On writing a new chapter for Black British men

On writing a new chapter for Black British men

It was a grotesque year in 2016. The UK voted to leave the European Union. Donald Trump was elected as the 45th president of the United States of America. One début novel by a Black British male author was published in Britain (Mama Can’t Raise No Man by Robyn Travis, OWNIT!). It’s easy to untether the seemingly egalitarian publishing industry from the frightening racist political landscape of that time. But as Caleb Azumah Nelson pictured right, author of Open Water (Viking), a love story between two young artists, points out: “There’s a lot of work to be done in addressing the systemic issues which plague publishing, most of which are reflective of contemporary society.”

On the surface, the surge in sales of books by Black authors in 2020 might seem like the departure point from the archaic, one-in-one-out mathematics that has afflicted publishing for so long. However, the problem of anti-Blackness will take more than a year to unpick. Reactionary purchasing isn’t sustainable nor a healthy model for publishers to lean on because it puts the responsibility on the readers’ shoulders, rather than the—overwhelmingly white—system at large. The latest Publishers Association (PA) employee survey from 2020 polled 14,112 individuals working for 71 organisations. It showed that 13% of respondents identified as Black, Asian or minority ethnic (3% of respondents identified as Black or Black British), despite making up 40% of the population of London, where the majority of industry jobs are located. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, the UK published 188,000 trade and educational titles in 2018, the largest figure in this report on global publishing data. While not all of these are trade titles—in 2019, the PA reported two billion of sales of consumer books—the vast majority are aimed at a book-buying public. Three per cent of 188,000?  Even from a purely quantitative standpoint, representation of Black authors still has a long way to go. In addition, the #publishingpaidme hashtag that circulated on Twitter in June 2020, in which writers were transparent about the advances they received, showed that even when Black authors’ books were being acquired, their writers were often paid far less than their white counterparts. 

“Editors need to really keep their ears to the ground for powerful and engaging men, who have powerful stories to tell. It starts there. Nurture these men, and the stories will come. Create books that speak to them, and then more boys will read and more will be inspired to write. It’s all there,” says Alex Holmes pictured right, author of Time to Talk: How Men Think About Love, Belonging and Connection (Welbeck), a manifesto for recovery, rebuilding and reconnecting masculinity. Publishers have routinely seen little value in Black voices, treating them as unsellable and unmarketable. The 2020 study Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing, which looks at how cultural production might disadvantage racial and ethnic minorities, found that when it comes to the acquisition of works by people of colour, “publishers expressed concerns about their lack of ‘quality’”, but that “‘quality’ speaks more to a publisher’s lack of confidence in how to reach non-white, non-middle-class audiences”.

But there is quality to be found in the works of Black male authors. The problem isn’t that there is no legacy from which to build on: writers such as Courttia Newland, Alex Wheatle and Caryl Phillips, to name a few, have spent years carving out a space for themselves and creating a blueprint for Black male authors to follow. Since the woeful publication dearth of 2016, a new vanguard of young Black British writers has formed. Among them, in fiction: Derek Owusu (That Reminds Me, #MerkyBooks), Ashley Hickson-Lovence (The 392, OWNIT!), Paul Mendez (Rainbow Milk, Dialogue Books), Okechukwu Nzelu (The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, Dialogue Books), Caleb Azumah Nelson. In non-fiction: Jeffrey Boakye (Black, Listed, Dialogue Books), Kehinde Andrews (The New Age of Empire, Allen Lane), Musa Okwonga (One of Them, Unbound) and Alex Holmes. In poetry: Kayo Chingonyi (Kumukanda, Chatto & Windus), Caleb Femi (Poor, Penguin) and J J Bola. “There are many Black British male authors, some of whom have been around for decades, and many more to come,” says Bola, whose novel The Selfless Act of Breathing (Dialogue Books) about (Black) Millennial existential angst, hope, connection and longing, comes out in September. “I think the question, then, is how do we support these writers to keep writing and keep creating and keep being published? How can we ensure that these writers thrive, and their legacies grow, as well as provide a way for other writers who are up and coming?”

A broken record
It’s a broken ecosystem. The fewer books are published by Black male authors, the less new writers will seek to partake in the book publishing world. The link between reading and identities is well documented: children need to see themselves in their formative years, otherwise they might disengage. In adulthood, studies over the years have shown that most male readers primarily read books by men, and lean towards non-fiction. (Non-fiction is by and large is written by academics, but issues of representation of Black people in academia are beyond the scope of this piece.) “I had always wanted to be a writer and wanted to have books with my name on them,” says Holmes. “As I grew older and started to assess the industry, though, I began to see books that weren’t really catered to me. I always loved writing fantasy, and I think that children and YA novels have a huge place in my heart. Yet these were areas that were so undiverse it was saddening.” 

Black boys have long been discriminated against in the school system too, with exclusion rates five times higher for Black Caribbean pupils in parts of England. These early experiences have a drastic effect on grades and future career prospects, showing the problems with racial bias starts within the education system. It is therefore paramount to understand the hurdles young Black people face, and ensure they are not further pushed to the fringes of society, and that their voices and perspectives are seen as worthy of attention. “I want to be able to read and select books for children, young people and adults, and help them understand themselves in ways that I could not when I was growing up,” says Holmes, who wants to see more stories “with more Black leads. Stories that inspire and truly represent our experiences, that explore the breadth of masculinity, Blackness, queerness, class and ability.” 

The need for more Black male authors isn’t just a numbers game, it’s a way of ensuring their stories and experience become a part of the historical narrative. They need to tell their own stories, and enrich the literary canon with new perspectives, giving them space to experiment with uncharted themes and topics. “I want to see more hopeful stories,” says Bola. “I think that sometimes we are too drawn to traumatic stories, as they can grab our attention or evoke particular feelings. But for me, I think offering hope is so crucial, and we should see more of it in literature particularly.”

Writing is a responsibility for authors such as Bola, a privilege to speak up on behalf of those who came before you and whose stories remain unknown. “I think about the life of my illiterate grandmother living in a small, remote village in northern Congo, about how my parents were made refugees and forced to flee the only place they knew as home, and what kind of stories that they would have told had they had the opportunity. And here I am, with the opportunity to write, and bring some light, to what may have been kept in the dark for so long.” 

Azumah Nelson offers a final piece of advice: “Believe in the story you need to tell. Take risks and be bold in your storytelling. Most importantly, support each other. There’s so much power in the community.” Black people are worthy of publication. Black men are worthy of publication. Their experiences, their creativity, their innovativeness has profoundly shaped and impacted the cultural landscape of this country, and it’s time to pay them back for their contribution. 

Kadish Morris is an editor, art critic, writer and poet.

Picture of Caleb Azumah Nelson © Stuart Ruel.