Sarah Shaffi: Developing Opportunities for BAME Writers

Do you remember the first time you saw someone who looked like you in a book? Or someone who had a family a bit like yours? Wore clothes of the kind you wore every day?

I do. I was 10. Which doesn’t seem like it’s very old, but I was one of those children who read. All. The. Time. I must have read hundreds of books by the time I got to the age of 10, so it was a long search to find a book that had someone like me in it.

I know many writers of colour who have felt pressured into writing about so-called minority experiences

The book in which I saw myself was Anita Desai’s The Peacock Garden, a story about a young girl growing up when India and Pakistan were Partitioned. Sure, there was lots I didn’t have in common with Zuni, but we were both brown, both Muslim and both wore shalwar kameez (at least I did at home).

The Peacock Garden was about Partition, but it was also about more than that - it was about a family adjusting to a new life, a little girl just wanting to play with her toys and hang out with her friends, it was about love and tolerance and friendship. In short, many of the topics it touched on are universal, experienced by people no matter their ethnicity, religion or nationality.

And that’s key. I know many writers of colour who say that at some point in their career they have felt pressured into writing about ethnicity, about so-called minority experiences. Yes, these stories can be interesting to write and to read, but they’re not all writers of colour should be writing about. Like any other writer, writers of colour want to write about everything from love to loss, they want to write serious books and funny books, they want to write crime novels and historical fiction, to name just a few things.

I’ve spoken to writers of colour who say they have been told their work is good, but a publisher has told them they already have an Indian author on their list, so they don’t need another one. Imagine a publisher telling a woman they don’t have room for her on their list, because they already have one female author. Ridiculous, right?

I believe A Change Is Gonna Come has prompted a change in the publishing industry

Being more representative can only be a good thing. Publishers need to look for writers from underrepresented backgrounds, to understand that they need the chance to tell their stories and to acknowledge that readers want to see people like themselves not just in books, but also writing books. If we show young people of colour a book by a writer of colour, we are not only giving them a great story, we are also telling that reader that they can aspire to be a writer themselves.

That was one of the many reasons why the search for work by unpublished writers of colour for the short story collection A Change Is Gonna Come was such an important initiative. I knew I, along with my fellow judges, wanted to find entertaining, well-written stories that would appeal to teenagers. As a panel, we read dozens of short stories, and after much discussion finally settled on four excellent tales, all very different, all of which were pacy, had compelling plots and relatable characters.

I believe A Change Is Gonna Come has prompted a change in the publishing industry - the four unpublished writers we found have all been signed up by agents, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing their books in bookshops soon.

And there are other signs that things are getting better. This year there are a number of books by writers of colour that have been or are being published for YA readers: Muhammad Khan’s I Am Thunder (Macmillan Children’s Books) is about a teenage girl in London who falls in love and finds herself falling in with a radical crowd; Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles (Gollancz) is about a group of girls called Belles, who can make people beautiful; Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (Macmillan Children’s Books) is a big fantasy epic; Nikesh Shukla’s Run, Riot (Hodder Children’s Books) is about teenagers who film the beating by police of an unarmed youth on their estate, and then find themselves on the run from the people who are meant to protect them.

But there is still more work to be done. Buying in books by American writers of colour like Clayton, Adeyemi, Angie Thomas and Nic Stone is great, but we really need to start finding and cultivating more British writers of colour.

I’ve just become editor-at-large for the Little Tiger Group, the independent publisher behind A Change is Gonna Come. As part of my role I’ll be going out and searching for talent from underrepresented backgrounds, helping the Little Tiger Group to continue in its work to be more inclusive and to reflect the world around it.

Only when young people can find a character of colour as easily in a book as they can find a wizard or a dragon will the UK publishing industry be able to say it’s truly representative.

If you enjoyed Sarah's post, check out the rest in our Authors Live: Unheard Voices series! The event features Scottish hip hop artist Dave Hook, novelist Alex Wheatle and poet/photographer Anni Cameron - you can watch it on demand here.

Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance books journalist. She is editor-at-large for Little Tiger Group, reviews for Stylist, is co-founder of BAME in Publishing and was previously online editor and producer for The Bookseller.