I’ve written as a Jesuit priest in Outer Mongolia, a nine-year-old in inner city Bristol, a child abductor, an angry teenager, a man in his twenties, a Victorian lady trapped on an island in the Southern states of America at the turn of the Civil War. I’ve written about slaves, Buddhist lamas, racketeers and drug addicts, accountants and artists, actors and academics. As a writer, I want to tell any story I’m moved to, from the perspective of any character I wish, regardless of their race, religion and culture – or perhaps because of it.
My own background is that I’m half Bangladeshi, half Irish and grew up in Africa, Ireland, England and Wales in a Protestant-Catholic household, only distantly knowing the Muslim-American side of my family. Yet I rarely, if ever, read about anyone from a culturally diverse background in British fiction.
Many years ago, when Zadie Smith burst on the literary scene with White Teeth, and Salman Rushdie was still in vogue, I thought the situation was about to change. Cut to the present day. The long lists for most literary awards are still filled with white authors. The multi-culturalism this country is famous for is rarely represented in literature. You can buy a Dansak, raw sauerkraut, Thai green paste and a Za’tar rub in your local supermarket, but have you found a novel where the majority of characters represent the Nigerian-Welsh, the British Somali, the Ukrainian-Bristolian and the Russian-Irish kids in my (Asian-Irish-Scottish) daughter’s class?
In my own genre, crime, BAME (Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority) writers only make up 4% of all authors. Mixed race characters and authors are still few and far between. Worse, according to a report, Writing the Future, commissioned by Spread the Word and edited by Danuta Kean, which was published in 2015, BAME writers are often pressurised to produce characters and settings that conform to white middle-class stereotypes of racial minorities, and the places (‘exotic’, ‘gritty’) they believe them to live. Publishers tell me that my market, like that of the majority of writers in this country, is largely 35-55 year-old white women. Yet in a scant thirty years, it’s predicted that one in five people in this country will be from an ethnic minority.
For me the situation is a broader issue. As Kean says, ‘The big elephant in the room is class and socio-economic background.’ Those in the publishing industry, including agents, editors and people running literary festivals, are overwhelmingly white, middle or upper class. They, unlike many BAME candidates, are often educated privately and attended Russell Group universities (at a time when only 7% of the UK population has been privately educated and only 1% attended an Oxbridge University). Furthermore, BAME would-be publishers are frequently from families who can’t afford to subsidise them for a year or so as an unpaid intern in London. Kean comments, ‘Change is cosmetic and has not been structural or institutional.’
In other words, it’s not simply that British and American literature is not ethnically diverse, but that the very people deciding what is to be published and how it should be edited are largely not from diverse backgrounds, either in terms of their culture or their class. In this country, the children that borrow most of the books from libraries are British Asian…and yet, and yet, as adults, Asians are not buying or reading books. I’ve rarely attended an event where I was not in the minority solely down to my skin colour. And I’m still not reading books or seeing screen plays where the main characters are British Asian, so maybe this sector of the population are giving up because they are so overwhelmingly underrepresented in British fiction.
I think it’s fantastic that there are now initiatives to encourage more BAME writers into fiction, but until the publishing industry itself becomes more representative of the population as a whole (and pays interns and junior staff better), I fear these small shoots will not produce the multiplicity of multi-coloured blooms we crave.