Where Were The BAME Authors?


The bigotry of 20th century writing was amiably thoughtless, sometimes vicious.

The Enid Blyton cover above was toned down to make it less threatening, but shows how far removed sensibilities once were. When I started ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ I didn’t stop to consider ethnicity or gender, and concentrated on finding interesting writing. I selected once-popular novels by the quality and scarcity of the book. Certain patterns quickly started to appear among the authors. Many of the men had fought in a war, a surprising number had been pilots (writing and the air seem to fit naturally together) and many of the women had become disillusioned by the way they were treated by publishers and critics. A surprising number wrote simply to put bread on the table.

By mostly choosing authors who are now no longer with us, a time-frame emerged with a heavy concentration in the post-war 20th century, because this took in the reading of parents and relatives. Noticeable by their absence were writers of any non-white ethnicity. Had I overlooked them? I trawled through my files, then compared British publishing to its American equivalent. Stateside you’re immediately led to Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and a lone female, Gwendoline Brooks.

In the UK, virtually no-one.

Of course there were always gay writers because they didn’t look any different and were required to pass for straight, but the only black or Asian writers from that period that I came across on my family’s bookshelves were VS Naipaul and the Trinidadian Samuel Selvon, who wrote the terrific ‘The Lonely Londoners’, a kind of reverse Eldorado story in which a young West Indian gives up paradise to come to a dank, prejudiced London in the 1950s. This novel perfectly catches the feeling of what it’s like to find yourself alone in a big city. However, Selvon penned his tale in a richly evocative, hilarious patois that, although easily absorbed and understood, limited his readership at the time. Selvon had tried writing it in standard English but the words sounded wrong in the mouth of a youngster arriving into an alien culture.

The most prominent black British writers were university educated and did not become populist paperback authors. The very few who reached us did so after higher education. Everything becomes clear when you look at the pitiful statistics for ethnic admittance to Oxbridge. Writing about black experience in say, 1930s London would have reached a miniscule readership.

The problem was made worse by the bigotry and nationalism that riddled much 20th century British writing, often amiably thoughtless but sometimes vicious. Even considering the social attitudes of the times, many writers are now unpublishable. I’m not simply referring to the coded digs Agatha Christie’s characters regularly came out with about ‘swarthy’ foreigners, but jaw-dropping statements casually tossed in as if they were facts rather than sweeping assumptions. The English were keen to categorise everyone, especially themselves.

When London’s Regent Street was rebuilt in 1911, writer Shirley Brooks wondered how the removal of the grand colonnade would affect the foreigners who went there, and goes on to give outlines of national characteristics, pointing out that ‘The Jews like to show themselves (as they always do) where the smart and rich people congregate’. She wrote the chapter in a jocular manner that somehow suggested amused affinity, not dislike, and this was the norm for popular writers of the time. As the years passed, many white authors became so embarrassed by the way their books dated that they subsequently withdrew them. The modern complainants about ‘woke’ culture need to remember that we have always re-examined the past in this way – it’s not a new thing but a way of adjusting to the future.

Continued tomorrow

22 comments on “Where Were The BAME Authors?”

  1. SteveB says:

    “As the years passed, many white authors became so embarrassed by the way their books dated that they subsequently withdrew them.”

    I’m very curious about that, could you give some examples?

    Very interesting subject thanks

  2. Brian Evans says:

    Class in the UK was a huge barrier as well. Many years ago, a friend of ours, on leaving university, wanted to be a journalist and went for an interview with the Daily Mail. “Sorry, old boy,” came the retort, “but you haven’t been to the right school” My retort would have been: “If I had been to the right school, I wouldn’t be reduced to applying to the Daily sodding Mail.”

    He went to Australia and spent his entire working life as the main art critic for the major Sydney newspaper.

  3. Liz Thompson says:

    Born in 1948, I vividly remember the use of colloquial phrases such as ‘the darkies’. Not always said with malice, quite often used as a descriptive by older people who had never personally met foreign born people.
    I also remember ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’ on rooms to let notices. As late as the 1980s, in Leeds and Bradford, Pakis was a common word heard everywhere. I gradually trained my then husband, a prison officer, out of using this derogatory term, but it was a struggle. And I still hear it used now in Leeds, despite the fact that the predominantly working class area I live in, has community centres which welcome members from all ethnic backgrounds, newly arrived or second and third generation. To find books by writers of BAME origin is hard, except, oddly enough, for poetry. I have quite a collection of poetry from BAME poets.
    So far as dialect or patois is concerned, if you can understand the book Buddha Da, good Glaswegian, you can understand most variants. America was far ahead of us on this, but I am starting to see more and more fiction coming out from UK residing BAME writers. Non fiction was always more available than fiction.
    The current rise in racism and outright bigotry may well set back publishing such writers, as well as leading to the same divisive issues about who can write about what. A good example of the tensions that arise within a community is illustrated by the attacks on Michael Rosen by some other Jewish people, accusing him of anti semitism and Holocaust denial, despite his book The Missing, about his family members lost in the Holocaust.
    Whilst I accept that attempts to depict a people’s culture, their lives, and their suffering by someone outside that community may well be inadequate, written for gain, and exploitative, we need to remember that writers frequently depict characters from different classes, backgrounds and ethnicities in their work for no other reason than the book requires it. And what about historical fiction? Ancient Egypt, Elizabethan England, Victorian novels? Not much personal knowledge or experience there I think.

  4. Liz Thompson says:

    Incidentally, as a child I innocently collected Rowntrees golliwog badges. Thank goodness some things are now out of reckoning. When the BBC produced a TV series of Marjorie Allingham’s Campion mysteries, they carefully edited out a reference to ‘half caste’ being a reason for blackmail of the all white family that particular character was related to. References to villains in 1920-40s murder mysteries not infrequently gave them Jewish, Asian, Middle Eastern backgrounds. Most of those books are still in print.

  5. brooke says:

    “Stateside you’re immediately led to …a lone female, Gwendoline Brooks.” Add to your files Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West, Lorraine Hansberry, Pauli Murray, contemporaries of male writers you listed. Most black female writers were limited to African American periodicals, the Crisis and the Challenger, for obvious reasons. Even today only works by Hurston are popular paperbacks.

  6. admin says:

    SteveB –
    Ian Fleming stopped all reprints of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ because he felt his portrayal of 007 was wrongly being idolised by a new generation of young readers. Anthony Burgess famously repudiated ‘A Clockwork Orange’, Stephen King pulled ‘Rage’ from sale and romantic novelists in New York held panels denouncing their own genre’s inherent racism.

  7. brooke says:

    Anyone with golliwogs.. I’m happy to give them a home in my collection, where they can keep company with Aunt Jemima dolls.

  8. Brian Evans says:

    Liz – Years ago “half caste” was also used to denote a gay character (I’m not sure if that included women). An eg is one of Hitchcock’s early talkies. It may be “Murder” circa 1930

    Thank goodness 48% of UK people have moved on. It is such a pity that most of the 52% Brexit creatures haven’t. Constant examples crop up with their ghastly comments on yahoo news and you tube, banging on about the “good old days” and freedom of speech rubbish and “Political correctness gone mad…”

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    Admin: this was the past. No market had been identified, established or researched for BAME fiction, theatre or films; it eventually came through the alternative routes of music and food.

    Always remember; ‘The past is another country, they do things different there’.

    There’s a problem for writers when irony and ridicule are wrongly read as encouragement for abhorrent behaviour – Alf Garnett was meant to be an object of ridicule because of his outmoded attitudes and language – he always came off worst in the plays – yet a segment of people seemed eager to wallow in his outspokenness. Likewise ‘A Clockwork Orange’ that was, in the novel, similar to ‘Lord of the Flies’ in its look at the mindset of male youths with no direction other than survival within a limited and limiting environment. It became (through the movie) a touchstone for part of the skinhead culture and gang violence which someone as cerebral as Burgess wouldn’t have expected.

    Brooke (et al): golliwogs were a child’s toy. I had one as a tot, so did my female cousin. They were just a toy, the same as Jacko the monkey, Teddy bears, Andy Pandy and Pinky and Perky (I’m not going to explain this for our US contributors). Why aren’t they viewed as a positive image of an ethnic person to be fully accepted as a friend by a small child? Or is it mainly because the term ‘wog’ is part of the name? My cousin married an African and they are quite happy together.

    We can criticise past attitudes and we can judge them from our lofty position as citizens of the 21st century, but they were a reflection of their time and weren’t viewed as particularly objectionable. How much of what WE think is normal in societal values will be seen as reprehensible in 50 or 100 years time?

  10. admin says:

    Having grown up with Alf Garnett I think a lot of people simply recognised that they knew someone exactly like him. There was a film spin-off that interestingly attempted to explain his present-day attitude by looking at his life.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Ian Fleming detested ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ with a passion. It was written as an experiment – being written from the perspective of a young woman, Vivienne Michel, who, although fictional, is credited as co author by Fleming. Bond does not appear until near the end of the book, and is basically, a ‘Deus Ex Machina’. Readers questioned whether Fleming had literally ‘lost the plot’, and the book garnered many bad reviews in the press. Of all the James Bond books, it is the only one that I have read only twice. At about 130 pages in total, it’s a quick read – about an hour, at most, and I’m not keen on it. Fleming sold the film rights to EON pictures, with a stipulation that they could use the title – and make whatever film they wanted, as long as it was NOT based on his novel. That’s how much he liked it. Yes, there is a comment made by a policeman at the end, that could be taken to dissuade people not to copy Bond, or indeed, any violent character. If there is a Bond book that Fleming should have been censorial about, it should have been ‘Live And Let Die’. One chapter, set in Harlem has the inexcusable title: ‘N****r Heaven’. It’s a great story, but somewhat spoiled by casual racism. Yes, it was written in the 1950’s, but at the time, Fleming was living in Jamaica, and it is well known that he loved the place and it’s people, so the racism is puzzling to me. But, as L.P. Hartley wrote: ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’

  12. Roger says:

    Your friend should habe quoted the Marquess of Salisbury’s view of the Daily Mail, Brian Evans: “written by office boys for office boys”.
    It’s gone downhill since then.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    I did not read some of the other entries here – Peter Dixon, I apologise – you had already thought ‘L.P. Hartley’. But it’s a good quote, and indeed, true. Sorry, again.

  14. kevin says:

    And to Brooke’s wonderful list, you can add Ann Petry’s The Street.

  15. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    ‘Brooke (et al): golliwogs were a child’s toy. I had one as a tot, so did my female cousin.’

    My sister had one. We lived in an ethnically diverse area, and went to school with many religions and races.
    It never occurred to us for one moment that golliwogs represented black people. They were nothing like black people. Having said that, it never occurred to me that the Flowerpot Men were actually supposed to be saying real words.

  16. John Griffin says:

    Liz, Michael Rosen is not the only one accused of Holocaust denial and antisemitism (by Countdown’s Rachel Riley). Many, like MR, are or were Labour Party members and non-Zionist Jews AKA ‘self-hating’. Salem comes to London.

  17. snowy says:

    I also had a ‘Golly’ doll, [I was unaware of its importance as a piece of American Folk Art*], it was just another toy.

    Can I ask you as a ‘collector’ of sorts; if there a proper name for the version of the doll that has two heads and no legs? It was a very strange thing, big frock-flip it over and another doll emerges from under the skirt, [confused the hell out of me!].

    [*I was only three].

  18. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I’ve heard them called Topsy Turvy dolls.

  19. brooke says:

    Snowy, I’ve seen a few Topsy Turvy dolls, usually with crocheted skirts, usually in houses of women like Alma; not sure what they are called in US.

  20. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I’ve just looked on Ravelry, and there are quite a few patterns. I expect Alma and her knitting/ crochet friends make their own.
    They might avoid some of the more unusual ones – the werewolf and vampire ones might not be to their taste.

  21. Liz Thompson says:

    John, I quoted Rosen as a quick example and because he is likely to be very well known to book readers. I follow Twitter, and am only too well aware of all the other victims of this particular accusation. As you say, a lot of left wing people were singled out for this treatment, whilst it was noticeable that anti semitism, and indeed racism of every variety, was widely ignored in other political arenas. I’m using the word ‘arena’ specifically!

  22. snowy says:

    Many thanks both, spot on as ever. This thing had puzzled me for years, but not knowing what it was called was a stumbling block.

    Having finally been able to identify it: nobody apparently knows where it originated for certain, [but that doesn’t stop all sorts of wild speculation, don’t you just love the Internet?].

    Some point to it being modeled on Topsy and Eva, from the HBS novel. Some suggest it is just a novelty item, “Two Dolls for the price of One!”. And then the theories get rather more outlandish. [Research continues…]

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