Many posts have sparked lively debate on the Literary Sofa, but today is the first time I have knowingly provided a platform for a ‘provocation’ ! Although it’s not our topic, Nikesh Shukla’s second novel Meatspace is out in paperback today: it too is provocative, thoughtful and very funny; an entertaining but uncomfortable read for anyone with a screen habit and for writers in particular. Nikesh is a prominent voice in the call for greater diversity in fiction and when I saw him mention on Twitter that not a single newspaper had shown interest in a new piece he was pitching on that subject, that struck me as a bad thing (though hardly a surprise). The angle he chose for today’s contribution is not at all the one I was expecting, but I think you’ll agree that it is provocative! (My two cents’ worth follows):
I offer the following as a provocation, not as a pointing of a finger. I don’t want you to read the following and immediately rush to defend yourself and cite specific examples of where you did this or didn’t do that. I offer this provocation as a chance for you to look within: if we want true diversity in books, white people need to write about non-white people. It’s not just my responsibility, as an author of colour, to write about my people (the non-whites, all of them, because we, as authors of colour, while we’re the other, we’re non-white. I’m not a Gujarati, born of Kenyan and Middle Eastern parents, raised in London, I’m an author of colour, and in our numbers, we are one voice)… white people, it’s your responsibility too.
I’m not calling anyone racist. I’m not asking for that one time you mentioned a side character called Tariq who was having an arranged marriage. I’m not in the mood for you saying ‘I’m just staying true to the time period’. Because history… as the recent fracas surrounding the popular TV show Agent Carter has shown, is not an excuse.
Okay, so why? Why am I asking this? Because I once wrote After the Bechdel test, the Shukla test, about how every character in every film and novel was white unless they had to do something ethnic. And nothing changed. Because in 2008, DIPNET was banging on about diversity in publishing. And nothing changed. Because in 2015, a new report was banging on about diversity in publishing and nothing changed. Because people lost their shit when a black actor played Rue. Because because because.
Because what you call diverse… I call normal. Sarees and chapattis and arranged marriages and mangos with every meal, that’s my family life. Diversity is about celebrating ‘otherness’. And people of colour have got to a point where we don’t want to be seen as the other anymore. That’s where the fetishisation of bindis and keffiyahs and yoga lies. That celebration of otherness has a short shelf life because it’s not rooted in normality. It doesn’t portray a universal truth. It’s a romantic exotic view of other cultures. This is not the multicultural dream. The multicultural dream is that we live side by side, as people, accepting of each other’s cultures, flaws and attributes.
Once I read a review of one of my short stories, and the reviewer said that he was glad to see that Indians went through the universal experience. This was problematic for a lot of reasons, not least that the characters weren’t generically Indian, and of course they have the universal experience, what do we think ‘universal’ means?
Normality is key. Time to normalise. Shonda Rimes, the show runner of Scandal, talks about normalising television till it represents a world she sees and I think that is a valiant fight, one that is more important than calling for diverse books. Because the more we celebrate diverse books, the less chance we have of non-white people seeing the experiences, wants, likes, looks and habits of non-whites as normal.
So how to change this? White people – include non-white people in your books. Look to your books and ask yourself why can’t these people be black or Asian or other? Don’t ask yourself why should they be? That would be tokenistic. That’s not good enough anymore. Bim Adewunmi wrote about tokenism ‘…“why put in a black dude in the cast just because?” Understand what is being said there: the story that is universal is white. The default is always white.’ What people say when they say that the role doesn’t call for them to be anything but white, we need to pull them up on this because if whiteness is the default, that means that non-whiteness has to be justified. People will, as Junot Díaz says (I’m paraphrasing), read a book that’s half in Elvish… but include a couple of sentences in another language or a reference to something culturally other, and it becomes a problem.
White people, please include a non-white character or two in your work. You don’t need to research them if they’re having a conversation that doesn’t require any ethno-specific interaction – if Barry’s meeting Steve at a pub to chat about a heist where Steve will be the getaway driver, why not call Steve Sanjay? You don’t need to be realistic. You don’t need to worry about cultural insensitivity. If you’re worrying about cultural insensitivity, that means that you haven’t written a person, you’ve written a trope, an archetype. Write a person, make that person black or brown, allow them to do normal stuff. We do normal stuff. Today, I changed my baby’s nappy, I went to work, I realised I hadn’t had breakfast, I bought myself a bacon sandwich, I ate it on the way to work, I got to work, I answered some emails… at no point did I do anything ‘Indian’. I just lived my truth (I mean, I ate mangos with chapattis wearing a saree when I got home, but that’s my private time, okay?)
Some writers have claimed that they’ve opted to keep their characters all white because they didn’t want to offend anyone. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to do some research if you feel you need it (Sanjay, the heist guy, might be from a particular part of India and you might want to find out what he’d wear and how he’d talk). It’s important to be real without being fetishistic or stereotypical. So just ask questions. We’re happy you’re including us, we’re happy you’re doing your job, so we’re happy to answer questions. I’ve read two books and a couple of short stories from friends because they were worried about cultural insensitivity, and they were happy for any feedback I gave them.
It’s important to self-reflect as an artist, and as a writer, to check in on yourself and see whether you’re representing the world. I’m asking the question so you look within. I mean, if there’s a narrative reason why your characters are all white, that’s fine, you’ve thought about it. If you’ve never thought about it, and you’re like, hmmm, this is interesting, I should think about this… that’s great. I’m just asking the question.
The #readwomen2014 campaign made me reflect, a lot, about how well represented women were in my novels. And in my first two novels, they weren’t. And I was ashamed. That’s why, in my third novel, the main character is female and there are more female characters. And it’s important to me that I reflected that. If I, as a non-white male can write a decent female (I hope, gulp, we’re still in progress), you can write a decent Sanjay the heist man. And if you can, you’re helping to normalise my life, and the lives of other people of colour who, like you, want to see themselves in books, not as ‘the other’, but as the ‘us’.
Thanks to Nikesh for this great conversation starter – whilst he may want you to ‘look within,’ I’m keen for you to speak out and share your views openly. I hope to hear from lots of readers and writers, whatever your cultural identity. Reading this piece made me glad my stuff is set in London, Paris and New York because setting novels in big cities without non-white people wouldn’t just be odd, it wouldn’t be ‘normal’*. However, if my focus lay elsewhere I think I might feel differently and possibly worry about tokenism. Do you agree that ‘white writers’ have this responsibility? Do you feel provoked?
* I freely admit that I don’t read many novels by non-white writers and should do so more often.
Next week I’ll be posting a wise and beautiful piece from Antonia Honeywell, author of THE SHIP, entitled ‘Agented and Unpublished’. It always impresses me when those who’ve made it admit they remember what that’s like.