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Added: Tuesday 9th May, 2017

Diversity is about more than just visibility

Guest Artistic Director, Dean Atta, writes about diversity in publishing.

From the Grammys and Oscars to university intakes to the publishing industry, everyone is talking about diversity. Many of these conversations are dominated by the issue of visibility rather than calling for structural changes. Not to say one is more important than the other or that one will necessarily result in the other but that both need to be happening. As well as talking about if Beyoncé should have won a Grammy over Adele, we should ask why awards matter in the first place, why do artists and their audiences feel so validated by these things? As well as talking about the awards Moonlight has won we should ask why a movie like this is so remarkable, why haven't we been seeing black gay love in mainstream movies until now? As well as talking about why Oxford and Cambridge have so few BAME students, we should look at why we still place so much value on these institutions and how entangled our ideas about race and class are. 

When I speak of diversity I mean those considered other, those our society is not set up to serve, those who are not white, straight, cisgender, those with disabilities, those who are poor. 

With publishing, the conversation should not begin and end with wanting more diverse writers to be published; we need to see more diverse people working behind the scenes in publishing houses, literary organisations, writing reviews and judging literary prizes. The books themselves are the most important thing but the way a book is solicited, edited, marketed, reviewed and ultimately its chances of success will only ever be helped by a having diverse team behind it and more diversity in the industry at large.

In my role as Guest Artistic Director of New Writing South, together with the team, we plan to diversify not just our programming of events and workshops but who we employ to lead those activities, the audiences who engage with us and writers who come to us for support. So I urge you to contact me if there are activities you would like to see us doing, writers or initiatives in the South East of England you think we should be aware of.

Two national initiatives raising visibility and starting conversations are Bare Lit Festival, a literature festival celebrating the work of remarkable writers in diaspora, and Speaking Volumes’ project Breaking Ground, a new booklet celebrating writers of colour. They do not guarantee success to the writers they feature but they take away the excuse from publishers or literary organisation who claim not to know of many writers of colour. 

Author and screenwriter Nikesh Shukla gave a brilliant lecture for New Writing South at last year’s Brighton Festival on this very topic. He is the editor of The Good Immigrant, an anthology of writers tackling being the other in the UK because their family are not originally from here. This book was remarkably crowdfunded through Unbound in a matter of days.

Poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz, who appears in The Good Immigrant, recently edited an anthology for Saqi Books called The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write, which gives a platform to a wide range of British Muslim women, some of whom practice the religion and others for whom is it a cultural identity rather than about religiosity.

Rather than have to speak to power, a writer should be able to write on their own terms. These anthologies, through their conscientious editors, allow this to happen for all the writers involved. Grouping writers together in anthologies like this enables them to collectively reach an audience they might not be able to individually. This creates a bigger conversation around their work. It also gives more scope for their unique voice to come through and takes the pressure off writers to feel like they need to speak for all immigrants or all British Muslim women.

I hope for a similarly nuanced collection of writing from the soon to be published Stairs and Whispers: D/Deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back from Nine Arches Press. Set to feature over 50 new and established writers including a personal favourite of mine, Raymond Antrobus, whose chapbook To Sweeten Bitter was recently published by Out-Spoken Press. In his collection, Antrobus writes skilfully about his Jamaican British identity, as well as the loss of his hearing and the death of his father. Antrobus certainly does not shy away from writing about hearing loss but reading his work or watching him perform, you see he is not confined to that one subject matter.

Being black and gay I often feel the pressure or feel called upon to write and speak exclusively about race or sexuality. During Black History Month and LGBT History Month I am inundated with requests to visit schools, colleges and universities and my bookings for spoken word shows go through the roof! There is lots of work for LGBT and BAME in February and October but the rest of the year it is often the case that I am the only BAME or LGBT person on a line up and feel I like I am expected to represent both of these massive communities, often simultaneously. To that effect I do believe more visibility is important so that we do not have only the same few voices of diversity being heard.

Inspired by editors like Shukla and Mahfouz, I am currently editing a zine called The Black Flamingo Zine as part of my residency at Tate Britain commissioned by Tate Schools and Teachers. The zine is exploring all forms of identity but I would particularly welcome work from those who identify as black and queer, we’re looking for poetry, prose, comment pieces and visual art, including photography. More information about the residency and how to submit here.

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