Black and Asian writers are “not allowed to be average”, author Sathnam Sanghera has said.
Sanghera, author of the memoir The Boy with the Topknot (Penguin) and the novel Marriage Material (William Heinemann), was taking part in a debate hosted by Spread the Word, the writer development agency for London, and social enterprise Words of Colour.
Held at Waterstones Piccadilly on 12th September, the panel also included Viking publisher Mary Mount, HarperCollins director of people John Athanasiou, writer and publishing analyst Danuta Kean, and coach and consultant Mel Larsen, and was hosted by Words of Colour founder and executive director Joy Francis.
The debate followed the release of Spread the Word’s Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place report, authored by Kean, which said an “old monoculture still prevails” in publishing. Authors who spoke to Kean for the work reported continued pressure to present a white perspective of their cultures, promoting stereotypes.
Sanghera said he thought the UK had a “fantastic tradition” of black and Asian writers, such as Man Booker Prize-winner Zadie Smith, but added: “The problem is that black and Asian people, writers, aren’t allowed to be average.
“What we need are some middle-brow, slightly crap black and Asian writers,” he said. “We need someone who’s black or Asian, who actually sells loads and who is not remarked upon, it’s not about race, it’s just a story.”
Sanghera, a journalist for the Times, said he was persuaded to write The Boy with the Topknot by Mount. “If you come from a black or Asian background you think books are written by people from other backgrounds,” he said.
Larsen said that if doors remain closed to BAME writers “via traditional routes, more [writers] may turn to self-publishing as a more challenging but undoubtedly more open route”.
Larsen also said big festivals such as the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Cheltenham Literature Festival and the Hay Festival, had a role to play in increasing the profile of BAME writers. She calculated that in 2014, just 4% of the authors appearing at the three festivals were black or Asian, with this decreasing to 1% once “cookery book writers, footballers, poets, children’s authors, and writers who were black or Asian but not residing in the UK” were removed.
“There are festivals that exist to profile BAME writers,” she said. “However, these really big festivals are a key shop window for writers. It would create a huge shift if the big three could focus their power to provide high visibility for black and Asian writers.”
(From left) Writer and publishing analyst Danuta Kean, HarperCollins director of people John Athanasiou, coach Mel Larsen, Viking publisher Mary Mount, and author Sathnam Sanghera. Picture: Adrianne McKenzie/AMC Media
Kean said that diversity was about “a future-proof business”, adding: “It is about publishing reflecting the world in which we live, not one of the 1950s.”
HarperCollins’ Athanasiou said he thought there were things that would now “push change” when it came to diversity within the industry.
“One is how executive teams or boards or people who run these businesses are beginning to see the commercial value [of diversity],” he said. “Apart from the ethical argument, we really have to talk to businesses about the commercial argument.
“The other thing, I think, that is really going to change publishing is what is going on with the internationalisation of content. In the past, a lot of content from trade publishers was focused on Commonwealth countries and people bought for territories.
“My experience of HarperCollins is that we looked at English-language markets and now, with continuing pressure of growth and targets, we are looking much broader and deeper, and looking at cultures we have not been sophisticatedly working in, like China, India and Japan.
“If you have a culture where you’re publishing [only] in English, it can almost create some barriers.”
Mount said Penguin Random House c.e.o. Tom Weldon was “very interested in shaking up the way that our company is staffed because he doesn’t think it reflects the society we live in.
“We want to be publishing in the future,” she said. “I do genuinely think there is a shift.”
Asked what diversity in the publishing industry would look like, Mount said “the school gates of my daughter’s primary school” while Sanghera said it would look like his home town of Wolverhampton.
Athanasiou said: “For male, pale and stale to become female, bright and fresh.” Larsen said her vision of diversity was if “everyone in the UK could name 10 BAME writers without hesitation”, while Kean said she hoped not to be writing another report on the lack of diversity in the industry in 10 years’ time.