The Diversity Question
by Sonali Misra
You know you’ve ‘made it’ when you receive your first hate mail.
I got mine earlier this year on my Selkie ID. Let’s ignore the verbal abuse and look at the points that Anonymous was trying to make in it. Anonymous informed me that The Selkie was being ‘racist, homophobic, discriminatory, biased, ableist … and bigot[ed]’ for promoting the work of underrepresented creatives. That by ‘labelling’ ourselves, we were demeaning the precise cause we were fighting for. That by exclusively publishing diverse voices, we were ignoring the ‘merit’ of the work we published.
If I had responded, I might’ve said something along the lines of:
- We don’t publicly reveal which marginalised group our contributors relate with unless they mention it in their bios of their own accord.
- Some ‘labels’ cannot be hidden or ignored. My name, my skin colour, my accent will tell you who I am and where I come from.
- Just because you fall into an underrepresented category, it does not mean we will publish you; it depends on the quality of your work. We may offer you a free online workshop to help your piece reach a publishable stage though.
The reason I didn’t respond to the e-mail was because this sort of opinion didn’t seem new to me. We’ve heard similar arguments from famed published authors and established journals whose tirades against promoting diversity in literature (and the workforce that helps disseminate this literature into the world) eventually boil down to:
promoting diverse voices = ignoring merit
Why do they believe that by providing a platform to communities that have heretofore been ignored by the powers that be, we are forgoing a meritocracy? There is no compulsion to publish every single piece submitted by someone from marginalised spaces – just a need to reach out and ensure them that their submissions will be taken seriously (and it always helps if they know that the people looking at their submissions also hail from diverse backgrounds). Isn’t the underlying assumption made by these eminent authors and publications then that good literature cannot be found in marginalised spaces?
Inclusivity programmes aren’t as simplistic as providing a ‘quota’ for certain communities (we would have to delve into a much larger discussion about how marginalised communities start at a disadvantage and are forced to fight harder for rights that should be equal for all). Neither is this about ‘them damn immigrants stealing our jobs!’, since we’re speaking about representation in terms of gender, sexuality, socio-economic class, mental-health issues and physical disabilities, as well as ethnicity. The point is – if, together, these sections of society clearly outnumber well-off heterosexual white men, why shouldn’t more stories from and featuring these sections be encouraged?
Growing up in India in a community that looked and spoke like me, I still read Western fairy tales that told me only those with blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin were beautiful. Characters who resembled me were usually cast as the villain. No, these weren’t imported books that only a couple Indians managed to procure. What many aren’t aware of is that UK publishers hold ‘Commonwealth rights’, and thus who they publish and what they publish impacts more than just their island. Their books, along with all their media dominance, reach nations in other continents through either their subsidiaries or local distributors they’ve made arrangements with. And so, bestsellers in the English language in India tend to be books not originally published by India or written by Indians.
Even if spokespeople against inclusivity programmes state that British books entering other markets isn’t their concern and their focus lies on their own nation – well, have they ever taken a stroll in London? Manchester? Cardiff? Glasgow? Edinburgh? I name few large cities as examples because diverse populations are utterly in-your-face there, but it would be impossible to categorise the people of almost any geographical location in the United Kingdom into one single group. And why should we anyway? We may risk losing the communal flavours that enrich their distinct literary voices.
It is not a bad thing to acknowledge that labels exist in society and which ones we fall under. We are not magically going to call for one united humanity overnight. Realising what privileges and disadvantages our identities afford us helps us make more educated decisions. I am all three – an Indian, a woman and a writer – but I know I will be perceived as an Indian woman writer too. My identity shapes who and what I write about, and while I hope everyone out there can appreciate my writing, I know a certain sect will empathise with it. One that probably couldn’t see themselves in the blue-eyed, blonde-haired princesses.