Where Were The BAME Authors? Part 2

Christopher Fowler

How much confidence do BAME authors need to start writing?

What chance was there that BAME authors were going to sell a book in the UK before the arrival of Monica Ali and the new wave? We now think that about 120 such writers were working in Britain. I knew of Francis Barber, the Jamaican manservant of Samuel Johnson who assisted in compiling his dictionary, and Andrea Levy, born to Jamaican parents, but that was about it. Many were also committed activists, and weren't likely to end up writing popular paperbacks. You quickly come to realise just how young our history of multi-culturalism is and why there is still so much work to be done. The non-white authors who were published seemed to have been found largely by luck, by a single publisher spotting talent. However, looking around in bookshops now, I'm immediately struck by the widening range of world authors who write about personal experience in a way that feels universal to all. In a recent survey, 81% of UK readers said that they love literature because it promotes empathy, so there's clearly a market for diverse reading. Much work is being done to recruit people from under-represented backgrounds on both sides of the fence, from encouraging careers in publishing to the creation of specific awards like the Jhalak Prize for BAME authors. Visibility is the key; once, authors tended to be lost behind their novels, but live events and community outreach programmes now bring them into the public arena. We have crime from Abir Mukherjee and Jacob Ross, fresh history in 'Black and British: A Forgotten History' from David Olusoga, and Gary Younge's deeply disturbing 'Another Day in the Death of America'. There's teen SF in the exciting 'Chasing The Stars' from Malorie Blackman, and Scottish books are on the list, from 'Psychoraag'
by Suhayl Saadi, about a young Pakistani DJ growing up in urban Scotland, to Luke Sutherland's bleakly comic band-on-the-road saga 'Jelly Roll', although when I last looked, both of these were out of print.
Of the thousands of titles published in the UK last year only a tiny number were from British writers of a non-white background. It seems obvious to me that if we read to feel empathy, we'll want to read fresh stories from unheard-of voices. Wandering the stacks in South London's Peckham Library, I watched a young West Indian boy immersed in his books and wondered, can you see something of yourself in what you're reading? How much confidence will it take to tell people that you want to be a writer?


brooke (not verified) Mon, 10/02/2020 - 13:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Don't forget Marlon James, Booker prize winner and prolific author.
Some writers like Ngugi wa Thiong'o have taken the measure of the publishing industry and decided on different paths. Makes life harder for readers but...

Your young West Indian friend should forget about being a writer and tell people he wants to succeed Dame V. Hunt.

Peter Tromans (not verified) Mon, 10/02/2020 - 14:41

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

If only Dame V. wasn't a management consultant or whatever they call themselves these days.

Martin Tolley (not verified) Mon, 10/02/2020 - 17:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Lucky to have a library in Peckham. Or is it a "well-being hub"? In my part of rurual Northamptonshire these days there are fewer libraries than Liberal MPs.

brooke (not verified) Mon, 10/02/2020 - 19:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Peter T. Dame V is well, i.e. well connected and wealthy--whatever she calls herself. P.s. I don't like the mgmt cons either.

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 10/02/2020 - 22:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Our literary community is encouraging "other" writers these days and they seem to be selling. We had The Book of Negroes on the one book for Canada to read and there have been a number of Caribbean writers as well (please don't ask for names or titles as I'm really bad at remembering and I've only read a few, one being the above mentioned).

snowy (not verified) Tue, 11/02/2020 - 01:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

One missing from the list so far compiled is Dreda Say Mitchell.

[Her books are a bit too gritty for my personal taste, I know her more as a commentator/media darling.]

brooke (not verified) Tue, 11/02/2020 - 13:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

On the US side, the list is getting stronger. My younger friends from across Africa point to loads of new work especially sci-fi with a twist of magic. Writers from Japan and China (at least parts that can get pass censorship) are said to having interesting things to say, but we have to wait for translation. Our library system started an "in translation" section some time ago which is excellent for African, Asian, Minority Ethnic, Eastern European and old European dudes we have almost forgotten.

Helen Martin (not verified) Tue, 11/02/2020 - 21:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You sometimes find yourself reading something you'd just as soon not. When I was reading through the alphabet I hit the letter Q and found it difficult to find an author for that letter. I don't remember the man's name (it was Turkish) but I certainly remember the beginning of the book, which was called The Iron - something or other. It featured a man riding horseback through a rainy area of little population. The rain keeps pouring, soaking in, dripping off, clouding the air. The man arrives at a house with a courtyard (it's still raining) and he stops. There are people in the house but they are not coming out to greet the rider. Everything is silent (and wet) and we now realize that the drips from the rider's boot are red. Somehow I was just so depressed by this chapter, and it took the whole chapter to get this far, that I gave up on the book. Probably lost a chance to get inside the Turkish mind.