How the publishing industry systemically silences voices from marginalised groups
02 Oct 2018
From left: Sunny Singh (author and Jhalak Prize co-founder), Jamilah Ahmed (author and literary agent), Sarah Shaffi (literary editor and journalist), Catherine Johnson (author and Jhalak Prize inaugural judge) (Photo: Leah Asmelash / Index on Censorship)
From left: Sunny Singh (author and Jhalak Prize co-founder), Jamilah Ahmed (author and literary agent), Sarah Shaffi (literary editor and journalist), Catherine Johnson (author and Jhalak Prize inaugural judge) (Photo: Leah Asmelash / Index on Censorship)

When Sunny Singh was writing her last novel, “Hotel Arcadia,” featuring an Indian protagonist caught in a terrorist siege, she received a response from a publisher she didn’t expect: “We already have our female war correspondent novel of the year.” They didn’t need another one.

“I didn’t know there was a category for female war correspondent novels, but there you go,” she said.

The crowd laughed at the anecdote, but within the tale was a serious problem — the self-censorship of the publishing industry.

On Friday evening, Banned Books Week UK held a panel discussion on the ways the publishing industry systemically silences voices from marginalised groups, and how to resist this unofficial censorship.

The panel was hosted by Index on Censorship, Media Diversified, Author’s Club, and Jhalak Prize — a literary award for book of the year by a writer of colour. It featured Singh, Sarah Shaffi, literary editor and journalist, Catherine Johnson, author and Jhalak Prize inaugural judge, and Jamilah Ahmed, author and literary agent.

The talk focused on the point of books that don’t have the privilege of being banned, whose ideas aren’t allowed to make it to that stage.

“What we’re banning is experiences and voices,” Shaffi said. “Essentially what we’re doing is we’re not letting voices come to the fore.”

The panel called it “soft censorship,” the ways in which the industry bans books from marginalized and minority groups through subtle, structural methods.

This is particularly harmful to children of colour, who only see stories revolving around white children and grow up thinking that only white children are in books, Shaffi said. Singh, who teaches creative writing at the university level, said that she still has trouble getting her students to write about someone not named Mary.

But the panel was quick to point out that the problem is not with the writers, but the industry, which often only wants one version of a minority story — as with Singh’s “Hotel Arcadia” — and doesn’t want to work harder to sell a book they don’t already know how to sell.

This manifests in book covers — novels set in Africa always showing an elephant or a sunset, or novels set in India always showing a woman in a sari. Publishers often only want to depict a certain type of narrative of a place, because they know that story will make money. Singh had this problem with “Hotel Arcadia,” with a publisher finally telling her that if she went along with one of the stereotypical covers, the book would sell better.

Singh resisted, but many writers fall into the trap. Johnson said some writers will modify themselves and their stories to get published.

It’s also a privilege to write, and not everyone has the time to spend on writing, especially with no guarantee their work will get published or make any money.

“By the time you’ve got that book submitted, who’s going to publish that book, and is that book going to be worthy? Are the publishers going to put money so that it’s in the window in Waterstones?,” Johnson said. “And that’s a journey.”

It’s not a journey everyone is willing to take, especially when structural disadvantages make it more difficult for minority authors to get published.

Even book awards require fees, which act as a barrier. Publishers will only put that money down for stories they know will sell, which probably won’t be books from marginalized groups. So the books that become critically acclaimed are often already the ones that had that advantage.

The situation isn’t all bleak. Smaller, independent publishers are often better at seeking out lesser known voices, and sometimes reviewers can specifically request books by people of colour, LGBTQ folks and those with disabilities.

It’s also up to the readers, who Johnson said must be confident and interested enough to seek these marginalized stories out.

“We need to have a culture of informed and active readers,” she said.

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