Diversity in genre fiction

When is a book ‘not Asian enough’?

There’s been a lot of discussion about diversity in publishing lately – a lot of people lament the fact that there aren’t enough diverse characters in fiction. There is diversity in the people who live in the UK and diversity in the subsection of those people who write books,  so why the mismatch? As part of this discussion someone brought up the fact that books with BAME protagonists are judged by a different set of criteria – one of which is is this book Asian enough/black enough?

Rhoda B picThis question winds me up. What is the benchmark for a book being Asian enough? Who sets it? How often is it reviewed? What is the point of it?

I write romance, arguably the biggest selling genre in fiction. I’m British/Sri Lankan. Asian is part of who I am. It’s not something I consciously work at. If you asked me to list the things that define me, my Sri Lankan background would not make it into the top five.  As a kid, I lived in a regular house, went to a regular school, read the same books, watched the same TV shows and listened to the chart show every week, just like the rest of my classmates. Of course, there was the odd Goodness Gracious Me moment, but mostly, my life wasn’t vastly different to my friends’. It wasn’t as though as soon as I shut the front door I was transported into another world of sari’s and spices. Yet, if you read mainstream fiction featuring Asian characters you’d think that was the case. No wonder everyone was so astounded that Nadiya Hussein chose to flavour her cheesecakes with fizzy pop (or that she even baked in the first place!).

My first book featured middle class Sri Lankan characters. I wrote about people who were, basically, a bit like the Asian people I know. I submitted to agents and small publishers, I had a few notes back, a few requests for the full manuscript. ‘Asian Lit’ was popular at the time; White Teeth and Brick Lane were still riding high. The most useful feedback I got back was “I like it, but I don’t know where I’d place it”. It wasn’t Asian enough for literary fiction and not white enough for genre fiction.

PLEASE RELEASE ME_high resBeing the pragmatic sort, I wrote the next book with white main characters. Given that I write about middle-class people, the things that worry white characters would be pretty much the same as the things that bother Asian characters – job security, sexism, bullying, the quest for love. Besides, people are people, regardless of what shade they are, and white characters have the same range of feelings as brown ones.  I placed this book with a small publisher relatively easily.

If you want fiction to represent the experiences of a wide range of people, you need accept those experiences as they are presented – even if they don’t fit into your preconceived notions. Rich people face different challenges to poor ones. First generation immigrants face different challenges to their children. No two Asian homes are exactly the same, because no two families could be exactly the same. So perhaps we should stop trying to pretend that they are.  How can fiction show the reading public any variety in the Asian experience of life if the publishing industry insists that very variety does not exist (or, more accurately, that the reading public won’t buy it).

‘Diversity’ isn’t about showing Asian characters doing things in an Asian way, or gay characters doing things in a gay way or disabled characters doing things in a disability adapted way.  That’s just pandering to stereotype. Diversity is achieved by showing characters of different backgrounds doing things in their OWN way and telling their unique stories. If it makes minority characters look less different than the majority expect them to be, that might even be a good thing.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I write under a pen name –my real name is difficult to spell and it helps to keep my writing career distinct from my day job – but I have always submitted my work to publishers and agents under my real name.  I think (although I have no data to back this up) that the ‘is it Asian enough’ question arises not from racism as such, but from a skewed assumption of what readers can stomach.

As a point of principle, I always have at least one Sri Lankan secondary character in each book. In my latest book (Please Release Me) the heroine is mixed race. I’m sneaking minority characters into mainstream genre fiction one book at a time. Interestingly, readers don’t seem bothered at all.

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Rhoda Baxter Bio
Rhoda likes to write about people who make her laugh. In real life she studied molecular biology at Oxford, which is why her pen name takes after her favourite bacterium. She writes contemporary romantic comedies in whatever spare time she can grab between day job, kids and thinking about food.She can be found wittering on about science, comedy and cake on her website (www.rhodabaxter.com) or on Twitter (@rhodabaxter) or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/RhodaBaxterAuthor).

Please Release Me available via: myBook.to/PleaseReleaseMe

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  • Very thoughtful post and keep doing what you’re doing – simply telling great stories about interesting characters.

  • Brilliant Rhoda. Totally spot on.

  • Inge Saunders

    I’ve had the same problem since I’m a person of colour in South Africa(not culturally black because of history). So my middle and upper class characters might be “of colour” in my physical descriptions but because of the way I grew up slash my experiences and books I’ve read, they wouldn’t fit a stereotype of what publishers necessarily would consider African people are like. I don’t just have to think about how accessible my characters are, but what type of story do publishers expect to come out of ‘dark Africa’ *sigh*

  • Thanks for commenting guys. As you say, it should be all about great stories and interesting characters. There’s no need to pigeon-hole people into the ethnic stereotypes.

    I think there’s a perception that people won’t buy books about non-white characters doing normal things. I think readers are more open minded than the industry gives them credit for!

  • Great post, Rhoda. I’m struggling with diversity at present, having deliberately made the characters in my current WIP very diverse. I have been worried that I’ve now got “white” characters who have simply been painted by me to look non-white. But since they’re in the far future and have been manufactured by mad scientists for nefarious reasons they don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on their cultural identity, they’re more focused on trying to survive. As your stereotypical white/middle class/heterosexual writer I’m trying to be diverse without being insulting or glib. I really hope I get the balance right!

  • Harry

    Good comment! I have something like the same issue myself. I tend not to write black characters into my fiction because I’m worried about not quite voicing them correctly. I don’t want to patronise them by just writing the exact dialogue I’d write for a white character but don’t have the confidence to write in a black/Welsh voice either. The result – invisibility – is possibly the worst of all my options!