Do you ever reflect on the books you’re choosing to read? Why it is you’re drawn to particular titles/covers/genres? Whilst you muse on that, I want to recommend five brilliant writers whom you might want to consider for your next read.
The first writer I’ve chosen is Susan Barker. Her first two novels, The Orientalist and the Ghost and Sayonara Bar have a mixture of characters from East and West. The first is set in Malaya and London and the second in Japan. However, her third, The Incarnations, is set in China and peopled solely with Chinese characters. It tells the story of taxi driver, Wang Jun and letters which keep mysteriously appearing in his cab, written by someone claiming to be his soul mate. This soul mate also claims they’ve lived alongside Wang in four key dynasties and the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao. It’s a history of China and a modern story of family and forbidden love. The Incarnations is an impressive novel, I was thrilled to see it on the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered longlist.
Bernadine Evaristo says that one of her aims as a writer ‘is to explore the hidden narratives of the African diaspora, to play with ideas, conjure up original fiction, and to shake things up a bit’. She explores this through novels, poems, plays and essays. I mentioned my love of her most recent novel (and Jerwood Fiction Prize Winner 2014) Mr Loverman in my first piece so this time I’m going to focus onanother of her brilliant books. Blonde Roots is the story of Doris Scagglethorpe or, should I say, Omorenomwara, kidnapped from the Cabbage Coast in Europa by slave traders and sold to Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I (initials K.K.K.) in the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa. A counterfactual history of the slave trade, it’s brilliantly realised, utterly engrossing, and as disturbing as you would expect.
You might have heard Salena Godden on BBC Radio where she often performs her poetry. She’s a regular on the live circuit both as a poet and as one half of the ska-punk-breakbeat band SaltPeter. Her short stories have been included in a number of collections and last year she published a memoir of her childhood called Springfield Road. In it we meet Godden’s family: her Jamaican grandparents; her mother, struggling with single-parenthood; her protective older brother, Gus, and Godden’s stepfather, Paddy – irrational at best, cruel at worst. But it’s her absent father who’s at the centre of the book and she unravels his life with a rawness that’s beautifully poetic and bleeds through the page.
Jackie Kay is a name you might recognise if you have teenage children: some of her poetry is currently examined for GCSE English Literature. She’s also a short story writer, a novelist and a memoirist. Her only novel for adults, Trumpet, tells the story of Joss Moody, a jazz trumpeter who’s lived as a transgender man for decades unbeknownst to anyone but his wife. His adopted son, Colman, only learns the truth after Moody’s death and he’s angry about the deception. He has to come to terms with this new reality whilst the press hound him for his story. Structured like a piece of jazz music, with solos from a variety of characters, it’s an ambitious and beautiful novel. If you get the chance to hear Kay read live, you should take it: she reads with such dynamism, it’s a wonderful experience.
Helen Oyeyemi is a novelist and playwrite. She published her first novel The Icarus Girl at 21, having written it whilst studying for her A levels. She made the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list in 2013 and has recently published her fifth novel Boy, Snow, Bird. The book is a reworking of the fairy tale, Snow White, set in the USA in the 1950s. Boy is a girl with a violent father who works as a rat catcher. She runs away, ending up in Flax Hill where she marries Arturo Whitman and becomes stepmother to his daughter Snow. When Boy gives birth to a daughter, Bird, the Whitman family secret is revealed. It’s a clever reimagining of the traditional tale.
As you were reading about these five fantastic writers, you might have noticed they have things in common besides writing brilliant, entertaining, thought-provoking work: 1) they’re all British, as Fiction Uncovered celebrates contemporary British fiction 2) they’re all women 3) they’re all BAME. Of course the choice to group these five writers was deliberate, although it saddens me that we need to create lists such as this one to highlight great writers who also happen to be women of colour.
Last year saw the creation of the Read Women campaign. It was successful in further opening the discussion about women writers being viewed as lesser than their male counterparts. It encouraged people to think about their reading habits and read, discuss and promote women writers more than ever before.
At the end of last year when bloggers and readers active on Twitter were publishing their reading stats, writer Nikesh Shukla commented, ‘While it was nice to see how #readwomen2014 made people reflect on how many books by women they read last year, I did notice that no one was analysing how many books by non-white authors they read. They probably didn’t dare.’ I responded with mine – 10%. I was embarrassed.
I consider myself to be an intersectional feminist but anyone looking at the books I read and reviewed on my blog would think (to paraphrase Kanye West) I didn’t care about brown people.
What was also interesting was that I knew I’d really enjoyed the books I’d read by women of colour: a quarter of them made my books of the year. Either I was somehow managing to only read the very best books by women of colour or I was missing lots of brilliant books that I would greatly enjoy.
In my second piece, Reading Ourselves, I suggested it was the publishing industry’s duty to provide us with a diverse range of narratives. It’s clear from the research commissioned by Spread the Word that few stories by BAME writers make it as far as the printing press. The report also quoted writers of colour who said they’d had books rejected because they hadn’t written “‘authentic’ cultural stories’ in the view of the agents and editors to whom they were submitted. Of course, not all agents and editors feel this way and there are books published by BAME writers which aren’t stereotypical cultural stories. None of those I’ve recommended at the top of this piece fulfill this stereotype and whilst some of them take race as their central theme, they are also books about culture clashes, family, sexuality and gender – all universal topics.
If we, as readers, want to be able to read a diverse range of stories by a diverse range of writers, we need to let the publishing industry know by seeking out and reading those that do already exist. By doing so, we show that we want more of these stories: the stories that reflect all of us.
Next time you’re choosing a book, whether it’s physical or virtual, from your own shelves, a bookshop or a library, consider the writer for a moment. Are you choosing a book by a white man or woman over a book by a person of colour? What’s the reason for your choice? Is it the time to try a book you might not otherwise have picked up and see whether it’s for you?
I’m aware that possible answers to these questions are ‘I don’t see colour’ or ‘How would I know the skin colour of the writer?’ The latter’s easily answered by looking at the author’s photograph on the inside of the book jacket or with a quick internet search of their name. The idea that someone doesn’t see colour is a more complicated one, however. In a society dominated by white narratives, if we don’t see colour we don’t see black and Asian narratives. That makes us complicit in the maintenance of a dominant white narrative. It’s not a statement of equality, it’s a statement of ignorance and it’s a dangerous one.
Over the four pieces I’ve written for Fiction Uncovered, I’ve considered a variety of people: those with regional accents, the working class, BAME writers, the characters of the circus and the sideshow. What they all have in common is that they’re outsiders. They’re not part of the dominant narrative; they exist beyond the mainstream. There’s a group of voices out there keen for you to hear their stories. It would change their lives and it just might change yours too.
Naomi Frisby is working towards a PhD in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Her thesis is in gender and diversity in circus and sideshow literature. She blogs at The Writes of Woman, a one-woman attempt to address the gender disparity in mainstream book reviewing. She can be found on Twitter @Frizbot.