Diversity in publishing has been a hot topic in industry for some time, not least because we had a good old yell about it over on Agent Hunter. But, despite some much overdue attention, very little has changed. Publishing was and is a very white, middle-class, metropolitan industry. Yes, it’s very welcoming of women – but black voices? Asian voices? Gay and lesbian voices?
Here’s Mahsuda Snaith to tell us more.
Just Because You Can’t See Us Doesn’t Mean We Aren’t Here
Back in 2014 I lived the writers dream. After years of studiously logging all the competitions and agents I sent to, who I was rejected by, and (more often than not) who I never heard from, I began to have success. Early in the year I was a finalist in the Mslexia Novel Competition 2013 for my first novel The Constellation of Ravine, then later was announced as winner of the SI Leeds Prize 2014 for the same novel and a week later the winner of the Bristol Short Story Prize 2014 with The Art of Flood Survival.
These things don’t happen to writers like me. I was brought up on a council estate in Leicester by a single-parent Bengali mother. I was a girl, a fact I didn’t realise could be a hindrance until later in life, and diagnosed as dyslexic in my early twenties. I had no Ox-bridge education, no contacts or connections who would put a good word in for me (wink, wink). I was a floating anomaly of a writer who, I’m glad to say, was so blind to the fact that there was prejudice in the publishing industry continued to doggedly write and try and get better at writing. Because, despite all the rejections and silences, I still loved writing and knew that even if it didn’t lead to ‘success’ I would carry on doing it anyway.
Sometimes I feel scepticism from other writers about my wins. Mslexia accepts entries from women, so that’s cutting out half the competition right? And the SI Leeds Prize is for fiction by Black and Asian female writers so that’s even less? But as anyone who’s tried to throw their hat in the writing ring will know, it’s a competitive world for everyone and the idea still floating around that ethnic minority groups just don’t write (a sentiment I’ve sadly heard too often) and that this is the real cause of imbalance in publishing is frankly preposterous. I personally have met dozens of Black and Asian writers trying to get that poem accepted, or that novel published but seemingly banging their heads against a brick wall. Just because you can’t see us doesn’t mean we aren’t here. Reports such as ‘Writing the Future’ by Spread the Word (see link below) demonstrate just how biased the industry can be and how much still needs to be done. Besides, for those thinking my chances were better in those prizes (which, to be fair, is kind of the point) I also won the Bristol Short Story Prize – an anonymously entered prize open internationally to men and women in any country – which goes to show that when your writing is good enough, your background becomes irrelevant.
So how do I explain my flurry of success and did it actually change my life? Well, to the first part I’d say years of hard work and dedication to the art of writing can’t exactly have hurt. But I do believe it also helped that the prizes largely requested anonymous entries so any personal favouritism or prejudice could not be entertained, consciously or subconsciously. Also the fact that SI Leeds Prize in particular target a group that is extremely underrepresented in the publishing industry made me personally realise that there is a need for voices like mine out there in the mainstream and that, even if I didn’t win, I would support that cause because I believe the more diversity there is in our everyday lives the more of a tolerant and open society we will live in. This doesn’t just go for female writers, or ethnic minority writers, but working class writers, regional writers, disabled writers, LGBT writers and genre defying writers who don’t fit in any box.
And as for the change-my-life part of the question? Well, I’m now represented by agent James Wills of Watson, Little who will be sending The Constellation of Ravine to editors (very!) soon, I have been offered creative writing work, have been invited to talk on panels and am currently a part-time lecturer in creative writing at my local university. But the big publishing deal sparkling enticingly on the horizon …well that hasn’t happened yet. As a Ghanaian published writer said to me recently, things will take longer because the expectations are different. Is this African enough? Is this Asian enough? The stereotyping of diverse cultures is as much a hindrance as the notion that we don’t write in the first place.
The bi-annual SI Leeds Prize is open again this year. My advice to those Black and Asian female writers who are thinking of entering (in fact, my advice to ANY anomaly of a writer who is thinking of entering something)? Grab that opportunity, throw your hat in the ring. Show the world that not only are we here but we are writing.
Mahsuda Snaith is a writer of short stories, novels and plays. She is the winner of the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2014 and Bristol Short Story Prize 2014 as well as being a finalist in the Mslexia Novel Competition 2013. Her short stories have been anthologised by The Asian Writer, Words with Jam and Closure: Contemporary Black British Stories. As well as working as a supply teacher, Mahsuda currently leads creative writing workshops at De Montfort University.