THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

Introduction

Find out about social sciences at the British Library including collections, events and research. This blog includes contributions from curators and guest posts by academics, students and practitioners. Read more

17 August 2017

Writers of Colour in independent publishing - Bringing voices together: a guest post from Dr. Kavita Bhanot

This blog post was written by Dr. Kavita Bhanot who has been involved in the development of Bringing Voices Together (7th September), a networking event organised by PhD placement student in Contemporary British Collections, Chantelle Lewis. Kavita will be one of the panellists on the day seeking to discuss issues of representation within publishing, how they’re being countered, and recommending the ways the British Library can engage more actively with independent publishers committed to inclusivity.

Kavita Bhanot writes fiction, non-fiction and reviews. She is editor of the anthology Too Asian, Not Asian Enough (Tindal Street Press 2011), the forthcoming Book of Birmingham (Comma Press, 2018) and co-editor of the first Bare Lit anthology (Brain Mill Press, 2017). She has a PhD from Manchester University, is a reader and mentor with The Literary Consultancy and is currently Honorary Creative Writing Fellow at Leicester University.

  Kavita

What is the difference between a published book and a typed manuscript on somebody’s computer? Whilst editing, giving feedback on novels and short stories over the years, I have come across countless writers who are writing or have written remarkable books. And I have been struck by how vulnerable writers are to the whims and fancies, or structural blockades, of the gatekeepers in the publishing industry. These walls are all the more impenetrable and incomprehensible for writers of colour – there is little correlation between ‘quality’ of work, ‘content’, and what gets published. Many other factors come into play, such as how marketable a work or a writer is; how ‘true’ or palatable the work is for white readers; whether something else with a similar subject matter has been published recently; if another writer of a similar background has recently been launched.

The sense of vulnerability that the relationship of dependency on the publishing industry produces has led writers I know to breakdown, depression, to giving up writing - supposing that they are just not good enough, to a feeling of hopelessness, pointlessness.

Is the answer to participate in conversations about diversity, to enter competitions, to join mentoring schemes - even if we’ve been writing for five, ten, fifteen years? Are we to be perpetual children, beneficiaries of paternalism, needing advice and guidance? Do we always have to stand with begging bowls, asking for encouragement, support and recognition, grateful for anything we get? Doesn’t the ‘need’ for recognition from the ‘mainstream’ continue to make us vulnerable and dependent, so we hand over all our self-worth to people and institutions with power? How does it help us to develop self-esteem, a strong inner core, which is what is needed above all to continue writing?

And the excessive focus on publishers and their lack of interest in our work diverts us from thinking about what really matters – the writing. It can lead us to seek acceptance by writing what publishers want us to write. Or in subtle ways, it can lead us to not interrogate what has come before, and reproduce this, not thinking about what we are writing, how we are writing, who we are writing for. My work for several years has been to unpack the ways in which whiteness has often been centred in our writing in conscious and unconscious ways. This perspective is normalised. Being able to see this, to read it and to write differently requires a great deal of effort and self-care. Focussing on ‘diversity’ distracts us from this work.

It is important for writers of colour to develop a political and creative vision, to nurture self-belief and to create collective structures of mutual support founded in a political core. A core that is not fixed, but is open to self-interrogation, change and complexity. Writers of colour should not feel dependent on existing established structures, they should and increasingly are, finding or creating independent outlets.

While publishing conglomerates and media empires become concentrated into a few increasingly powerful and commercial corporate houses, the number of writers of colour producing work that is experimental in form and content is also increasing, work that emerges from activism and critical thinking, work that is of little interest, is unpalatable even, to the ‘mainstream’. These writers are not waiting for anyone’s recognition - they are turning to online forums, they are creating websites, setting up independent publishing initiatives, they are self-publishing, producing chapbooks, booklets, magazines, e books, crowd-funded books – and they are using social media to promote their work. It is from these spaces that paradigm shifting work can and is emerging, a different way of looking at the world, building on but also unlike what has come before, because it is responding to the present moment.

For the most, such work tends to remain unseen by the ‘mainstream’ – until the power of the collective voice becomes so threatening that it can no longer be ignored. And then there is an effort to co-opt it, to absorb some of the more acceptable elements in order to appear inclusive. The odd writer will be published, turned into a celebrity, so it appears that space is being made for new perspectives, new voices. Some people entrenched in the ‘mainstream’ will jump on the bandwagon, appearing to propagate elements of the new discourse, some of which now seems to have become acceptable to the ‘mainstream’. All this works to keep out voices that are truly threatening.

So why is it important that the British Library keep apace with these changes, putting time and effort into identifying these texts, documents, works of literature that emerge from critical, activist spaces, acknowledging their existence, making them available to be read?

No place or institution is neutral, but due to the assumption that everything that is published in the UK is available in the British Library, there is a perceived neutrality inherent in the idea of the Library. A great deal of scholarship, literature and research emerges from the British Library - the place and the catalogue. The Library therefore comes to define the boundaries, foundations and paradigms of a great deal of the scholarship coming out of Britain through what it includes and excludes in its catalogue. Whilst those who are producing work outside the ‘mainstream’ may not be aware of the processes or procedures or even the need to send their work to the Library, it is important for the British Library to reach out, to do the research to find and acquire these works. So that emerging literature and scholarship, rather than drawing only on what exists in ‘mainstream’ spaces, might write about, reference, build on these texts – not as ‘raw material’, but as political, intellectual, creative contributions in their own right. The circulation of knowledge can become more meaningful if public funded institutions like the British Library can take such initiative.

 

Related posts: Bringing Voices Together / Chantelle Lewis

Decolonise, not Diversify / Kavita Bhanot in Media Diversified.

 

02 August 2017

Bringing Voices Together: Inclusivity in Independent Publishing in Contemporary Britain, 7th September

Chantelle Lewis is a PhD student working at the British Library on a project on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) publishing. In this post, Chantelle describes her project and a forthcoming event at the Library.

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My name is Chantelle Lewis and I am a PhD student in the Sociology department at Goldsmiths College. My research is focused on the lived experiences of mixed race families in mono-cultural British towns. Since beginning my PhD, I have been interested in 'race' in Britain, racialised inequalities and the legacies of colonialism. I am keen to become a public sociologist emphasising how sociological research can help shape important social policies.

I am currently working as a PhD placement researcher within the Contemporary British Publications team at the British Library. The title of my placement is ‘Independent, D-I-Y, and activist BAME publishing, in print and online, in 21st century Britain’. I am interested in the current production of inclusive publications, and how the Library can better engage with independent publishers and activists invested in widening representation of writers of colour.

I began by using the Library’s online catalogue to assess its holdings of independent and activist publishing committed to writers of colour. Following this, I met with writers, publishers and activists, and asked them about their experience of supporting independent expression in print and online. The result of these meetings will be a networking event at the British Library titled 'Bringing Voices Together'.  I was inspired to organise Bringing Voices Together after the project illuminated devolved literary practices which could help structure a pragmatic response by the British Library.

The event will bring together people from the arts, literary, and activist world, together with staff from the British Library. The group will include people invested in the development of platforms for diverse forms of expression, as many face similar obstacles in a predominantly mono-cultural industry. 

Whilst meeting with writers, publishers and activists, I began to feel like there were key people I was speaking to who could benefit by connecting with others committed to inclusivity.  Inspired by the on-going project run by Birkbeck History department - History Acts , where historians meet with activists to discuss the possibility of collaboration, I was keen to do something similar as part of my placement. As well as having writers and publishers involved, there will be academics and researchers at the event. I am hopeful that this will allow for interdisciplinary discussions on past and present expression by writers of colour.

Part of Bringing Voices Together will be to gather information for the British Library’s Contemporary Britain web pages on independent publishers who have committed to writers of colour in print and digital formats. This will serve as a starting point for the Library to become actively engaged with the varied formations of contemporary publishing in Britain. This information is also intended to help bookshops and public libraries connect with different voices, as well as offering more wide-ranging options for users of the Library.  We’ll update this post with more details after the event.

Over the coming weeks, there will be a series of guest blog posts from myself and some of the people I have met who are engaged with inclusive independent publishing. Alongside the updates to the Contemporary Britain web pages, these articles will show that Bringing Voices Together is intended to be action driven, coupled with giving a much needed platform to different modes of expression. It also contributes to the notion of legacy and how collaboration can be at the forefront of change.

The fusion of attendees and speakers from publishing, literary, academic and activist backgrounds will allow a range of stakeholders to meet and debate the contemporary issues in publishing and the innovative ways these are being addressed. This will lead to a celebration of resourceful production which has been rewarded by the widening presence of public appreciation. It will also comment on the positive aspects of independent publishing and the opportunities it can present for inclusive expression.

The event gives all involved the opportunity to contribute to a conversation on inclusionary practices in publishing. The principle aim of the afternoon will be to provide recommendations on how the British Library can become more closely involved with writers of colour in independent publishing.

Chantelle Lewis BSc, MA and PhD candidate in Sociology

07 June 2017

Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life

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Our free online course, Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life starts next Monday, 12th June.

Learners have already started introducing themselves on the welcome page for the course. So far, we've had comments from learners in Ukraine, Germany and Costa Rica, as well as from the UK, USA and Canada. Our group of learners includes students, teachers, journalists and others working in fields such as Human Rights and Communications and Marketing. Political views and past experience vary - a common link is an interest in understanding more about communication and current affairs, and the ways in which values are influenced and formed.

The course has been developed by the British Library, in partnership with the Centre for the Study of Political Ideologies at the University of Nottingham and hosted by FutureLearn. Lead Educators are Maiken Umbach, Mat Humphrey, Sascha Auerbach and Ian Cooke.

The course is run as a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), which gives us the opportunity to draw on the experiences of our learners, and this is an important element. The steps in each week give insight to current academic research, from across disciplines in the humanties and social sciences. In addition, learners are asked how the concepts discussed relate to their personal experience and everyday lives - we are interested in the ways that ideologies are expressed and reinforced in situations that we may not normally think of as "political". Each week, we ask learners to share images that they associate with the themes being discussed: freedom, justice, community, nationhood and consumerism. You can see some of those images on our Flikr group.

An important element of the course is that it explores the differences in the political beliefs that we hold, and also highlights areas of common ground; for instance in the value that we place on freedom and on community. Already, learners have started talking about the ways in which people react to news or opinions that challenge their political views. A strength of this course is that it provides a forum in which we can talk critically about important political questions in a group where we don't share the same the political views.

Registration for our course is open now, and you can join at: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/propaganda. Our learners include "avid MOOcers" and those coming to FutureLearn for the first time. No prior knowledge or training is required - just an interest in the way that political ideologies are formed and expressed.