Putting people in their place

Black or fat. It doesn’t matter. You’ll still be put in that special group. The one that shows that white people – or thin people – are feeling inclusive. They will let you have what they have ‘always’ had, but only because the winds are such that it appears best to allow ‘minorities’ to do what everyone should have the right to do, be it write books and have them published, or buy and wear clothes that look nice and actually fit.

Thank you. It is most kind.

The Guardian Review on Saturday had a long article about how things have almost got a little better [fairer] for dark people in the publishing business.

I was struck by two things. First is that authors who are somehow different get their own imprint, as witnessed by the hiring of Sharmaine Lovegrove as publisher of Dialogue Books, a new ‘inclusive’ imprint at Little, Brown. (Ironic, isn’t it?)

As the Guardian says, ‘but why does inclusivity have to have its own ring-fenced imprint? Shouldn’t it be part of every imprint rather than becoming its own distinctive brand?’

This, incidentally, reminded me of what I wrote earlier this year, “there is always something that can be done, putting people in their place. Quoting Wikipedia, Tamarind Books ‘was founded in 1987 as a small independent publisher specialising in picture books, fiction and non-fiction featuring black and Asian children and children with disabilities, with the mission of redressing the balance of diversity in children’s publishing.’ This is very worthy and I have the highest opinion of Tamarind. But now that it is also an imprint within a much larger organisation, has it become the place to stash away the slightly foreign authors? You know, ‘you will be happier next to your own kind’ sort of thought.”

I know someone who ended up being put there after a publishing house reshuffle. He/she was both offended and pleased. Offended because colour of skin suddenly made this the right place for him/her. Pleased because Tamarind have really keen publicists, which ought to be good for sales.

And second, a comment by Abir Mukherjee, part of a ‘dynamic new circle of British Asian crime novelists.’ Abir* has been told ‘his work is not “authentically Asian enough” because his debut A Rising Man is about a white, British detective in India.

So, the whites get to tell the ‘minority’ writers what to write. We’re back to the situation where you can only ever write about what you are; i.e. for my part a novel about a short, fat girl in southwest Sweden.

Which brings me to one of my fondest gripes, clothes for fat people. Don’t design especially ugly and different clothes ranges for us. It’s enough – well, preferable, actually – if you make larger sizes of the same as everyone else gets. This should have several benefits. No need to design twice. The fat customers will be happier. Happy customers buy more, thus providing more income.

And let’s face it; if you don’t make it, we won’t buy. We can’t suddenly use smaller clothes, just because you think that’s the best. So that’s a loss of revenue to you.

Something similar must surely happen in the book trade. Publish good books about anything at all, and we will buy. Doesn’t matter what colour skin the author is, or their accent, or if they were born in a different place than where they live now.

Yes, unlike the jeans that are too tight, if one book has not been written or published, a keen reader can buy another book. But there must still be a certain loss of potential income. To some extent publishers can and will tell someone what ought to be in a book [for it to sell], and sometimes they will even be right. But to limit Asian writers to write about Asians, or for that matter, to prevent a Muggle author from writing about wizards, is just silly.

In fact, I recently read a crime novel by Vaseem Khan, featuring his Mumbai detective as usual. Lovely book. But what makes that different from, say, Alexander McCall Smith’s lovely books about a female detective in Botswana? Is he female? Is he black? Is he a detective?

Neither Vaseem nor Alexander have been ring-fenced into an imprint suitable for their colour. Why should anyone else?


*When xenophobia is at its worst, immigrants are often told they need to adopt the same values and behaviour as the British. While I happen to think that this is wrong, I feel that it is precisely what someone like Abir has done. He has assimilated, which, considering he was born here, is fairly natural. And also what the real natives want. Except when they want their foreigners to be a little more authentically foreign.

It’s not easy.

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