Ayisha Malik: the way forward for BAME authors and publishing

Ayisha Malik, author of Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, will be appearing in our Authors Live: Unheard Voices event for secondary schools on Thursday 25 January 2018. It's free and easy to sign up to watch! To help you and your pupils engage with the event, we asked Ayisha for her thoughts on unheard voices within the writing industry - in particular, BAME authors, whose difficulties have been in the spotlight in the last few years.

Ayisha, why do you think it’s important that UK fiction encompasses a wide range of ethnicities and cultures?

If you're an unpublished author, you often feel that you should write what you think people want to read, rather than tell the story you want to tell

Firstly, the fact that it doesn’t indicates that we’re living in a place that hasn’t fully accepted and embraced the idea of representation. It’s fair to acknowledge that only around 14% of the UK is actually BAME and so you can, on some level, understand why there aren’t more BAME writers, or indeed characters in books. On the other hand, the vast majority of portrayal of BAME in say, media outlets, is generally negative and perpetuates this idea of ‘otherness’ which is only compounded when there are no counter-narratives.

If we’re talking seriously about integration and belonging, then it’s incumbent upon industries to create pathways in which communities who have felt ostracised are allowed to articulate and tell the stories they want to tell. And I emphasise want to tell. As a Muslim woman it’s not difficult to feel as if the only way to publication is to tell stories of oppression and terrorism. I’m not saying those aren’t realities but we’re so intent on subject matter that we sometimes forget about our shared humanity, and writing about characters who are just interesting, engaging and relatable, regardless of the colour of their skin or religious beliefs.

I’d also add that whilst as an author I firmly believe that every writer should be able to write about whatever they want and whoever they want (with sensitivity and a sense that they’ve done their research, of course), I certainly don’t want to read that, for example, a white male has decided to write about the trials and tribulations of a Muslim woman living in London. If you’re going to publish stories about BAME characters, then I should hope that publishers are seeking to ensure the writers are also BAME.

Writers have commented that they are often asked to write BAME characters in a way that conforms to stereotypical views. Why do you think this is happening, and what’s your view of it?

There are a few layers to this. Firstly, that’s probably because publishing at the top (and middle, and bottom, really) is mostly white. Perhaps their stereotypical views of certain minorities are just what they’ve always been exposed to and so they don’t know any different. (Enter a BAME writer who should be challenging those stereotypes.) The problem is, though, that I think publishers are risk averse and so don’t want to try and do something that’s out of the norm for fear of bad sales figures or people just not getting it. Also, as mentioned above, if you’re an unpublished author, your wish to be published might be so great that you’ll often feel that you should write what you think people want to read, rather than just tell the story you want to tell.

BAME writers sometimes say that they are expected to make their and their characters’ ethnicity a focal point of their writing. They have said that they should be able to write the same stories about the same characters as everyone else. However, there does seem to be a shortage of BAME characters in contemporary fiction, so is there a dilemma for writers and the publishing industry to solve here?

Publishers need to stop asking for BAME characters to have some kind of ‘ethnicity angle’

The only dilemma I see here is that people still haven’t managed to wrap their head around the idea that a character can be BAME without that being an integral part – or even any part – of their emotional journey. Why can’t we have a hijabi slaying dragons without her wondering whether her hijab is going to stop her from meeting her end goal?

There are certainly prejudices and challenges within the industry but I also don’t think that BAME writers should focus on the odds that they feel might be stacked against them. As a good writer friend of mine once said – we should all focus on honing our craft and becoming the best writer we can be. Talent and diligence rarely goes unrewarded.

Ultimately, there really is no conversation to be had here except for publishers to stop asking for BAME characters to have some kind of ‘ethnicity angle’, and for writers to be bold enough to write these characters without solving identity crises.

Do you think there has been progress in the representation of different ethnicities and cultures in fiction? What are the next steps that need to be taken?

Oh, absolutely there’s been progress. If there hadn’t been then I wouldn’t have two books published, with another on the way, along with an array of BAME authors who are on their second, third and fourth books. Yes, there are subtle prejudices in the industries, and we have certain obstacles that other writers don’t have to worry about, but if we think about the fact that many of the BAME writers are only second generation immigrants then that’s quite extraordinary – to have made such progress within the span of one generation.

I think what concerns me about writing by BAME authors is the idea of the writing always having to be literary, or somehow address major social/identity issues. I want to see more funny, clever, interesting, thrilling commercial books with BAME characters, by BAME authors. I want prizes for these commercial books so they are given the chance to succeed in mass markets.

The other thing I think we don’t talk about nearly enough is how class is a major barrier when it comes to getting published. In many ways I think this is much more of a problem than race and I think it’s time to address that issue. Writing does not pay. We know this. If there are aspiring authors who aren’t able to make ends meet, then how are they going to fulfil those dreams? For me, this is a real concern. I wonder, had it not been for the financial support of my family, how I’d have ever been able to write my books.

Ayisha Malik will be appearing in our Authors Live: Unheard Voices event for secondary schools on Thursday 25 January 2018. To whet your appetite, why not check out some previous events in our Watch on Demand library? You can also read a blog post from panelist Dave Hook about his journey as a Scottish hip hop artist.

Teaching points from Ayisha's blog post for schools and libraries

  • Ayisha says that often, the stories we hear about BAME communities tend to only focus on a few well-worn ideas: 'As a Muslim woman it’s not difficult to feel as if the only way to publication is to tell stories of oppression and terrorism.' Can your pupils think of any other groups who tend to be stereotyped? For example, based on stories in both fiction and the news, is there a danger of stereotyping people of different classes, nationalities and political allegiances?
  • Ayisha feels that where books focus closely on the particular challenges BAME characters can face, these books should be written by BAME authors. Do your pupils feel that this principle applies to books, movies and music about other communities too? For instance, most teen books and movies aren't written by teenagers - to what extent, if any, do pupils feel that this is an issue?


Ayisha Malik

Ayisha Malik is a British Muslim born and raised in South London. She holds a BA in English Literature and Sociology, and a First Class MA in Creative Writing. She has spent various spells teaching, photocopying, volunteering, being a publicist and an editor. Her debut novel Sofia Khan is Not Obliged (Twenty7), was followed by the sequel, The Other Half of Happiness (Zaffre), which were both met with critical acclaim, and she was a WHSmith Fresh Talent Pick in 2016. She has also contributed to the anthology A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes Publishing), a compilation of short stories and poems by BAME authors. Ayisha is now a full-time writer and is working on her third novel, as well as being the ghost writer for Great British Bake Off winner, Nadiya Hussain.