Women on Women: 'Genre Should Trump Ethnicity'

Left to Right: Rashed Ashanti Malcolm, Sarvat Hasin, Samira Sawlani, Frances Mensah Williams and Aiysha Malik.

'It's all giraffes and acacia trees' said Frances Mensah Williams, author of From Pasta to Pigfoot (Jacaranda Books, 2015), when asked about the stereotypical book covers that are loved and overused by the marketing industry to represent the work of black & Asian writers. It's all about sunsets and palm trees, even if has little or nothing to do with the story itself. This is an outstanding and frustrating issue for many writers. Several years ago, I spoke with Anne Berry during a book-signing about her book covers. Sighing, she told me how one of the covers for her second novel The Water Children depicted a frozen wasteland, when her book is predominantly set in the searing hot English summer of 1976. With the locations ranging from Ireland, Sheffield and London, the marketing industry focused on a single flashback incident to represent the novel as a whole. The other cover design is more faithful to the content, depicting a young boy on a glaringly hot beach.

However, this misrepresentation reaches a whole other level when it comes to ethnicity. You just need to look at the string of Young Adult book covers in the last decade. Their covers depict whitewashed black protagonists (books such as 'The Gathering' by Kelley Armstrong, published by Harper, where the female lead's Native American roots play a crucial role in the novel but you would never be able to tell from its cover) or silhouetted characters resulting in ambiguous ethnicity. This shameful and racist covering up of identity is disgusting and the negative re-enforcement it has on young readers will only lead to further pigeon-holing, allowing beautiful novels to fade into the background behind white, faultless faces staring out from the front covers (and they are often skinny too, seriously where are the gorgeous cuddly gods and goddesses?). Yet there is the other side of the battle: once a writer has fought for that precious publishing deal, how do you not get marketed for your ethnicity rather than the content? There is a tricky balance between suffocating identity and using it as a rolling-pin to beat the readers with, yelping out with each strike "I'M A BLACK/ASIAN WRITER", often alienating the book from its neighbors or misrepresenting what the book is really about.

The Bare Lit Festival celebrated its second year of powerful, inspiring and eye-opening panel discussions on what it means to be black and/or Asian in the publishing industry, as well as exposing new and innovative projects carving a path for equality and representation. While I would love to write a beautifully long article on all the discussions that took place in the Old Courtroom, where I positioned myself with my trusty notebook, I will focus on the 'Women on Women' panel, starring on the dazzling Samira Sawlani (Media Diversified), Frances Mensah Williams (From Pasta to Pigfoot, 2015), Ayisha Malik (Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, 2016), Rashed Ashanti Malcolm (Swimming with the Fishes, 2017) and Sarvat Hasin (This Wide Night, 2016).

The main question circulating the panel was whether black and Asian writers are allowed to write in genres outside the 'expected'? Speaking of romantic comedy, Samira Sawlani - chairing the panel - stated "a Nigerian writer friend said 'we are not allowed to write this way...all our books have to be heavy'. Heavy meaning subjects such as trafficking, arranged marriages, bombings, the subjugation of women, terrorists, gun crime and others.

"It's the idea" said Sarvat Hasin "that in order to get a footnote...it has to be wordy, it has to be about immigration. These stories have already been told."

Ayisha Malik backed up her fellow author by stating that "there is a responsibility to educate your readers about race, identity and culture, but my responsibility is to my character traits...I don't want to be pigeon-holed into a writer who writes about Muslims."

Malik's two beautiful novels, as well as Malcolm's Swimming with the Fishes and Williams' From Pasta to Pigsfoot, are frequently perceived as 'chick lit' and while none of the authors particularly rallied against this description, they had a thing or two to say about the public perceptions of 'chick lit' and the glittery, heart-studded book covers they had to beat away from their manuscripts.

On being asked what chick-lit really means, Rashed Ashanti Malcolm stated "it's about a woman's journey, a cross-culture...I don't understand why we need two levels, it demotes it". Malcolm refers to the 'two levels' here as the often-wrongly perceived shallowness of chick-lit. I have often fallen into this narrow-mindedness myself, a great example being Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding. Thanks to the dumb-downed movie version, I didn't pick up this deep, philosophical novel until my early twenties, only to find a story thick with questions about female empowerment, self-love and body perception. Since then I have been more open minded about chick-lit, striving not to be put off by Katie Fforde's wispy painted women or Celia Ahern's pink-purple-and-more-pink keyholes and parcels.

However, there are draw-backs with the chick-lit genre that did concern the panellists.

"You get lost because the covers are all the same. It is hard to stand out in that category" said Hasin.

Williams noted that "there is the insinuation that you have to dumb it down for it to be chick-lit."

"It is talking down to your main audience" said Sarvat.

Nodding, Malik argued "the industry loves pigeon holes, because they have to market it...this needs to change."

The discussion led to the devaluation and marketing of chick-lit. How they are often targeted as easy or 'light' reads, how there are sunsets that linger for two pages, but that doesn't mean there can't be layers or depth, that the book is more than its surface value. How often do we see a bookshelf labelled 'Women's Reads' and it is choking with pink covers and love stories? How is this effecting the male readers? This kind of marketing has created a genre that actively puts a male audience off reading a book with incredible depth, just because it has a 'girly' front cover or is perceived to be a 'girly' book. Although, fellas, man up and look beyond the cover please (and praise for the men that already do this!). This same issue goes for bookshop shelves entitled 'Black Lit' or 'LGBT readers'.

Williams asked whether it was the reader or the industry who is responsible for these pigeon holes. Is it bookshop chains like Waterstones creating a 'Black Lit' section, or it is because they are responding to the public wanting to find books in a smooth, tick-box Amazon-style way? Libraries often put everything into one big 'General Fiction' category, allowing readers to browse and explore sub-genres that their readers perhaps wouldn't normally target. When it comes to bookshops, is the quick-and-fast consumerist tendencies of the mass audience getting in the way of those chance discoveries we often have as children? Are we too focused on 'this is what I like and I'm sticking with it' rather than a more Enid Blyton philosophy of exploration and adventure? Are readers making it harder? The panel had mixed ideas about whether they would want their books in the 'black lit' section, balancing the need to be found when looked for against their refusal to be marginalized.

Williams stated that in her mind "genre should trump ethnicity" - that she would rather be slotted in with the chick-lit and be represented by her book's themes/category, rather than have her ethnicity waved around like a flag.

Finally, Sawlani asked the panel how you can avoid being 'too' black or Asian?

"It is about subverting expectations" Malik replied "you need to ask what is the common perception and how do I turn it on its head?" Speaking of her use Urdu words in her work, Malik advised that you "can't take it for granted that they'll understand" and how writers need to be aware of maintaining an open discussion with a general audience, rather than narrowing the field by getting too intimate with the intricacies of their culture. Keep your reader with you.

"It was important that I got my themes across" said Malcolm "I wanted to make sure it wasn't going to alienate anyone."

Williams explained how her story is her story, that you just have to be yourself when it comes to your work. "It's the story in your head you want to tell. It is lovely when it relates and resonates with readers. There are universal themes...The biggest relationship is the one we have with ourselves...it's the heart of it".

Wise words that I wish everyone would take to heart - especially the publishing industry.