The BAME writers network changing Scotland's publishing scene
The Scottish BAME Writers Network is creating space in Scotland's literary scene. One writer looks at how the group is doing just that
The sun is hot and every available lawn chair is occupied. Charlotte Square is buzzing with the energy of festival season. As I await my event, I take stock of all those taking up space. I start to think of who is and who isn’t in attendance. It’s something I often do at these types of events. I carefully read through festival programmes, review the diversity of panel events and make a mental note of who is in the room. As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to question who is allowed to enter these literary spaces.
You see, storytelling is a part of every culture across the globe. It’s how communities distil knowledge, share customs and pass histories from one generation to the next. You will have experienced storytelling in your own life, whether it’s sharing the events of a night out or listening to the older generation describe life “way back when”. But for some reason, a disconnect exists between storytelling and writing. Historically, the act of putting pen to paper and then publishing this work to be read by others is reserved for a select few.
When we speak of writing and publishing in Scotland, we tend to centre it within the English language, western world and northern hemisphere. As English is the predominant language in the USA, Canada, Ireland and the UK, it is writers from these countries who usually secure publishing deals or top bestseller lists. When exploring an English literature class, reading a literary magazine or scouring the shelves of our local bookshop, the general public is often met with the realities of the book world. The authors, publishers, main characters and secondary ones tend to be cisgender, heterosexual, white and middle class. Therefore, it is difficult to visualise a career in writing or publishing when you don’t fit this demographic. It can seem like the literary world is not yours to enter.
While diversity does exist within writing and publishing, much still needs to be done to create more inclusive spaces. A 2018 report by CLPE found that 7% of children’s books featured a Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) character and only 4% had a BAME main protagonist. How sad that children, when discovering the joys of reading, often fail to see themselves represented in the books they pick up. But diversity is more than black or white. I’d be amiss to not mention how there is also a need to create more inclusive reading lists that feature working-class, trans, non-binary and/or disabled characters.
If you can’t see it, then how can you dream it? For underrepresented writers, this is an ever-present question as we seek publishing deals, submission acceptances and validation from our writing peers. The same can be said for those trying to become publishers, editors or book reviewers.
It all comes down to visibility and representation and has a lot to do with what we are told is good writing. What is deemed “canonical” is pretty homogenous. We have all heard it before: “male, stale and pale.” Somehow, in the 21st century, we’ve yet to break away from the idea of this elite and archaic list of writers.
There exists a diverse multicultural body of writing outside the confines of university mandated reading lists or whitewashed literary prizes. But why is it so difficult to find these writers? The truth is there are lots of hurdles to overcome and marginalised writers are fully aware of them. We understand there are gatekeepers with inherent biases of what is “good writing” and in-groups who solicit work from already known and established writers. When we do get past the proverbial gates, there is often an expectation that writers of colour will write from trauma or their racialised identity, because that is what is interesting and what sells. But that silences those who want to write beyond their lived experiences. It also assumes, as writers of colour, we carry baggage when it comes to our ethnic or racial identities. This mindset lacks nuance and will never allow for innovative storytelling.
So, what can be done? Marginalised and underrepresented communities waiting for cultural change is not going to be the answer. Instead, underrepresented communities need to create their own avenues to get diversity on the page and on the masthead.
Across the UK, there are initiatives to combat this unbalance. Nikesh Shukla and Julia Kingsford, who founded The Good Literary Agency, seek to increase opportunities for under-represented writers living in the UK. Publishing house Knights Of and their bookshop Round Table Books, founded by Aimée Felone and David Stevens, are improving diversity within children’s and YA literature. The Octavia Poetry Collective, founded by Rachel Long, creates a space for womxn of colour to “read beyond the canon and write themselves.” These are just a handful of UK-based organisations creating space for more diverse voices in the literary world.
Fortunately, here in Scotland similar changes are afoot. The Scottish BAME Writers Network, co-founded by Alycia Pirmohamed and Jay G Ying, was established to rewrite the narrative of Scottish writing and publishing. Its mission is to shine a light on the many new and established BAME writers, publishers and books reviewers in and around Scotland. The network has already launched a poetry pamphlet, won a Creative Edinburgh award and will guest-edit the upcoming issue of Gutter magazine, to be published in 2020.
The network’s aim is to create a space where writers of colour living with any connection to Scotland can respond to national and global debates of race and decolonisation. The network therefore organises Writers of Colour – a writing group which meets regularly at The Scottish Poetry Library and is facilitated by Hannah Lavery. Over the past year, with funding from the Royal Society of Literature, the network has hosted masterclasses led by distinguished writers including Raman Mundair, Leila Aboulela and Nadine Aisha Jassat. By sponsoring these programmes, the network helps numerous writers strengthen their craft and meet other writers who share both similar cultural and professional experiences.
The work of the network speaks to a history of BAME writing and activism in Scotland. Writers like the award-winning Aboulela and Scotland's current Makar Jackie Kay are renowned for creating diverse characters whose experiences reflect a side of Scottish life rarely depicted. Recently, Kay named Jassat as one of the ten best BAME writers living in the UK. Jassat herself organises Readers of Colour with Glasgow Women’s Library, which introduces readers in her group to diverse established and emerging literary voices by women, trans and non-binary writers.
These are just some of the writers of colour who have put their stamp on Scotland. It is the hope of The Scottish BAME Writers Network that the publishing world continues to look within Scotland for diverse voices to join literary panels, editorial teams, fellowships and the many other important art initiatives happening up and down the country. Our words and characters all add to the rich history of Scotland’s literary heritage. It’s time our contributions are more widely acknowledged and for us to move from the margins into wider discourse.
The Scottish BAME Writers Network hosts its first networking event at Augustine United Church, Edinburgh, 23 Nov, as part of Book Week Scotland
Follow @ScotBAMEwriters to find out more information about this event and others