Columns

Mitra ’18: Writing a wrong

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, October 23, 2015

At first glance, the English literary world looks more diverse than ever. With new publishing houses and a wider audience, we have embraced authors from a range of cultures and backgrounds. In the last decade, minority writers like Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri have captured the imaginations of readers and critics alike. Alongside Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, we now read Toni Morrison and Haruki Murakami. And just look at the list of Nobel Laureates in Literature: They come from countries as varied as India, China, Nigeria and Turkey.

It would be easy to assume that writers from all ethnicities are now on a level playing field. Well, think again. These advancements only disguise the deeper truth: Minority writers are still struggling to get their voices heard over the tidal wave of homogeneity that pervades modern literature.

Over the summer, I stumbled upon a piece on the Washington Post’s “PostEverything” blog entitled, “I read books by only minority authors for a year. It showed me just how white our reading world is.” In the piece, the writer — an Australian lawyer and freelance columnist named Sunili Govinnage — describes her journey through 25 books written by minority authors from all around the world. She argues that our contemporary reading culture still systematically excludes a range of diverse perspectives — an idea that initially took me aback.

But as I thought more about Govinnage’s reasoning, I began to see the truth in her words. Yes, there are some standout examples of minority novelists who have broken through the glass ceiling and taken the literary world by storm, but even a cursory glance at the statistics will show that they are few and far between. Of the 124 authors who appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List in 2012, just three came from minority backgrounds. To put that in perspective, that works out to a staggeringly low 2.4 percent. Likewise, a 2012 study discovered that only 12 percent of books reviewed by the New York Times were written by minorities.

Of course, the New York Times isn’t a definitive reflection of our reading world. It is nonetheless telling that one of the most influential and widely read newspapers in the country has consistently overlooked the works of minority authors.

Even the world of literary prizes shows bias. Marlon James of Jamaica may have deservedly won the Man Booker Prize last week for “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” but triumphs like his are rare. Only six minority writers have won the prestigious award in the last 46 years. In the United States, only three have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction since the turn of the millennium. I am not citing these figures to condemn the prizes or the selection committees. I am simply arguing that minority authors face a range of unique struggles, particularly in terms of how their writing is received.

This year, a report in the United Kingdom found that the framework of the publishing industry pushed writers to adhere to stereotypes. Several interviewed novelists believed they were pigeonholed into writing about certain plot lines or themes. These same writers ran the risk of being rejected by publishers if they strove to find a more original angle.

As the award-winning Nigerian novelist Ben Okri described in a 2014 column in the Guardian, minority writers are especially well-received when they write about the “minority experience.”  Their works gain special notice when they focus on themes like slavery, oppression, violence and colonialism.

Admittedly, these are all hard-hitting, relevant topics that need to be addressed. Some of my favorite books tackle this challenging subject matter: “Beloved,” “Between the World and Me” and “The God of Small Things” are just some of the books that come to mind. But minority writers should not be constrained by these themes or parameters. After all, they are entitled to the same creative freedom given to whites, who most certainly are not restricted in their choice of themes.

Unfortunately, many publishing houses seem to think differently. PP Wong, a British writer of Chinese origin, has written about how one publisher rejected her manuscript because it had already signed an Asian author. This reasoning would never be applied to a white writer. It seems that minority authors are now being typecast, just as they often are in films and television.

So what can be done to improve the diversity of our bookshelves and libraries? It is obvious that the publishing industry needs a fundamental transformation. It has to become more representative and open to different perspectives. Ideally, the impetus for such a change should come from the readers themselves. I would never recommend following Govinnage’s lead and foregoing books by white authors — there are some wonderful novels written by these writers that deserve to be read. But at the same time, we should actively strive to expand our literary horizons. So if you get the chance, pick up a book or two by a minority author. You might feel as captivated as I was at their depth, range and sheer power.

Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu.

  • Man with Axe

    Six out of 46 is 13%. Three out of 15 is 20%. Those figures don’t seem so out of line to me. I’m not seeing the same evidence of obstacles you are seeing in the numbers.

  • matt10023

    Depends on where you live and what language and culture is dominant. In Africa, African writers are most read. In Europe, European writers are most read. In China, Chinese authors are most read.

    The US is majority white, so it stands to reason that the majority of writers are also white. Does it not follow that the majority of outstanding writers are also white?

    Still there are some very good non-white writers out there and with digital distribution, it’s easier than ever for people to find them if they want. I think what’s bugging you is that not everyone shares your particular focus, and (gasp) look to best sellers lists to help them chose what to read next.

    Minority writers, by definition, are in the minority. So it’s reasonable that fewer of them get published. However, you’re free to make your career by starting a minority books publishing house. You’ll see how difficult it is to make bets on relatively unknown authors. You may succeed, but it wont be easy.

    • banshee

      You are making sense. Desist at once!