Thursday, June 20, 2013

Why Being a POC Author Sucks Sometimes

When I do my diversity presentation for high schools, I open with this chart:

It's an immediate attention grabber. Why? Because this highlights the gap in diversity of caucasian and POC authors. This is an informal survey taken by author Roxanne Gay that breaks out authors reviewed by the NYT in 2011 by race. Nearly 90% are caucasian. This by no means shows a complete breakdown of publishing. But I would venture to say that a more accurate number of published books might even further compound the gap between caucasian authors and POC authors.

Ms. Gay states in her article that "These days, it is difficult for any writer to get a book published. We’re all clawing. However, if you are a writer of color, not only do you face a steeper climb getting your book published, you face an even more arduous journey if you want that book to receive critical attention. It shouldn’t be this way. Writers deserve that same fighting chance regardless of who they are but here we are, talking about the same old thing—these institutional biases that even by a count of 2011 data, remain deeply ingrained."

I am a person of color, a minority, and I am a published author. Did it feel like it was harder for me than a caucasian author to get published? I can't answer that. I have no idea what their path to publication felt like. But I can talk about my own path and the roadblocks that I came across. I can talk about being told over and over again by other writers and publishing professionals that no one would buy a book about ancient Korea. I can talk about having my writing ridiculed by saying it reads like a bad translation of a Chinese book, even though English is my native language, and I'm not Chinese. I have numerous tales of the type of dissuading I endured, but I didn't give up because I believed that there needed to be more books like mine out there. And I was extremely lucky to get published by a wonderful publisher.

I wrote a children's book. Historically, children's books have always been a wonderful place to find multicultural books... at least compared to other areas of publishing. With librarians and teachers looking for diversity, there have been many more multicultural titles in children's publishing. Although I would not say it is the same for YA. In this aspect, I am speaking most specifically about chapter, picture and middle grade books. Or so I believed. But now I have a new graphic to share in my diversity presentations.

This is a new graphic by Lee & Low books that put an end to my rosy colored view of diversity and publishing in children's. The percentage of books by and about people of color has hovered around 10% for nearly 20 years. When I first saw this graphic, I was absolutely stunned. I had no idea how little had changed. And when I read the accompanying article here, I found myself nodding my head in dismay.

Betsy Bird, School Library Journal blogger at A Fuse #8 said "The public outcry for more multicultural books has so far been more of a public whimper." And I have to ask, why? Is the problem supply or is the problem demand?"

From the viewpoint of a minority woman, I believe the demand is there. But maybe the default of "white culture" is so ingrained that even minorities don't know to demand for more. We read what is there. What's available to us. They say girls read boy books but boys don't read girl books. Is the parallel POC read white books but whites don't read POC books? I don't think so. I think that the truth is, they are not exposed to them.

Publishers seem to believe that multicultural books just don't sell as well. But do they get the same marketing push as non-POC books? Are all things equal when they are sent out into the world? I would hazard a guess that they are not. Because if you do not believe that multi-cultural books will sell well, then you will not put the marketing money behind them and thereby you create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now I have been lucky, my books have had terrific marketing support from my publisher. So the question then goes to the other side of the coin. Where are the booksellers, the librarians, the teachers on pushing the multicultural books? It's not just enough to ask publishers to publish the books, there must be help from the other side. There has to be a support system for these books once they are published, to help get them into the children's hands. And that is not all up to the publisher.

I once asked a YA librarian if she thought there were enough diverse titles and she said that they were there, but you just have to know how to look for them. Isn't that part of the problem? That they are invisible and no one knows about them? How are they shelved in bookstores and libraries? How easy are they to find? Of the 112 titles chosen by YALSA for the 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults list, less than 10% were by POC authors. The 2013 list is looking like it may fare even worse. So if teen librarians are looking to these lists that are so woefully underrepresented, does this not aggravate the underlying problem?

One thing that really stood out for me is this series of questions by Ms. Bird, "Finally, we need to officially address how we feel about white authors and illustrators writing books about people of other races. Is it never okay? Sometimes okay? Always okay?"

To this - I want to offer up a response from writer Claire Light because I couldn't say it better:
"What I want to add to the debate is a small piece of truth that gets glossed over. In response to the complaint of white writers about writing about people of color: "Damned if you do. Damned if you don't," I want to say: Absolutely.
It's absolutely true. You're damned either way. Race and racism exist in this society, and if you ignore them, you're expressing a racial privilege...
If you do do it and get it "wrong", you'll get reamed, and rightfully so. It's presumptuous of you to think that you have the right to represent a culture you don't belong to if you can't be bothered to properly examine and accurately portray that culture.
Further, if you do it and get it "right", or rather, don't get it wrong, you'll still get reamed by members of that culture you've represented who rightfully resent a white writer's success representing their culture. After all, every American ethnic minority has its writers: good and bad. The good writers are mostly ignored. Inevitably, some white writer will come along and do a bang-up job portraying that culture and will get--in one book, in one section of a book--more attention than the poc writer got over the course of three or five or ten books.
You're a white writer trying to do the right thing, but no matter what you do, it's wrong. And that's so unfair to you, isn't it?
Welcome to a tiny taste of what it's like to be a person of color."
I want to tell you an honest truth people, because of all the racism I have endured in my life (and even seeing the racism my own children have had to face) I cannot help but resent when caucasians write about Asian culture. Yes, I resent them. I absolutely do. Yet, at the same time, I appreciate them for at least trying to do it, when they do it right.

It is a complicated situation. There is no easy answer. We need diversity in literature. We need it desperately. Diversity is not only for the under-represented—the truth is, diversity is important for everyone. All people need to be exposed to other races and other cultures in positive ways. All people need to learn tolerance and acceptance of differences. When we promote only a homogeneous view of society in our literature and our media, and deem books or movies about minorities as unsuccessful, it harms everyone. And so it is important that all authors include diversity in their books.

But there is that part of me that wonders why is it that when I see a list about what Asian fantasy books are out there, the books are predominantly by caucasian authors. Are POC writers not writing them or are they being passed over for books written by non-POC authors instead? And why is it that books by or about POC don't tend to sell as well as other "mainstream" books. What is the difference? Is it the difference in how they are marketed? Is it their cover art? Where they are placed in the bookstore or library? How they are pushed or not pushed by the booksellers, librarians, and teachers?

The reality is, there are just not a lot of POC authors out there. We are not representing the 37% of our population when we only amount to 10% of publishing. When you look at diversity panels or even the YA tag in racebending.com, the authors tend to be predominantly white because they reflect publishing.

This is why I can't help but be resentful. I freely admit it. It sucks being a POC author sometimes. You feel invisible. You feel passed over. And true or not,  it feels harder for us to get to tell our own stories. And that shouldn't be the way things are.

I want to see more of me in publishing. I want to see more POC authors overcoming the publishing barrier and writing about their cultures. I want to see diversity panels filled with... diversity! We need to be performing on stage with our counterparts, not just watching in the audience.

We need to represent.

We need to belong.

27 comments:

Leonicka said...

Thank you for writing this. It is important and needs to be said over and over and over again. I think that we all need to take ownership of the problem. The publishing industry is not some nebulous mystical force--it's us. Each and every one of us can take steps both small (read, buy, share, review books written by poc authors) and large (hire more POC publishing pros, represent more POC authors, acquire more books by POC) to fix it ourselves.

Robert Trujillo/Tres said...

Hey Ello, I agree with Leonicka in that we can take ownership of the problem. If we think of how much has been done in the past to keep people of color from reading it is not hard to see the roots of the industry. Reading is a step to breaking free from oppression, no?

As an illustrator/writer of color who has submitted stories, sent out countless postcards, emails, phone calls, and queries only to be ignored or told to jump through hoops it is very very frustrating. But I'll never stop and neither will the people who really care.

We cannot depend on the 10 major publishers to give us more. We have to say #$%& them and take it.

We have power. There are thousands of us across the US, and even more internationally if we think of bi-lingual audiences whether Spanish or Korean. There are at least a hundred book blogs run by poc. And there are probably about 40-50 large/mid size POC publishers, with probably about 500 stores across the US who actively support multicultural titles. That right there , united under a common name or banner is enough to start our own world, feel me?

Lee and Low lead the charge this week in discussion, lets bring "action steps" back to them. Sure, it helps us get published, but more it lays a path for more of our families' stories to be told instead of ignored or appropriated.

Peace and blessings,
-Rob

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Hi Leonicka! Hi Rob! I completely agree with you both. Which is why I wrote this post. In my tumblr post I mentioned that my daughter thinks all I talk about is diversity and how I've become almost a broken record. But we must not stop talking and challenging and raising the collective consciousness that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. But every time we raise these issues, it lights a small fire that extinguishes quickly. How do we keep the issue of the importance of diversity burning brightly? What are we failing to do? That's what I want to know. I'm glad that I'm not the only one who will keep preaching. But how do we raise our voices from a few to the many?

Robert Trujillo/Tres said...

Hmm, if you mean. How do we count and celebrate the victories and the movements forward, thats a tough question. I think its really dope that The Cooperative Childrens Center keeps stats. I think Zetta Elliott is the first person I heard mention them and similar figures. Since Lee and Low is one of the largest and CCBC is keeping count maybe we could......thinking....

Two things come to mind. 1. The idea of a central video blog or blog that any poc could contribute to to post victories.....?

Or, something like the "Awesome Foundation" where a group of folks all put in a small amount of money yearly to then award to a great candidate. That kid of fund would help creators. ? You are on to something Ellen!

Evan Roskos said...

Very well written. I'm always curious if one of the issues from the reader's perspective is one of subject matter -- that is, do white readers simply refuse to read (or semi-consciously avoid) books with POC characters because they fear the subject matter of the book will be about being a POC? I run into a mindset with college students a lot -- they get tired of reading "feminist" texts all the time not because they don't like feminism (allegedly), but because they want to read about things that explore other issues. To which I respond: teach your own darn class! :)

Also:
"'You're a white writer trying to do the right thing, but no matter what you do, it's wrong. And that's so unfair to you, isn't it?
Welcome to a tiny taste of what it's like to be a person of color.'"

I'd argue, too, that a white writer will get more attention for failing than a POC author will get for succeeding. As a white author, the anxiety of this is frustrating but probably only a fraction of the frustration a writer of color feels when trying to publish.

Gillian Chisom said...

Thanks for writing this. I'm trying to be more conscious about buying and reading books by POC authors. Just added your book to my wish list, it sounds awesome!

Scott Pilgrim said...

Great post, Ellen! It's truly disturbing how little books there are about POCs. The publishing business isn't fair to POCs especially with the whitewashing of so many covers.
-Scott Reads It!

Angie said...

I think part of the problem is how books by writers of color are marketed and sold. It was less than ten years ago that I discovered there were romances about black people, frex. Well, duh, you might be thinking, and I thought it too, once I found out about them and pondered the situation. Of course black women would like to read romances about people who are like them. But as a white reader, I never knew they existed because you don't see them in the Romance section of the bookstore. Nowadays, you occasionally see them in their own little shelf section next to the (regular [eyeroll]) romance books, but usually they're in a section labelled "Black Lit" or "Urban Fiction" or whatever euphemism the bookstore uses, an aisle away, or half the bookstore away. A romance reader won't see them unless she knows to go looking.

I've seen bookstores with similar sections separated out for fiction by/about Asian people and Latinos and Native Americans. Same with gay romances; if the bookstore has any at all, which it probably doesn't, they're shelved in "GLBT Studies" or some similar section that someone looking for a romance would never think to browse.

What writers of color (and other unprivileged groups) need is access to the majority white (straight) audience of readers, who think (silly them) that all the romances are in the Romance section.

Do other genres have the same problem? If all YA books are in the YA section, then the main problem might well be access to the publishers, but if not, then having a large chunk of your target audience never visit the section where your books are shelved is probably cutting down on a lot of visibility and sales. SF and Fantasy have their own race issues, but at least they have a long history of shelving books by and about POC in the main genre shelves of the bookstore. I don't know about mysteries or thrillers, since I don't read those.

Getting all books by and about POC onto the main genre shelves would, I'll bet, solve a large chunk of the visibility problem. And if they sold better (which they would with more visibility -- another duh) publishers should be open to publishing more work by writers of color. I imagine that if more writers of color were published and sold -- something around the percentage of each group in the US population -- a white writer publishing a book featuring a character of color would feel a lot less problematic. This shouldn't be a zero sum game, but so long as it is, the resentment is unfortunately understandable.

Angie

Jha said...

........ Yes, this so much. It makes me so angry to see white people (and their POC defenders) telling POC creators "make your own! make your own!" and it's hard to not just scream back "OF COURSE WE ARE! BUT YOUR PRIVILEGE TRUMPS MY WORK!!" I'm so glad you called it out.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Thank you everyone for commenting. I wish blogger allowed you to answer each comment in its own thread. But blogger argh.

I read all your comments and know I'm preaching to the choir. I wish we had a way to reach the broader audience out there. but i think if all of us continue to keep talking about this and thinking about it, things will change. At least I really hope so.

Roman Skaskiw said...

Asians aren't doing so bad. 4.8% of the population, and, according to the chart, 4.4% of NY Times book reviews.

Curious how analysis of Jewish authors would affect the analysis made by this article. I'm sure they're also over-represented in the literature business.

Roman Skaskiw said...

Asians aren't doing so bad. 4.8% of the population, and, according to the chart, 4.4% of NY Times book reviews.

Curious how analysis of Jewish authors would affect the analysis made by this article. I'm sure they're also over-represented in the literature business.

Roman Skaskiw said...

Asians aren't doing so bad. 4.8% of the population, and, according to the chart, 4.4% of NY Times book reviews.

Curious how analysis of Jewish authors would affect the analysis made by this article. I'm sure they're also over-represented in the literature business.

Katherine Traylor said...

I can provide an anecdotal data point re: industry participation. I live in a city that's 45.5% white, 43.8% black, and the rest mostly Asian and Latino. I spent a year in a very large, active SFF writing group (15-25 members present at each meeting). In that time, I think I saw four black writers. One of them wrote mostly about white characters. Another member was half Korean, half white. Everyone else was white.

I don't think this was a matter of inclusion, either. We were an open-invitation Meetup group, and all newcomers were invited to read immediately. It would have been awesome to have more people of color involved, but by the time I stopped going it was still very disproportionate.

Katherine Traylor said...

P.S. @ Angie: I've worked in two bookstores, both with "African American Fiction" sections. Both times, the management told me that they'd set up the sections at the request of their African American customers.

tanita davis said...

Man, this is a tough one, but you captured it in the last sentences: we need to represent AND we need to belong. It's a knife-edge on which we balance.

Angie said...

Katherine -- not surprising. There are also some Black writers who prefer to have their books in the Black Lit (or whatever) section, because that's where they perceive their audience to be. And if they write "urban fiction" or something like that, stories particularly about the Black experience, then they're probably not going to get much of a non-Black audience no matter where their books are.

But other Black writers, particularly those who write a more general-interest genre, would rather have their books in that genre section, where they'll be exposed to the wider audience.

There's no agreement about this, even among Black writers and readers. It's definitely an issue, though, especially for genres like romance, where there's a huge audience that has no idea Black people write those books.

Online bookselling should be fixing this, since you can managed categories and key words to let people find any book in a variety of ways. I should be able to go to Amazon and find Robin Amos's Cosmic Rendezvous by searching either or "Black author" or "Black characters" or "author of color" or "characters of color" or "romance" or "contemporary romance" or "astronaut" or "setting Houston" or some combination. Right now I can't do that, but there's not technical reason for it; it's up to the online vendors to keep improving their search capabilities. Online, a book can be in the "African American Fiction" section AND the "Romance" section, if only the vendors will set it up that way.

Angie, who's had this conversation a few times :)

Maggie Stiefvater said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Montroll said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Davis said...

I see a lot of the problem of not having enough diversity in fiction comes from making diversity almost it's own sub-genre. Booksellers only want so many "diversity" books, and often for specific occasions (such as black history month), so that's what publishers consider in their marketing and choosing titles. We need to stop marketing fiction as diverse fiction and let it just be good fiction.

If I look at the back of a book and I see "three PoC friends from place enter a world of wherever" I usually put it down. If it had said, "NAMES find themselves in a world of dragons and new dangers where they must..." I would open it up. I don't want to read a fantasy or sci fi novel about diversity, I want to read one WITH diversity. I don't know if it is the author, agent, publisher, or bookseller, but if they treated quality writing like quality writing, instead of quality divirsity writing, the audience would be that much bigger. Otherwise you get readers looking at the back and receiving the information that this book is for such and such PoC and civil rights enthusiasts.

I believe the need for broad spectrum authors is more important than white authors writing PoC. Those that can do it well already do it, as do many who don't. The question is how to get more PoC authors in the mainstream and that is by treating them like they are mainstream. Blurb the books, not the author. Market and sell the books as the fiction, horror, romance, scifi, fantasy, mystery, and so on that they are, and don't pigeon hole them as a sub-sub genre with no shelf or catalog space.

If this is done, readers won't think that certain books aren't for them, authors won't see the books on the shelf for only a month or two out of the year, publishers won't be scared to publish my diverse books because there won't be a sub-sub quota that quickly fills.

There is clearly more to it. A more diverse publishing and book selling industry for one. I don't think the above is the whole answer, but it is a possible solution to part of the problem.

M. Malone said...

Thank you for writing this. It's an uphill climb sometimes. I write contemporary romance and even though there are many successful black romance authors (Brenda Jackson, Francis Ray, etc) they don't receive the attention and marketing as their white counterparts.

However, it's not only the publishers that need to make changes. There's also the readers who are so used to white characters they're shocked by multiracial characters. In a review of my book "One More Day", the reader loved the book but claimed she had no idea what the characters looked like.

The characters are described in the first few pages of the book. I think it's just such a shock to some readers to read articulate, educated characters that are different from their mental "default" (i.e. Caucasian).

Thanks for bringing some attention to the issue. It's difficult but it only gets better when we talk about it and resolve to change it.

Kristan Hoffman said...

Ellen, thank you for writing this. Especially the part about resentment, and "damned if you do, damned if you don't." These are uncomfortable truths -- but so important to share, so that we (society) can learn, and grow, and overcome.

Samara Koziol said...

I would totally buy that book on ancient Korea.

AALBC.com said...

You've articulated the situation quite well. I'm also glad to read about a subject which is getting virtually no coverage. However it is much more profound. There are have far fewer platforms to promote books by or for POC. There are fewer, indy bookstores, websites, magazines, newspapers, covering these books. As the platforms disappear so do the sales. And of course readers assume the books are not being produced becase they can not easily discover them.

Guinevere & Libertad Tomas said...

I love this post!I've dedicated my book blog to reviewing only diverse books!I'm definitely goina check your book out!

Avantika Chitturi said...

I hope you don't mind me asking this, but what's a POC author?

Christopher Farley said...

I liked your post about diversity and kids literature. I hope you check out my new book "Game World" and spread the word! It's unlike any other fantasy book out there!

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