When I began my writing journey, I didn’t set out to have an issue or issues I was passionate about. My allegiance was to words, the ones grudgingly trickling from my brain onto a sheet of paper or Microsoft Word. I was ignorant or, to be nicer to myself, naïve about how publishing worked.
I believed if you had a good story, if you worked on your craft, if you found the right literary agent, then you’d ultimately find a publisher who’d foster an audience who’d accept you and your book. Your publisher would appreciate each hard-fought word you cajoled from an overwrought brain, each paragraph you chiseled to form something beautiful. I believed stories were seen as universal; that the literary world at large was ready for Black stories en mass; that we’d no longer be treated as a form of quota to be filled; a token to prove a superficial increase of diversity.
I was wrong.
While it is easier to find literary representation, BIPOC authors are still confronted with a staggering lack of diversity on all fronts. To find a Black agent, you’re lucky. To find a Black editor, you’re blessed beyond measure. To find both, child, give me the next lottery numbers so I can hit the Mega Millions and leave my job!
My people, Black people, hell people of color, are still fighting the same fight on all fronts. We are still asking for something basic to us but still complicated to others -- to be seen as human. And, in publishing, the rallying cry now is that of “diversity”. But we’ve heard these piteous cries before. The promises unkept of people who’d be hired that look like us, who’d understand in their bones all the intricate and complicated ways Black lives are lived and dissected and destroyed. However, there are only miniscule movements in statistics exposing otherwise what smacks of vain attempts to attain an invisible ‘woke’ merit badge.
Problematic books make it to bookshelves so often because no one is looking for the micro and macroagressions leveled against marginalized people every day.
How would you know what to look for if you don’t share the same skin? The consistent misrepresentation of POCs by white authors (some well-meaning and some downright ignorant) can only be curtailed if the publishing industry can take a step back and ask, “How do we permanently avoid this?”
Not with preformed apology posts on Twitter. Not with half-hearted attempts redacting their images and names during social unrest. I’m talking about meaningful steps to engage the very people they dismiss as not having anything of creative substance to offer other than more stories fitting their hobbled narrative of what it means to be BIPOC in America.
Create programs where publishers and literary agencies meaningfully reach out to people of color. Frequent HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and other cultural institutions and seek out those who want to begin a career in publishing. Allow for more remote positions. Publishing and agenting are notoriously difficult to make a living at, and to do this in an expensive city like New York is damn near impossible for most of us. Remote positions provide a way around the socioeconomic inequalities BIPOC people experience, offering an opportunity to broaden your employee base and your outlook on what stories you view as valuable and (gasp) sellable.
Pay authors of color the same way, with the same fervor white authors are paid.
Invest in us and our stories the way you do that same 150th reiteration of the white lady, unreliable narrator whose husband has disappeared or died, but not really. Seek out POC bookstagrammers, bloggers, magazines and newspapers. Pitch a book to the New York Times Book Review testifying to the black experience, not just the tragedy, but the triumph.
Know we are more. Know our stories are more. Know the publishing industry can be more if you do these things.
And as the BIPOC community continues to beat down doors and climb over invisible barriers with our pens and our dogged persistence, as we push ourselves to write better, craft our stories in blood, shake off the shortsighted rejections of ‘I couldn’t identify with your character.’ or ‘I don’t know how I can sell this.’; as we try over and over and over again to climb in a window or kick open a door that will let us in and sit at a table where we can be fed in the same way, the BIPOC community will continue to yearn for more stories showing us in all the bright and complicated ways we exist. We’re going to continue to have problematic books. We’re going to continue to have a lack of representation of agents, of editors and executive decision makers who represent the cultural and social make up of our world. We’re going to still entangle ourselves with a publishing industry wanting a fraction of our work, so they can pat themselves on the back, humbly bragging of their open-mindedness.
Until we break these cycles, we’re going to continue to live in a country lacking introspection on how to best express themselves in life, in art, science, and all other facets of the human experience.
Limiting voices limits us as people and we’re better than that. We must be.
Catherine Adel West
Catherine Adel West is an editor living and working in Chicago. She graduated with both her Bachelors and Masters of Science in Journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana. Her work is published in Black Fox, Five2One, Better than Starbucks, Doors Ajar, 805 Lit + Art, The Helix Magazine, Lunch Ticket and Gay Magazine. Saving Ruby King is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @cawest329.