A few weeks ago, and following her Demond Elliott Prize-win, our author Preti Taneja was profiled by The Bookseller. This excellent article (thank you, The Bookseller!) was partly based on a Q&A: you can read the questions, and Preti’s answers, in full below.
Reflecting on your journey, what do you think it says about mainstream publishers?
Looking back, it’s clear they aren’t always as brave or as visionary as one might think. I was very disappointed in them when We that are young first went on submission. When writers are told ‘This is brilliant – you’re very impressive and ambitious – but we didn’t fall in love with it’, or, ‘The characters are unlikeable’ or ‘it’s too close to the bone’ or whatever – of course that is an editor’s taste, and their right. But what that says to the writer is – ‘we have a desire to curate culture in a particular way, and we will cleave to that despite your brilliance or ambition’. Alternatively, it says, ‘we have limited imaginations and resources and no faith in our own teams’. Or worse: ‘in review culture’. Or worst: ‘in readers’. Either way, it’s not a good look.
What is holding mainstream publishers back from publishing more BAME writers?
God knows – I’ve never been one or worked for one. But no one is buying the rationale that those books don’t get written, or that they ‘don’t sell’ any more. I also dislike the term BAME and I don’t use it myself to describe people or communities if I can help it. We all know that we suffer from the linked, deep-seated cancers of institutional racism and sexism and of class snobbery in the UK: call it unconscious bias, whatever you like, it’s there. Among other damages, those factors powerfully put women of colour and from certain backgrounds last in line when it comes to all sorts of things. Including to being published, and then to achieving literary success. We write from trauma and from a place of love, through sexism and class bias in our own communities as well as in the mainstream. So we must be experimental and poetic, and radical and political, and sometimes we just want to have fun with language or plot, or write a porno or a crime novel. Sometimes rejections have very little to do with the quality of the work, and more to do with protecting a certain privilege. It’s a structural problem that goes way beyond publishing to an education system that doesn’t teach Empire history, a film industry that only supports certain narratives and so on, a society that values men’s minds over women’s and ‘white’ over ‘brown’ or ‘black’. Enough.
Even when taken on, are there factors that mean it is harder for BAME writers to thrive on these lists at these publishers?
Never having been published by one, I couldn’t say. But I do know from experience in other institutional environments, including first as a student and later a supervisor at Cambridge University, and also trying to make it as a young journalist years ago, that tokenism is a factor. One person of colour in a workplace or on a list – of new writers, on a panel, or whatever is a massive giveaway. A collection of Audre Lorde’s essays has just come out from new independent Silver Press, it’s called Your Silence Will Not Protect You. She writes, ‘nothing neutralizes creativity quicker than tokenism, that false sense of security fed by a myth of individual solutions’. That’s the key – critical mass. The recognition that we must, ‘allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognize our sameness’. If you get through the door, hold it open for your peers, as well as for those coming after.
What are your thoughts on the initiatives rolled out by larger publishers to address lack of representation on their lists (for example, PRH’s goal to be representative of UK society by 2025, its WriteNow scheme, its own unconscious bias training). Is progress being made?
I hope so. We are a country of second generation, some of us third and fourth generation refugees and immigrants from 1947 onwards – and there are people of all races within that. Our children are growing up many colours, speaking many languages at home and with myriad cultural influences. They are readers and writers, librarians, teachers, publishers and editors in the making. Technology means that we will be more and more able to make the world for ourselves. We already are. If big publishing wants to stay relevant, I think it will have to speak with and to us.
What do you believe would help broaden diversity and inclusion in UK publishing?
Ending austerity, investing in libraries and cultural centres inside and outside London, reforming the school English curriculum and opening access to elite universities, making university tuition fairer and broadening the canon across subjects from history to literature. Reading more widely within the industry, and more fiction in translation. Saqi Books was where I learned about the Middle East growing up. Getting a book from them was the best.
Is there anything you would like to say directly to mainstream publishers on this issue?
To anyone working in a big press who really wants to be part of change – and of something exciting alongside your own worlds – there are loads of brilliant independents seeking support right now. Galley Beggar Press and & Other Stories have subscriber schemes, Influx Press and Tilted Axis Press are just two more I can think of running crowdfunders – and also pre-order this – it’s going to be great: Cut From The Same Cloth and this – Others. I’ve got a story in it. Thanks!
PRETI TANEJA'S NOVEL, WE THAT ARE YOUNG, was published by GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS IN AUGUST 2017. SINCE THEN, IT HAS BEEN LONGLISTED FOR THE JHALAK PRIZE and shortlisted for the republic of consciousness prize and THE jan michalski prize. in june 2018, we that are young won the desmond elliott prize. to order your own copy, SIMPLY HEAD HERE.