We need diverse books, but we also need diverse publishers

When is the last time you read a Young Adult book that didn’t feature a feisty white female? (Harry Potter doesn’t count!) Feisty white female fights vampires; feisty white female fights magical crooks; feisty white female fights Nazis; dead feisty white female fights the human race.

The setting of my childhood was so bizarre that I can count exactly four books that have dealt with the area (see below for the titles). I grew up in the desert in the far North West of Western Australia, 200km from the nearest town. Every book I read was fantasy; to picture climbing a tree was the same leap of the imagination as Impressing a dragon, frost was as mysterious as melange. I was in my late twenties before I experienced the particular pleasure of finding home in a novel.

Yet while I didn’t find my setting, as a child I did see myself in the novels I read. I could picture myself in Alanna or Caddie Woodlawn’s boots because they were white girls like me. Now, as a lesbian in a mixed relationship, I rarely see myself represented in books or film, so I understand the reluctance of non-white readers. It’s a bit like having a friend who only ever talks about themselves. You can put up with it to a point, but eventually the friendship dies. No wonder my students feel like fiction has nothing to offer them.

This is why Malorie Blackman’s campaign “We need diverse books” is so important, but unless there is a lot happening with agents and publishers behind the scenes, it is not going far enough.

When asked for help or advice about publishing, Blackman’s standard response is to refer the enquirer to the Writers and Artists Yearbook, which is great but the last piece of advice I got from a workshop leader at a Writers and Artists event was that if I wanted to get my Young Adult novel published, I should change my protagonist to a white female. I said that my book was about football. The speaker looked at me and said “Bend It Like Beckham”.

My Young Adult Science Fiction novel about a black male protagonist with super football powers has been rejected consistently for over a year by twelve different agents and four competitions. I wondered if it was because it was just no good, so I had it edited by Alan Durant of the Writers’ Workshop. He said it was “commercial and riveting”.

After the Writers and Artists event, I started looking for agents and publishers who might support diverse books. Apparently, ‘diverse’ in British publishing means that both cookery books and murder mystery will be considered. So I thought I would look at the agents who represented the diverse books that I love. I looked at Malorie Blackman’s agency – The Agency. They do not accept submissions.

I wholeheartedly support the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign. We do need diverse books, but diverse books are useless without diverse agents and diverse publishers and better yet, diverse publishing contracts. It seems that there are plenty of writers and plenty of readers agreeing that we do indeed need diverse books, but the middle part of the process is missing. Agents and publishers remain convinced that only feisty white female novels will sell.

Post Script:

Books about the Pilbara: Walkabout, James Vance Marshall (hated it); Dirt Music, Tim Winton (everybody hates him); Red Dog, Louis de Bernieres and bits of Rabbit Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington Garimara.

I know that self publishing is an option, but it takes a lot of time and a large social media presence to promote your book effectively, and I have neither. I have a strong suspicion I will end up grounded on the shoals of Amazon.

We need diverse books, but we also need diverse publishers

International Women’s Day – Not your pity party

Forget celebrities and endless statistics, let’s celebrate the millions of anonymous women who look their oppression in the eye and say ‘fuck it’ and do what they want anyway.

Whether it’s International Women’s Day or any of the history months, two main stories emerge; the anomalous celebrity and the oppressed and victimised lump. So in LGBT month, we remember that Martina Navratilova is a lesbian and that people are still imprisoned for homosexuality in Russia; on International Women’s Day we remember that the windscreen wiper was invented by a woman, and that millions of women still suffer from domestic violence. The aims of these narratives are laudable, they remind us that members of an oppressed group can be successful and that much work remains to be done to end the oppression. However, there is a major problem with this pattern in that it only ever plays into the dominant narrative; that this poor minority can’t really manage for themselves and we have to help them, poor things.

Malala is a great example of the anomalous celebrity. Don’t get me wrong, she is fantastic. But there are thousands of other Pakistani girls who deserve admiration. Every day they know the risk they run, and yet still they go to school. I can’t face school when I have a cold. I wonder how many times the thought runs through their heads ‘I’m not sure I fancy risking getting blown up today, I think I’ll just stay in bed.’ But still they defy the pressure and the danger and they walk to school.

In history we have the Pankhursts who swanned to fame on the backs of hundreds of forgotten women. These women never became celebrities, often their children and grandchildren never knew the way they had campaigned in the face of abuse and violence, balancing political action with housekeeping, only to see themselves reviled in the press and then ignored by history. Without their groundwork, though, the vote for women would still be an issue.

We also have the countless women in this country who marched and protested and campaigned between the wars so that we now have maternity pay and holidays, reasonable working conditions and protection under the law from exploitative bosses. These rights didn’t appear out of thin air, they were fought for and won by women who refused to accept the status quo, who refused to be bullied or intimidated out of their demands.

Whether it is going to school or going to work or just continuing to breathe, I want to salute the courage of those whose names we won’t ever know, the ordinary bravery of women who won’t give up and who won’t give in. These women ignore the jeers and leers and harassment and go to work as engineers, plumbers and electricians. These are the lawyers and civil servants who know they are excluded from the Old Boy’s network and fight their way up anyway. These are the women who are everyday sheros and we ignore. Let us remember them on International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day – Not your pity party

Killing spiders – Gender roles and lesbians

Just as DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act – the one which prevented any US federal body from recognising same sex unions and the legislation that meant that R and I couldn’t stay in the US) was in the process of being repealed, the New York Times published a lifestyle piece about a lesbian couple. For the life of me, I can’t find it – if you have any better luck can you pass it on as I would love to link to it! Anyway, this article was a well meaning attempt to ‘humanise’ same sex partnerships by showing that gays and lesbians are just regular folks. Obviously at the time (2012), the notion that queers have to put out the garbage was considered newsworthy.

As I’ve said, the article was well intentioned, but in its attempt to normalise us, it called on a whole slew of gender stereotypes. It really did talk about having to put out the rubbish and arguing over who got rid of the spiders. I suppose the point was to highlight that lesbians are just ordinary women. I’m sure that the writer didn’t mean to suggest that ordinary women needed a man to deal with their spiders.

There is a joke that is really old now; ‘Asking a lesbian couple which one is the man is like asking chopsticks which one is the fork’. It’s true. We can deal with our own spiders (R gently ushers them outside, I squash them). We know enough about ‘man stuff’ to have renovated our own house and have bought a used car without consulting either of our fathers. We are both strong enough to lift anything that needs shifting. This isn’t because we have special lesbian powers, it’s because gender stereotypes are rubbish.

What neither of us can do, however, is occupy a man’s status in society. The other weekend, there was a huge row at a house party we had been invited to. One of the other guests, a large white male, was angry that R (who is Black) had said that English people could be racist (see Racism in the UK on this blog). Then he went off on one about immigration. R refused to say what he wanted her to – why would she? What she was saying was true and what he was saying was racist. He kept arguing and arguing. I took him outside to try to talk to him. He wouldn’t listen and he still wouldn’t stop. Finally another guest, a white male, the same age, but shorter and less physically intimidating, said to him “Enough now, time to stop”. The man shut up instantly.

R and I can defend ourselves physically, but in situations like this, where the aggression is verbal, neither of us have the power to shut down an angry white male. We just don’t have the status. That is one of the few times when I really wish one of us had the power of a fork.

Killing spiders – Gender roles and lesbians