Congratulations to the New York Times and their outgoing literary critic, Janet Maslin, for compiling their recent annual reading list that seemed unapologetically committed to ignoring any proof that a person of colour has written a book worth reading (or promoting). Accolades are also in order for National Public Radio who enlisted librarian, author and literary critic Nancy Pearl to identify some crucial ‘under the radar’ works of literature that weren’t getting as much attention as they deserved. Not a single author of color made that list, either. The only hint of ‘diversity’ (barely) visible was a historical fiction novel set in nineteenth-century India where, bafflingly, the (white) first-time novelist was praised for her expertise and ability to keep ‘every [detail] about India [resting] lightly on the shoulders of the plot’. I wish I could say I was making all of this up. As a writer of colour, I can’t help but wince with embarrassment at another day, another list of recommended reading that soft-pedals monoculturalism and ethnic erasure.
Why not mention comedian Aziz Ansari’s upcoming non-fiction debut, Modern Romance? Or the soon-to-be-released reprint of Fran Ross’ Oreo, a coming-of-age story parodying the Ancient Greek myth of Theseus with a mixed-race female protagonist, narrated in standard English, AAVE and Yiddish vernacular with self-assured hilarity? Not just for diversity’s sake, but for the necessity and validity of non-Anglo points of view tackling subject matter such as how technology and falling in love constantly sabotage each other, and the ironies of being a young woman belonging to more than one culture.
Several other media outlets have since responded with suggestions of overlooked and alternative literary releases to seek out: Buzzfeed, Bookriot, Quartz India (where writer Divya Guha focussed on South-Asian authors) and theGrio (which highlighted the works of African-American writers). It’s unsettling that beyond these disparate pockets of recognition online, the assumption is still very much that white authors are considered the default – the objective point of view to comment on how we experience life and choose to move through the world.
Maslin and Pearl aren’t singlehandedly to blame for the repeated lack of foresight evident in these lists. There are editorial teams behind them, signing off on these articles without a second thought to the accountability they have to their readership. After all, why cater beyond whom their majority audience appears to be? What’s more, it’s not as if NPR and the New York Times have never given their credibility a second thought. On the contrary, they both have elaborate manifestos in place declaring a ‘[non-negotiable] commitment to a diversity of gender, race and ethnicity’ and an acknowledged need for ‘coverage that reflects the true complexity of the world we live in’. So why the sheepish, maybe next time resolve?
I’m aware that issues of diversity and representation in literature aren’t new, nor am I the first to express my unease. Just because I feel compelled to forage through the internet, libraries and bookstores for new voices and writing that falls outside the canon of what’s critically acclaimed as worthy of being read doesn’t mean others may always have the time and means to do the same. But what happens when we tolerate the cultural status quo? It’s an acceptance that stifles, and is particularly dangerous for younger readers whose sense of self is developed by what they have access to – that is, a single story or narrative.
What I talk about when I talk about erasure is the niggling chorus of ‘We don’t see you / we don’t need you’. Not everyone can hear it. It lives in the spaces we’re told we can’t take up. Know better than to ask for extra elbow room once you are in, though – we’re lucky to be here at all.
When I talk about privilege, I’m referencing the pride and satisfaction afforded by editors, critics and educators who continue to only teach, recommend and reference who and what they know whilst the rest of us – who may be overlooked for failing to fulfil some high-falutin requirements of being the right gender, race, class, level of able-bodiedness, something else (there’s always something else) – will continue to feel denied of the opportunity to see, feel, read, and hear ourselves out loud in literary works. This does not mean that white authors should feel the need to come to the rescue and resolve to write in more people of colour to compensate for a perceived shortage of authors who have the liberty to write from their own experiences for a far-reaching audience.
Because I live and work predominantly in Australia, outlets such as the New York Times and NPR are non-definitive, temporal sources of culture to me. When I consider the future of the industry I want to be a part of, I would like to say with confidence that I don’t think Australia will fall victim to the same kind of deficiency we saw in those summer reading lists. This year has seen the Sydney Morning Herald name POC writers Maxine Beneba Clarke, Omar Musa, Alice Pung and Ellen Van Neerven as their Young Novelists of 2015, and important discussions about a more intersectional approach to The Stella Prize are in progress.
We need to develop a better language for what requires more work and, as a result, better access and visibility in the industry. Catch-all terms like ‘diversity’, ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘representation’ only take us so far in the conversation. If I’ve learned anything from trying to articulate myself as a writer, it’s that writing isn’t simply about conveying basic meaning. It’s also about conveying the nuance and texture of our ideas, our beliefs, our experiences.
When I think of all the books that have been written, are yet to be written, and are still making their way into the inboxes and desks of editors and critics in consideration of acclaim, I hope editors will remember that we too can write magnum opuses, and tell stories that may be deemed newsworthy, imaginative and highly readable.
In saying this, I know critical approval shouldn’t be the supreme goal of wanting to be published widely, and while our achievements may be celebrated by some, it doesn’t make us exempt from structural inequality. My research into the public response of Ansari’s first book substantiated this. Despite performing sold-out shows in Madison Square Garden and being widely recognised for his work on shows such as Parks and Recreation, and managing to reach best-selling status in a self-help book industry that is oversupplied with predominantly white authors, Ansari was still somehow mistaken for a taxi driver at a hotel where he was recently interviewed.
Fran Ross, on the other hand, passed away before being able to complete work on her second novel. She faced many financial difficulties involved with trying to support herself on writing comedy and working in the publishing industry. If only she had reached the critical acclaim she has posthumously – Orero is now highly regarded as being ahead of its time. I can’t help but wonder what plaudits for her work back in the seventies would’ve lead to.
For most writers, whether we choose to pursue our own projects, collaborate with others, or engage in the analysis of someone else’s work, there is often a small voice inside our head asking, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ At its worst, this question is self-crippling, but in moderation it allows for healthy self-assessment. An editorial equivalent of that, for decisions on commissions and publication, could be, ‘Are you sure you picked the right person (or people) to lend their voice to this?’ It isn’t necessarily a you’ve-overcome-racism-and/or-hegemony solution, but it’s a start to welcoming those that deserve to be here, in spite of whether or not you happened to read the reviews first.