There was a man from London who said his family was from St Lucia; a woman whose accent I couldn’t quite place from the South-West of England; an Iranian poet committed to changing the narrative of queer, female representation in Iran; a Scot who when he opened his mouth I swore was from Barbados (he wasn’t, but his partner was); a woman with blonde dreadlocks with family from Antigua; a deeply Catholic Filipino novelist writing a book about haunted houses; a recently prize-winning writer from India whose work I had just devoured online hours before the session and me, Trinidadian writer living away from home for the first time. And here we were sitting around a table with hot-shot agent, Emma Paterson and powerhouse publisher of Dialogue Books, Sharmaine Lovegrove.
It was the largest number of BAME/POC writers that I’d seen gathered in one place in a year.
The statistics on diversity in the UK publishing industry can be daunting. Sharmaine Lovegrove is the only black commercial publisher fiction publisher in the UK. Emma Paterson is one of only 6 black commercial agents. I expected to be depressed by the stats. Instead, I felt hopeful. Both women have been instrumental in championing the need for more diversity in the industry. Dialogue Books, an imprint of Little, Brown focuses on books by BAME, working class, LGBTQI writers. Emma Paterson’s varied list at RCW reads like a who’s who of contemporary British and international writers. They are both devoted champions of great stories, committed to making sure they make it out into the world.
Being classified as a BAME writer can feel isolating and problematic, like being put in a box. Is there something to the idea that we should just push for being writers, to imagine that the classification isn’t there? Both Lovegrove and Paterson agreed that we simply aren’t there yet. Paterson talked about how important it was to have publishers, editors and agents who are sensitive to the issues we face – from dealing sensitively with a variety of languages on the page, to cover design, to capturing the ever-diminishing review space in the press. There’s a long way to go from a beautifully written manuscript to a book out in the world. The handling of that process can make all the difference.
These challenges, both women assured us, were not our primary business. Our primary business is the stories we have to tell. They urged us to let go of the anxieties over whether our stories were too ‘ethnic’, too British, not British enough, not ‘English’ enough, have too many mangoes or too few mangoes. There’s always going to be a reader for a good story. Never assume you know who that reader is. “That’s our job,” Lovegrove said. “Let us do our job. We’re here and we are fighting for your stories.”
By the time each participant had a chance to pitch the projects we were working on, to talk about our work and to make plans to work across our respective universities to diversify curricula, I was sailing! We all have stories to tell. Time to shut out the noise and write them.