I had set myself a goal at the start of the year – to only read books written by Black, Indigenous or People of Colour (BIPOC) writers or non-BIPOC female writers. Lockdown restrictions and no commuting gave me the opportunity to actively pursue that goal. I thought it would just be a challenge to stick to the goal. What I didn’t expect was for it to quickly test how I as a reader have perceived what constitutes ‘quality literature’.
I had almost 80 unread books waiting on my bookshelves, purchased over many years. But it was with dismay when I realised only around 10 of these were written by BIPOC writers and around 20 were written by non-BIPOC female writers.
‘How had my bookshelves come to this? How could I own this selection of books? How had my discriminatory reading come about?’ I wondered as I looked at the sad number of titles that I actually wanted to read on my bookshelves.
I can trace the cultural myopia that I had subconsciously accepted to one area of my experience: the English book list.
I can trace the cultural myopia that I had subconsciously accepted to one area of my experience: the English book list. There was a dearth of diversity in school book listed texts in my time – Chinese Cinderella, Dougy and Boy Overboard were as diverse as it got. I had a well-meaning English teacher who recognised that I was an avid reader say that I should continue to read ‘quality literature’. But what did this mean? On another occasion the same teacher recommended to my class works by authors such as Charlotte Brontë, DH Lawrence and JD Salinger. That texts written by diverse writers weren’t included on many book lists gave me the sense early on that they were of no value (if they even existed at all).
There have been many other unrecognised influences over the years – existing systemic practices and barriers in the publishing industry such as acquisition processes, lack of marketing, gate-keeping practices and lack of BIPOC publishing professionals to name just a few.
As part of my Master of Writing and Publishing, I wrote a thesis on the experiences of Asian-Australian women – writers and publishing professionals – in the Australian trade publishing industry. I quickly found that there was a severe lack of hard data about diversity in the Australian publishing industry - the absence of diversity is known, but the numbers are not. While several reports over recent years have been released in the US and UK on diversity in their trade publishing industries, funding has only recently been obtained for the First Nations and POC Writers Count for the Australian industry – the first count of its kind in Australia.
I found there were various barriers facing Asian-Australian female writers and publishing professionals.
I found there were various barriers facing Asian-Australian female writers and publishing professionals. There is a lack of BIPOC publishing professionals for BIPOC writers to work with – and it’s not that they don’t exist, rather they haven’t been sought out and hired. No BIPOC gatekeepers with great decision-making power means no one to advocate for and support writers with sensitivity. BIPOC writers are also so often confined to the realms of memoir where they must write about identity, experiences as the ‘other’. And while such texts are necessary and so often relatable for the BIPOC reader, it made me wonder: How much longer BIPOC writers can keep writing about otherness? How much longer must they explain otherness?
My research revealed to me how texts by diverse writers, as a result of systemic practices, are made to sit on the peripheries of the literary landscape – they are treated as niche, so very unattainable, un-relatable and of little commercial value.
However, standing in front of my bookshelves staring at my collection made me realise something that my formal research had not – that I as a reader had been complacent in seeking out publications by and platforms for BIPOC writers. Although I had recognised the systemic barriers and failings of the industry, I hadn’t recognised the barrier that I myself had put in place because of the messages I had received over the years from the book lists and the industry.
I spent many years failing and refusing to engage and connect with texts written by BIPOC authors, having been convinced that they weren’t as good as books by non-BIPOC authors. When being fed constant messages that English and Western literature and art are the way to go, that they are ‘quality’, choosing to engage with something different has been a difficult task.
I spent many years failing and refusing to engage and connect with texts written by BIPOC authors, having been convinced that they weren’t as good as books by non-BIPOC authors.
I would get frustrated if someone told me I could find the types of books I want to read if I just looked hard enough. That we need to be looking hard for this content goes to show that there is lack of support of diverse writers from publishing houses, and an ingrained association of quality literature with white male writing and lack of quality with anything other than white male writing.
Like many others from diverse backgrounds, I’ve struggled to see myself, my experiences and my values in literature and art that has been marketed to me. ‘You know you need to actually like the books you read,’ an old colleague of mine once stated after I’d grumbled about how long it had been since I’d genuinely liked a book I’d read. I only now realise why I felt this way.
Now, I take great comfort in Bernardine Evaristo’s assertion that ‘the truth is that good literature about anything can be enjoyed by all kinds of people. Literature transcends all perceived differences and barriers. It’s partly the point of it’. I’m actively seeking out works by diverse authors and finding enjoyment and connection when reading them. It has been a slow but sure lesson for me that my perception of quality literature doesn’t need to be driven by what gatekeepers promote and market; that I, as a POC female reader, am part of an audience that deserves diverse stories that appeal to it.
I’m actively seeking out works by diverse authors and finding enjoyment and connection when reading them.
Rethinking, dismantling and rebuilding my relationship with literature is not something I imagined I would need to do during a pandemic – it is strange times indeed.
Lin Li Ng is a freelance writer.