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.
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.