Editing needs more radical solutions for writers of color, Saha tells EIBF

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According to Dr Anamik Saha, author of the first UK academic study on diversity, publishing must move away from the “benign language of diversity” in favor of more “radical” solutions to ensure real change for writers and the colored audience. in commercial publishing and fiction.

Speaking at the “Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing: Lasting Change” event organized by the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Society of Young Publishers Scotland on Thursday August 19, Saha suggested moving on to restorative or restorative justice suggestions , which would give writers of color platforms to tell their own stories, possibly through government funding or political initiatives.

“It’s not just about inserting more black, brown and Asian bodies into the industry, actually how we can transform the industry so that the publishing process offers the same creative freedoms to writers of color. so they can tell the stories they want to tell in the way they want to tell them, ”he said.

The event was chaired by Ellah Wakatama, Editor-in-Chief at Canongate and Chairman of the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing and reviewed actions and initiatives that were adopted a year after the release of Saha’s original report. The panel consisted of Margaret Busby CBE, co-founder of publisher Allison & Busby, Crystal Mahey-Morgan, founder of OWN IT !, and Samantha Williams, founder of BookLove, who discussed what needs to be done to ensure that these changes are longstanding, lasting and part of a new structure.

Saha said: “In light of Covid, in light of Black Lives Matter, police brutality, the continuing examples of racial violence enacted against some of the most disadvantaged in society, it can sometimes give the impression that work writing, making and selling books can feel a bit mundane. ”But, he argued,“ If racism is about the dehumanization of people of color, the removal of the value of black, brown lives. and Asians, and Covid has shown how dispensable these lives are, one of the powerful things about the books and especially the fiction trade that has been the subject of this report is how they can restore humanity to people of color whose lives have been devalued. “

Advocating for restorative justice, he said: “As much as I don’t necessarily want to evolve into some kind of nationalist politics that says’ we need our own media and our own things that can come out of this report, I’m very interested in the forms of politics needed to sustain and fund those independent presses and businesses which, in my opinion, are actually more successful in attracting racialized minority audiences more into book culture, “he said.

He argued that “understanding that black, brown and Asian communities have been, certainly in the West, exploited and subjected to forms of oppression” could be addressed by “giving these communities a platform to tell their own stories and restore their own humanity “.

“I know for a lot of people it might be hard to swallow, but frankly, before Black Lives Matter we weren’t talking about funding the police, and all of a sudden it’s on the agenda. A lot of work and campaigning needs to be done around these issues, but I think it will benefit everyone. I think it’s good for the company.

Mahey-Morgan said she started OWN IT! “not so much as an inspiration but what seemed like a necessity” after working in mainstream publishing for 10 years and being frustrated by the assumptions made by white agents and editors about minority communities.

“It really started to add up in a way. I felt like I couldn’t make the change I wanted to make in editing, and the only way I felt like I could actually make a real change, and not a passive change, but a long lasting proactive change, was to get out of the mainstream and publish and build something alternative, “she said.” But in doing that, don’t have it as something siled or ghetto. Building something that was industry leading rather than outside of the industry, but doing it on our own terms ”.

She added: “Because of who we were we had access to different audiences, we weren’t making the same assumptions most publishers do and what we could do was create a business that was growing year by year. year, commercially viable, but also talking to the public that the post was not, giving the public the power that the post was not, and it was something that looked like an act of protest, it looked like l “activism. It wasn’t just about publishing books in a commodity, it was about life.”

She noted that when, three years later, OWN IT! Also launched as an agency, among its first clients were the “pioneers” Courttia Newland and Salena Godden. “The fact that in those 20 years they couldn’t find an agent who they felt suited their needs and could push their careers where they needed to go says a lot about the industry,” said she declared.

Busby said she was “concerned” that when people talk about publishers and booksellers, they still don’t include her or any of the characters on the panel. “So it’s always a ‘them and us’ affair. And I think we have to be concerned that we are not seen as ‘them’ often enough, and we ourselves are guilty of seeing it that way, as if we have to wait for ‘them’ to do something. ” we “. We have to try to make sure that the industry does us a disservice, because what we stand for is to make literature better for all of us.

She argued that a truly diverse publishing industry would make the country’s literature “more relevant, more vibrant, more interesting to everyone involved, no matter where they come from,” adding: “It’s a business certainly, but it is also a question of cultural policy ”.

Examining the cultural significance of diverse publishing, Saha said it was important to think about government policy “in a way that really takes the symbolic cultural specificity of books seriously”, asking the public to imagine what that would look like for a company like OWN IT. ! receive money from the state because there is recognition of the cultural value of the books produced there.

“I appreciate the efforts that try to attract more people of color to these industries, but in fact, if we’re really going for a radical transformation, it’s actually a much bigger macro issue, which brings us to to policy and lobbying issues, ”he said.

But the scrutiny that writers and booksellers of color face can be exhausting and overwhelming. Williams, founder of BookLove, said she faces “battles” every day in publishing. “I do and I love it and I believe in it,” she said, but added that there was a “tension of having to engage in these conversations, sometimes just thinking that I don’t want to have these discussions anymore, I don’t really care – but then I think, ‘I’m an activist, I need to have these discussions’ ”.

“I just want to sell books, I don’t want to be a diverse bookseller or a multicultural bookseller,” she said.

Asked about recent disputes in the publishing industry and the use of sensitive readers, Saha said publishers were “petrified of being canceled.” He argued that the fact that the public can now “respond” to publishers on social media destroys the idea that “all press is good press” and may put publishers on the defensive.

“In our research, we found that publishers saw themselves as very liberal and open and when this was challenged by people who called out all the forms of privilege they had, it caused a very defensive reaction,” he said. -he declares.

Mahey-Morgan said she was concerned sensitive readers could be used to “take the burden off” of the publisher. “I think a lot of the problem with what’s wrong with the industry not changing is that it always shifts the responsibility and the burden onto someone else.” , she said.

“Having said that, of course, you don’t have in-house staff, which in itself is a problem – maybe you need to start looking at the symptoms and thinking about the causes of things. If you literally don’t have internal staff who understand what an author writes or what an author might perceive, this is a problem and you need to find a way to fix it.

“When books get published, they go through so many different people, editors, writers, proofreaders, marketers, advertisers. If there is only one person who can grasp the fact that something is problematic, and that is a sensitive reader who does not get paid very much, then a huge burden is placed on them. I’m not saying there’s no room for [sensitivity readers] but I think how they are used and why they are used are the things we need to ask and consider.

Busby agreed, adding, “Publishing companies themselves need an internal change before they embark on an external critique of what is published. ”

Looking ahead, panelists said they were frustrated with reports due every few years “because nothing really changes”, but noted grounds for cautious optimism. Mahey-Morgan said she was inspired by communities taking the initiative and creating movements and networks inspired by pioneers such as Busby and Wakatama, while Busby concluded: “Let’s all learn from each other and the younger generation builds on the lessons of the past. “


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