"I have been aware for a long time that when I go to children’s literature events there will be very few people around who look like me," says children’s author Leila Rasheed [pictured above], adding that she is "frequently the only person who isn’t white".
Rasheed founded and runs writer development programme Megaphone, a scheme for people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. For the past year, Megaphone has worked with five writers—Danielle Jawando, Tina Freeth, Nafisa Muhtadi, Avantika Taneja and Joyce Efia Harmer—to help them develop their work and introduce them to the publishing industry.
Rasheed, who is British Asian, says she was aware of the lack of ethnic diversity in publishing for a long time, but it was thinking about characters of colour in books themselves that prompted her to do something. One of the things that made her sit up and take notice was an article by the late Walter Dean Myers for the New York Times, in which he asked where all the people of colour were in children’s books. Added to that was Rasheed’s own experience. "I started writing and all my characters came out white. I didn’t have a way of putting someone like me into the story. I couldn’t think why that was and I then realised how much of that was about not having any representation."
So Megaphone, "named because it’s your voice, but louder", was born. The five writers on the scheme have been taking part in one-to-one sessions with Rasheed over the past year, and attending a series of workshops with writers Alex Wheatle MBE and Catherine Johnson, and literary agent Julia Churchill, among others.
Publishing’s lack of ethnic diversity, both in terms of the writers it publishes and its workforce, is well documented, and schemes to help tackle it are welcomed. Megaphone is funded by Arts Council England and the Publishers Association (Hodder & Stoughton editorial director Melissa Cox also donated £300 to fund one of the writers’ participation) and supported by Writing West Midlands. But, Rasheed says, "I do wish it hadn’t been down to an individual writer to do it although realistically that’s the situation. It would have been nice if [a scheme like Megaphone] came from an organisation that has bigger scope and resources. It’s frustrating but I do feel that over the past year, there have been more initiatives and movements to attempt [to attain] diver- sity and equality."
Making voices heard
Megaphone’s writers are also conscious of the lack of authors and characters of colour in UK publishing. Harmer says: "It’s incredibly hard for BAME writers to get published. We have to get past the wall of unconscious bias that many agents and publishers have. Most of those working in publishing are white and middle-class, so there’s a tendency for them to stick to what they feel is safe to publish, to choose voices that they relate to. Take a look in any bookshop. There just aren’t enough stories with diverse voices. I’ve struggled to find books that my young boys can read where they can see characters who are represented in their diverse reality."
Jawando says: "In terms of characters when I was growing up, I was a bit aware that there weren’t many diverse characters in books. It makes you think: ‘Can you write a YA book as a writer of colour?’"
Freeth says: "I really didn’t know much about the market for children’s fiction or Young Adult but over the year, I have read a lot and heard authors from those genres speak. I was reluctant to apply [to Megaphone], as someone implied that there was already a novel by a British Chinese person about a British Chinese teenager, so why would the world want another one? But you never hear comments like that about white writers or white characters."
Jawando is working on a YA novel about a boy with PTSD, while Freeth’s novel is about a British Chinese teenager placed into care when her grandfather is diag- nosed with Alzheimer’s. Harmer, who has been signed by literary agent Jo Unwin, is writing a narrative that follows a Virginia slave girl who time-travels and encounters unexpected struggles in modern-day African-American life, which cause her to confront her fantasies about freedom and identity.
An open brief
Rasheed wanted people "to write what they wanted to write". She says: "It was important that they didn’t have to write a ‘diverse’ book." Megaphone’s funding was for one year and, after an evaluation period, Rasheed will look to run the programme again.
Jawando says: “" think the good thing about Megaphone is it isn’t just about doing a big, one-off thing... It takes time. It’s over a long time, it nurtures people. That’s a really important aspect. Sometimes it is a lack of confidence. People don’t see as many people of colour on the bookshelves and are discouraged. They think: ‘I can’t be published.’ Schemes like Megaphone nurture people and it will hopefully lead to more [similar initiatives]."
Megaphone’s success is inextricably linked to the success of its writers in finding agents and getting their manuscripts out into the wider world, but it will also be judged on whether it prompts change across the publishing industry. Harmer says: "I really think Megaphone can make a real change... publishers have already sat up and taken notice. Penguin Random House recently launched its WriteNow scheme, looking for new under-represented voices to mentor, and I was lucky enough to be a finalist in that competition. I hope more publishers will do the same. The current five Megaphone participants have developed strong, diverse stories that will be publishable and Megaphone has led the way."
But what does success look like on a wider scale? Rasheed says: "I think it’s really important that writers from ethnic minority backgrounds are allowed to write whatever they want to write.
"Equality will be when those from ethnic minority backgrounds are as mediocre or as midlist as white writers are allowed to be.”"