook for my stories. I was aged 10 and without that early vote of confidence, wouldn't be working as a writer today. It could easily not have happened, which is why we need a systematic approach to early intervention.
An invite to your party
Social stratification often determines who gets a leg up in landing an internship, a job, an agent or a book deal. One’s connections can secure a plum spot on radio or TV, on a podcast or in print.
I felt quite disillusioned recently after listening to three podcast hosts—all upper middle class and privately educated—interview each other on their respective shows. This felt like a metaphor for the wider industry: hearing the same conversation between the same people who all met at the same party.
Working-class writers need an invitation to those parties. In gaining entry to exclusive book launches, industry events, after-dinner talks and panel discussions, we too can forge those all-important connections.
I will never forget receiving an invitation to dine with a group of authors and seeing in the email chain a message from an acquaintance: "can we invite Kia?" I was profoundly grateful for her thoughtfulness and encourage others to be similarly inclusive. It may smack of charity, but there are far greater evils in this industry.
The ‘right’ accent
"You don’t sound like you’re from Tower Hamlets," a prospective employer once told me as she perused my CV.
I smiled politely, not admitting that I thought shedding a working-class accent was a smart career move, similar to a summer internship at a prestigious firm or taking lessons in French. The ‘right’ accent conveys a certain level of cultural polish, that subtle combination of eloquence, confidence, taste and etiquette. It says "I am like you and you can therefore trust me."
This can create a chicken-and-egg situation where working-class people change their accents to enter elite fields and so we never hear those accents within, but until we see more openness towards class and geographical diversity, I fear this will remain a necessary tactic.
The most valuable currency in a writer’s career is one’s writing credits. The publications we write for and the stories we secure are used to assess our worth. As such, prestige becomes a substitute for the real-world currency of pounds and dollars.
Working-class writers who cannot afford to take unpaid internships or work for free can be forgiven then for choosing a career in law or medicine, or retail or bar-tending, or anything that pays them actual money.
I took several year-long breaks from writing so that I could afford to buy a home and live and work and eat. How many people like me never return to the fold?
Hiring equitably and paying a living wage are intrinsic to building a diverse workforce and maintaining a healthy industry.
Actress Jameela Jamil said recently that she campaigns against fat-shaming even though she is now slim because she’s more likely to be listened to: "Because I was curvaceous at the time, nobody listened to me. I’ve now lost weight … and now people are listening."
In the same way, we need successful working-class writers to highlight the inequities of the publishing industry. Writers like Sathnam Sanghera and Kit de Waal have reached a level of success where they can talk about nepotism or myopia in elite fields without seeming bitter. We need champions like them to continue speaking out and to keep diversity on our collective agenda.
I don’t want to ‘rewrite the canon’ or erase established voices, nor do I believe that ‘pale stale males’ have nothing of import to say. I think there’s space for all of us. As De Waal has said, it’s not a case of us or them but us and them. All we ask is that they hold a door open behind them so we have one fewer barrier to break.
Kia Abdullah is the author of Take It Back (HarperCollins, 2019) and the editor of outdoor travel blog Atlas & Boots.
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