Where Were The BAME Authors? Part 2
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?