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Who is Telling the Story? Another Question of Diversity in Publishing

June 22, 2011

I started off talking about the lack of diversity at one specific event that I attended in Toronto and moved on to discussing the publishing industry. This Wednesday I want to move on to something that was briefly mentioned last week both in my post and by various people who commented. I had said:

I also think that the fact that the biggest titles are often written by non-POC / international authors about POC / international characters is related to the lack of diversity / equity in the publishing industry. We seem to be (sadly) more willing to push people like us writing about those outside the dominant group than this ‘other’ writing about their own experiences. I don’t know why that is but I wonder if it somehow seems more familiar to us?

Today I want to talk less about the publishing industry and how the lack of diversity in offerings is related to that and instead I want to talk about something that we see everywhere – writing about the “other”. And what I want to focus on specifically for today is the white, American / European authors writing about Africa. I’m really just going to ramble on for way too long because I have a lot of conflicting thoughts on the subject. I am going to close not only asking for your opinion but also with a poll.

This situation was brought to my attention strongly at Book Expo America when, during the BEA Editor’s Buzz panel, one of the books pitched (and one of the books with the a very large presence at the conference as a whole) was Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron, published by Algonquin. Basically, if I remember correctly, Benaron worked with Rwandan refugees in the US, was fascinated so went to Rwanda, thought more people need to know about what happened there, so she wrote a book. While listening to the pitch I actually wrote up a note on my iPhone titled “How to Write about Africa for White People”. Clearly the list is a generalization and not specifically directed at this one book / pitch which I’ve not read. I think the list is a general representation of what we see over and over again and the truly successful books have some combination of these things. Here is my (mostly) unedited list which was written half jokingly and half seriously (and please remember this is not specifically about this one book, but rather about the trend of writing about Africa):

  1. Include lots of stereotypes.
  2. People might have potential but given where they are (i.e. Africa as opposed to the ‘developed’ world), they will never become anything.
  3. Main character must always be naively innocent of all evil occurring around him/her (else we can’t sympathize with them).
  4. There needs to be a white / American / European person to show them (Africans) the way to safety / success.
  5. The main character will always child-like until the end (related to point 3).
  6. Main character or close relative must face terrible violence.
  7. Exoticize everything as much as possible, especially the land.

My original thought is ‘how selfish’. If you truly want more people to know about the place and situation, might an option be to help aspiring Rwandan authors become published in North America rather than appropriating their stories? This leads, of course, to the thought that when it comes to literature there are no real rules, so how can I be upset? Anyone can write about anything and one has to hope that they’ve done the research to ensure that everything matches reality where it should. When it comes to writing about other cultures though we have to really wonder – does the author really know what it is like to be a part of the culture, to get the events correct, to get the diction correct, etc. And is the book truly shining a light on this other culture or are they maligning it?

This topic first came up here on Amy Reads back in August 2010 in my review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. In that book Richard is an Englishman who is dating a Nigerian woman and lives through the Biafran war but in the end decides that it isn’t his story to tell. This was something that I brought up in my review to ask people’s thoughts on and got a lot of fantastic discussion points. The main point was that it is easy for the privileged to write about other groups and cultures but their voice will almost always drown out those who are actually living the culture and trying to write their own stories.

Thinking of this also reminds me of Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, some of which was included in his book The Education of a British-Protected Child. In an easy in that book he talks about how so many said that Conrad was “on the side of the Africans” when really the story is full of racism and denies true humanity to the Africans. With this specific example we are also talking about historical stereotypes, but I still think it is an important point. If we are not a part of the culture being discussed, how can we know if it is a good and accurate representation or not? And can we trust some author who may or may not have visited the country in question once or twice to actually get it right?

What I think the main point is, besides the privileging of ourselves over those whose stories we are taking and who don’t have the same opportunities to get their stories out, is one of truth and research. How do I, as a Canadian, know if the culture / voice / events / etc of this book set in another country is true? Unless you specifically make an effort to read local authors as well as those from outside, you will never truly know (and hence my Nigerian lit project). Some may ask whether this really matters, and personally I think that it does. I think that by distorting our views of other parts of the world we are doing ourselves a disservice. It is not only profiting from others who aren’t given opportunities to publish their own works it is also distorting the truth behind their lives.

At the same time, I think it is important for authors to include a diverse mix of characters in their books. I like when there is a mix of sexual orientations and racial backgrounds presented by the characters in a book because it makes it feel more true to real life. I don’t think authors should write all of the characters in their book white and straight. I wonder if maybe the key is the level of research and the reasons WHY the diversity was included. Are you trying to be representative of true life by including diverse characters or are you trying to be sensational and sell more books. What is your end justification for the location / characters – is it for some noble reason of ‘helping’ or ‘educating’ others maybe you want to rethink why you are the perfect person for that and if those people you are trying to help can better help themselves in some way?

A quick note: While discussing my attempts at pulling together this post Cass mentioned that it is rather ironic that I, as a white person, would write this. She is quite right and perhaps I’m not really the best person to do so. If we use the test I mention I would say that my reason for discussing it is simply to get people thinking about what they read and who wrote it as well as get people talking, so hopefully that makes it OK :)

This is a topic for which there doesn’t seem to be one easy answer and I’ve really just been thinking out loud here. I want to know, what do YOU think?

65 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2011 8:34 am

    What an excellent post, Amy. Kind of reminds me of the recent “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog fiasco, whose (white, straight, male) author took it upon himself to write about the experiences of lesbian women in the Middle East “in a way Westerners could relate to”. Obviously fiction is different in the sense that no deceit is involved, but in many cases the underlying assumption is the same – “we” are so different from “them” that we need one of “us” to translate “their” experiences to us. Apparently our common humanity is never ever enough to bridge that gap – without an “interpreter”, “they” will forever remain inaccessibly alien. It’s an assumption that needs to be continuously challenged.

    • June 25, 2011 5:30 pm

      Oh gosh yes Ana, that whole news was umm… frustrating to say the least! I dislike the assumption that we need experiences filtered through some type of local lens for it to be relate-able or relevant, which is what I seem to see most often.

  2. June 22, 2011 8:56 am

    Your “how to” applies to more than just books about Africa! It certainly is a popular formula. But it feels a bit like a double edged sword – with so many American and European aid organizations pushing the messages of “we must help them”, the (non-fiction) books are another way to ground the message. I guess the question really is what do the people being exploited (and I use that term loosely – is it exploitation if the message put forward is appreciated by the people?) for the sake of book sales think about it?

    There is also the question of is it more important to get the message out, or get the message out via the right vehicle or author? Is the book more likely to be read because it conforms to the natural way Americans/Europeans understand the world? Or is there really a difference? Totally a topic that begs way more questions than answers.

    • June 25, 2011 5:32 pm

      Yes, yes it certainly does Tammie! We tend to see it a lot with anything that seems a little bit different from our own experience. And I like the equivalent to aid organizations – that we need to help them and that we have to do it our own way, because we clearly know best?

      Also, I wonder about that too… is incorrect information better or worse than no information? I think it really depends on what the message is and how valid it is, possibly.

  3. June 22, 2011 9:44 am

    Excellent, excellent post. And completely appropriate that you should write it, given your interest in Nigerian literature. No apologies needed. It’s not that white authors cannot write or must not write about Africa. Really, it’s about balance. And the scale is tipped in favor of white authors. The process by which an African writer gets developed is complex and difficult. The process by which an African author gets published and stays published even more so. It seems that the larger world will readily accept what others write about African than what Africans write. Added to this is the horrible reality that most Africans either cannot read, can but do not read or don’t have access to affordable books. In essence then, all that gets written about the continent (by Africans and non-Africans) will mostly be consumed by Western readers (of all races). The harsh reality is that if an African writer is to survive as a writer, she would need a sizable income for the West. It places our writers at a disadvantage and publishers know that. In this situation, you can choose the type of stuff that is written about African and also choose from whom you get the work, fiction of non-fiction. The market can actually dictate how Africa is written about and how it is said. And this has been going on for decades. The Western world depended on their kind to bring them news of natives and life in the colonies. We like to think that we live in a post-colonial era. But really, not much has changed. On our end, here in Africa, our leaders and governments put little emphasis on teaching writing. The situation suits them just fine because a population that does not write is not going to put any criticisms on paper and get the info out. So they collude with publishing outfits in the West to print all our material (even for educational institutions) in order to stifle our nascent publishing industries.

    I could go on… but the reality is depressing enough. Well done, Amy

    • tammie permalink
      June 22, 2011 10:04 am

      I often check back on these kinds of posts to see your perspective Kinna – I really admire the way you approach these topics, and learn so much from you!

    • June 22, 2011 2:09 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kinna. They are very insightful and thought-provoking.

    • June 25, 2011 5:34 pm

      You are right Kinna, the reality is quite depressing. I completely agree with you that it is about balance, and we are sorely lacking any kind of balance at present. I am especially interested in your points on how the African authors often need money from readers in the West and the impact that has. Really does skew what gets written doesn’t it, even by those African writers. Wow… scary scary stuff. Thank you for pointing this out more clearly!

    • tolmsted permalink
      June 30, 2011 9:51 am

      Kinna -

      Valuable insight for the rest of us! Reading your comment I had a thought & a questions (which I’m sure will only serve to highlight my complete ignorance, so please forgive me in advance).

      Self-publishing – mainly through digital/ebook format – has become very big (and somewhat controversial) here in the states. But reading your comment I wondered, do you think the new digital/self-publishing technology offered by companies like Amazon could create opportunities to African writers to self-publish? While initial access to computers & the internet would require investment – compared to the capital needed to start a printing company it’s very small. I don’t know how much it would help in making African authors accessible to their fellow Africans (at least initially), but it could be a way to provide them with a stronger voice/representation in Western literature. Have you seen any movements in that direction?

      • June 30, 2011 1:52 pm

        Good question, Tolmsted and Lisa. As someone who grew up in a household surrounded by books, I lament but also appreciate the coming of e-books. It’s been bittersweet for me reading the various arguments for and against e-publishing and self-publishing. Traditional publishing and availability of printed books are not as established or available on the continent as they are in the West. I sit at my desk and read about the closing of libraries and literally, I’m at a loss for words.

        Yes, self-publishing would represent a huge step forward in our current state. In fact, most books (not meant for schools) published in Ghana are self-published. Except of course, most of the books are of such poor quality. There are also initiatives to introduce e-readers for children. The other issue, of course, is cross-border trade, inter/intra regional and continental exchange of creative products. That also needs to improve. We do so little of that here. It’s easier for me to buy a book by a Nigerian author on Amazon than looking for it in a bookstore in Ghana.

        The real issue is leadership and vision. How do we prioritize reading and writing in our educational systems? How do we develop an audience that will consume our books (and other artforms) so that we can sustain our artistic industries? How do we develop and nurture the talent? It is surreal, for me, to read articles that diss the works of American writers who have MFAs! We need those here. Several organizations and individuals are working to address these issues. But this is Africa, and many people think that the unavailability of books is not a real problem when a lot of people are poor and dying. Some of us argue the exact opposite. It will be difficult to change the publishing landscape without government intervention. But it’s one of those things that we have to do for ourselves. Unfortunately, if it does not come from an aid budget… that’s the cynic in me talking :). Thanks for asking.

        • July 27, 2011 1:26 pm

          Really enjoying this discussion. One of the reasons I wanted to self-publish (I’m living in Ghana) was to show that it was possible to not only epublish but also do POD from Ghana.

          In some ways it’s a vicious circle – to get people to read you need more accessible books, to get local authors to write you need ways to make it financially viable ie. by having people buy books. I think the more that can be done to promote readers/writers/book buyers the better.

          But slowly, slowly we can chip away at it all. Even just making a point of buying books for people as presents is a start.

        • August 12, 2011 8:56 pm

          I’m looking forward to reading your book Fiona :) It really is a vicious circle both there and here, I think. Publishers won’t take chances because things ‘don’t sell’ but they’ve never tried so how do they know?? Frustrating!

          Kinna, you make some (as always) really insightful points. The rise of self-publishing really is great in some ways but eecks. Some of the stuff just isn’t of great quality. If only self-publishing came with editing as well! ;)

          The trade issue is so crazy. I always assume that you can find works easier than I can when in reality we both have similar buying options so often. Which really shouldn’t be the case. I wonder sometimes at the lack of trade…

  4. bookgazing permalink
    June 22, 2011 10:24 am

    I agree with Kinna, it’s all about balance, but the balance right now is skewed.

    ’4.There needs to be a white / American / European person to show them (Africans) the way to safety / success.’

    Thinking back to the JSTW incident there’s the argument that writing a character like this might be used as a device for an author outside a particular community to avoid appropriating someone elses story (and I think that’s something that needs to be evaluated on a case by case situation, with the full participation of people from within the community that’s being written about). However I think it’s the end of your point that is telling, must these characters always be the ones to lead other characters to some kind of light?

    There’s this little bit in March where Mr March is told that African American abolishinist workers can do the work themselves, they don’t need him to take over the work. I always remember that as a powerful moment, that I should keep in mind as a supporter of any group outside my own experience.

    • June 22, 2011 1:31 pm

      I loved that bit in March so much!

    • June 25, 2011 5:37 pm

      While I really didn’t like March, that is a really good point and I now like the book a bit more Jodie, thanks for reminding me of it :D That makes sense what you say about it being used as a plot device to keep from truly appropriating stories but… like you say, why must that character always be the hero who teaches / saves / lifts the Africans out of darkness? Sigh. Clearly we need a better way for authors to write these!!

  5. June 22, 2011 11:28 am

    Yes. So much of this.

    In this vein, are you going to write about your experience at the event on Sunday? ;-)

  6. June 22, 2011 11:38 am

    I completely agree.

    But had this devil’s advocate sort of thought an hour after reading this post. Your outline for “How to Write about Africa for White People” creates a book that is accessible to me in a way that a book about Nigeria by a Nigerian would not be. I can absolutely relate to that American / European author so it would be an easy read. Is it better that I read that book and, maybe, pick up another book with more authenticity due to a new interest in the subject, than to not read about Africa at all?

    • June 22, 2011 12:11 pm

      But that’s the thing: why would you assume that a book written by a Nigerian would not be accessible to you? As Nymeth points out above, do we not have a shared common humanity? I love Czech literature. In fact, it is probably my third most read regional literature. And most that I have read resonates with me here in Africa. I would never pick up a book written by another human being and not find it accessible. I may not agree with what is written. It may take some work to understand and appreciate what I’m told. Nothing that I cannot handle being as I am another human being who understands love, life and death. And I don’t think that I’m unique in this :).

      • June 22, 2011 5:49 pm

        I suspect you aren’t unique in this, but perhaps braver than the average reader. But you and Amy have convinced me that I want to be more open.

      • June 25, 2011 5:40 pm

        Love this thread. I think, Joy, that is a thought that many people have and it is why the books written by authors “like us” about “others” do so much better. I definitely agree with Kinna though that we all share so much common humanity. Occasionally there are pieces in books that send me scurrying to the internet to learn more but for the most part (the majority really) there is nothing inaccessible about the books or the stories themselves. While I might not know all of the history or the names, it is definitely a good thing to learn more. The stories themselves, the emotions and events, are really similar to the things we all deal with wherever we are. i definitely recommend trying out a few Joy :D

  7. June 22, 2011 12:09 pm

    Have you read Adichie’s short story “Jumping Monkey Hill”? If not, you should! I have it linked in my sidebar: http://www.granta.com/Magazine/95/Jumping-Monkey-Hill/Page-1

    Anyway, this year I’m making an effort to read more international nonfiction, because I’m so tired of the Western viewpoint dominating! It’s v difficult, though, to actually find this authors; I hope that that begins to change soon, and I guess I need to put more research time into it.

    You know, I actually thought that the book you were going to talk about was Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away; it’s a new novel set in Nigeria w Nigerian characters by a white British woman who’s married to a Nigerian (whoo! that’s a mouthful). I saw it on Netgalley and immediately thought of you. Personally, I would far rather spend my limited reading time reading a book by an author who’s actually FROM that culture than reading what a Western outsider imagines their culture to be. And thus it frustrates me that Western authors’ visions dominate publishing, because it makes it more difficult to find the kinds of books that I want!

    I think as someone who loves reading world lit, I have to be careful not to encourage a kind of exoticisation/pandering to a Western audience. And I don’t think it’s something I would have noticed years ago, before I began to regularly read books by actual international authors. To be honest, it annoys me when, say, people count The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver as their ‘Congo’ read (and not only because I loathe that book, lol). It comes too close to intellectual colonialisation to me and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    There are similar problem in POC authors writing POC characters v white authors writing POC characters; it’s a reason why I won’t read The Help. I think when an author comes from a group that has historically oppressed/dominated/etc. another group, they need to look at whether they’re co-opting a voice that isn’t really theirs.

    All of this is a rambling way of saying that I agree with you! In an ideal world, there would be room for writers from ALL backgrounds to write whatever stories they’re drawn to. But we live in the real world, in which being male, white, straight, and/or Western are all privileges; the more of those privileges you have, the more you need to make sure you’re not using them to shove others further into the margins. As a reader, the choices I make re: books to request from the library or buy or read and blog about do carry weight; my conscious commitment to put the effort in to finding international and POC authors is a direct result of my dissatisfaction with the status quo. Until Western readers begin demanding more books by non-Western authors, things won’t change.

    P.S. Thanks for reminding me about Achebe’s book! I’m going to try to pick it up from the library today. :)

    • June 25, 2011 5:48 pm

      I LOVE that story of Adichie’s Eva!! Thanks for linking it here :) Definitely not only what gets written by non-Africans but even what is most easily publishable by Africans is an issue – as Kinna mentioned above.

      I actually spoke with Christie Watson at BEA about her book. I feel it might be better because I first heard about it via a Nigerian publisher and because she is married to a Nigerian so actually has first hand experience with the culture… but you are right, talking with her was part of what made me think about writing this post! We discussed Nigerian lit and she asked why I would be less scared of reading her novel than of Little Bee and I gave the reasons I mentioned. She said she was interested to hear my thoughts. I have yet to pick it up off my pile though.

      With Nigeria I am more likely now to read books by outsiders because I’m reading so many local books as well – I feel I have a little bit more insight into what it is really like to be able to find some of the errors that might exist in those written by the outsiders. With other countries I still try harder to find books by those actually from there because I don’t have that base to go off of though. I’m actually interested to see at the end of this year or whenever my project goes to if there is any real major difference in the groups of authors (Nigerian authors, Nigerian authors who have emigrated, authors of Nigerian descent who have never lived there, and other authors writing about Nigeria). Not sure if I will have any clear ideas but I’m interested to see.

      I LOVE how you call it intellectual colonialization. Wow. That really does seem to be a fantastic way to put it – mind if I use that in the future?? (Oh, and I am also avoiding The Help, heh.) And yes, like you I don’t like to say that authors can’t write about “other” but I think privilege definitely comes into play and we have to be cognizant of that.

      • June 26, 2011 2:25 pm

        Of course you can use ‘intellectual colonisation’! I look forward to the future contexts. ;)

        No problem; I imagined you’d probably read the Adichie story, but it’s a fun one to reread!

        I agree that if I were going to read a white British author’s novel set in Nigeria I’d go with Watson over Cleave. But I’d rather just pick up one of the many novels by Nigerians you tempt me with all the time. ;) That makes perfect sense re: your own approach to non-Nigerian authors writing about Nigeria; I feel similarly about Russia (OMG, don’t get me started on my loathing for The Gentle Axe). There are a few other regions where I feel I’ve got enough of a handle on the ‘native’ authors to judge the non-native ones, although I still prefer to spend my time with the more diverse viewpoints. And the funny thing is, it’s not just the developing world; look at the way so many of the popular books set in/about France are actually written by Brits or Americans (or in some cases Canadians or Australians). Since France wasn’t brutally colonised, it’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s still frustrating. I suspect someone could read books set in almost any country and still only read US/UK authors. On the flipside, it seems like a significant chunk of Canadian/Australian/New Zealander authors set their novels in England, which I find quite interesting. Anyway, I have far too many thoughts on this issue, and it feels like the more I delve into diversifying my reading, the more I realise I’ve barely scratched the surface! Which is half the fun, of course. ;)

        • June 27, 2011 9:02 am

          Yes, realizing how much is left out there really is fun. Though also scary :) You are right that even North American and European countries have the same issues. With some, like our own countries, it can be easier because at least we know the culture fairly well :) With others it would be more of an issue though.

          And thanks for letting me borrow / use your term :D

  8. June 22, 2011 12:10 pm

    I think authenticity is a problem that is separate from the lack of diversity in publishing and support for poc authors. Color or sex or orientation that is hobbled by false consciousness can make someone as much “other” as actual “otherness”!

    But I would say that basically, from a publishing standpoint, it has got to be about the money. Look at all the vapid and unmemorable stuff that gets published because someone is of interest at the moment, and everyone wants to cash in on that. Perhaps the problem needs to be tackled closer to the root, i.e., how can we get people to want to read about other cultures (or anyone who is other)? Maybe it starts back when we buy truck books for boys and princess books for girls. Maybe it starts when, in places like Arizona, the Superintendent of Schools declares that teaching about Mexican culture is “illegal” because it will promote solidarity with the “wrong” group. Maybe it’s a function of not even being able to browse for children’s poc books in the bookstore and see one that seems interesting, because there ARE no poc children’s books to be found there (presumably because it costs to much to take up shelf space by books that not enough people will buy, an assumption that is made IN ADVANCE).

    It’s a problem that takes place on so many levels, and yet I think bloggers have made a difference in the past (such as insisting on covers that don’t whitewash characters) and they can make a difference now too by insisting on more diversity in reading matter and at conferences. The more we speak out, the more it might seem as if there could be an impact on their bottom line and thus shareholder satisfaction (unfortunate facts of corporate life). I hope everyone who cares will post blogs on this as well! We CAN make a difference! :–)

    • June 25, 2011 6:09 pm

      Good points here Jill. Ugh especially to the Arizona Superintendent of Schools, such a ridiculous opinion / statement. Also, yes, all of those assumptions that are made in advance are really frustrating. Well of course sales are lower if you don’t stock it and don’t market it. Sigh. I really really do hope that more bloggers will talk about it and do something about it and help create a difference.

  9. June 22, 2011 1:33 pm

    I think this aspect is very pertinent and important: How do I, as a Canadian, know if the culture / voice / events / etc of this book set in another country is true? If we are relying on authors to tell us these things, they need to be right and not culturally biased, which I sometimes think happens a lot. I think we need to have more works in translation and more works about different countries, written by residents of that country. It is sort of sad to see that list that you made and know that it’s basically all true. There should be more responsibility to get it right in the books that authors are writing, not just justifying their own ends when it comes to representing foreign lands and people. This is an intensely interesting topic, Amy, and I am glad you addressed it here today. Thanks for helping to open my eyes.

    • June 25, 2011 6:10 pm

      I would love to see more translated and international lit be available zibilee, but not only that, be considered important!!

  10. June 22, 2011 2:36 pm

    Wonderful post, Amy! It is quite insightful and thought-provoking! I think that this is quite a complex issue – I personally believe that writers can people their books with the kind of characters they want and not necessarily be politically correct. We, as readers, can of course, choose not to read a particular writer, if we find his / her depictions of people stereotypical. But I also feel (as you have said) that it is in the writer’s interest to do research and try to make the characters in a book realistic and authentic. Otherwise, I feel that a writer’s works won’t survive the test of time. I also have another point to add to what you have said. I find that today, because of the global market, many writers are opting to write in English or write in their mother tongue and get their book translated into English, so that it can reach an international audience. In many cases, these books are not published in the language in which they are written – only the translation is published. I have found that some of these books have all the isssues that you have written about – because either the writer or the publisher feels that these ‘features’ are required in the book to satisfy the tastes of an international audience. These books are typically rarely read by people who belong to the country that the writer is from. For example, once when I once talked to my Chinese friends and tried to find out what kind of books they read, I discovered that they rarely read books written by ‘Chinese’ writers which are available internationally (for example Lisa See) but they read books by writers like Lu Xun, Ba Jin and Jin Yong which were not easily available in English. (Jin Yong’s novels are so popular that every Chinese person seems to have read it. Unfortunately only a few titles are available in English and they are published by Oxford University Press and they are not easily available.) My Chinese friends also seemed to read classics like ‘Three Kingdoms’, ‘Journey to the West’ (adventures of the Monkey King), ‘Dream of Red Mansions’ and ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’. The English translations of these books are available in China, but they are difficult to get outside or are very expensive. These books seemed to authentically mirror the Chinese experience of different times or to reflect Chinese culture accurately, but unfortunately are not accessible to international audiences. I feel that there is a huge body of wonderful literature from different countries waiting to be translated. The question is are the translators and publishers listening?

    • June 25, 2011 6:14 pm

      Love your point of view here Vishy. There really aren’t rules and readers can make up their own mind based on their experiences with certain writers. But I can’t help but wonder… well… how will many readers even know if the characters are stereotypical rather than true? I do hope you are right that the poor ones won’t survive as long though.

      Definitely a great point too about the audience that authors are writing for. Kinna and Eva also mentioned it above, and I think it is a true point. I think that who dictates the content (author or publisher) can have an affect as well, but yes, who the audience is is also very important. Interesting example of Chinese authors, thank you for sharing!

  11. June 22, 2011 5:32 pm

    I do wonder if English speaking world is a bit behind the french speaking world when it comes to African fiction I see the French writers from Africa tend to have more success in france than English writing African writers in Britannia ,just a observation from my self I know Prix Goncort been won by French African writers and to my knowledge been few winning English prizes like booker or Orange

    • June 25, 2011 6:16 pm

      Yes, I think you are right and they are Stu. I think that has at least a bit to do with colonial differences between French and British Africa as Africans in French Africa were always more assimilated and considered citizens and were publishing earlier than their counterparts in British Africa. What do you think?

  12. June 22, 2011 7:24 pm

    Ooooo, Amy, it’s been too long. I’ve been out of the loop for quite some time. I’m not sure if I can answer your poll. I once wrote a paper about a similar issue that drives me bonkers: gender appropriation. Of course, this same argument can be applied to ethnic appropriation as well. I always cringe a little when a man writes from a woman’s perspective… Perhaps it could be OK, but the reader would have to be aware of the source, and take the story with a grain of westerner salt. I have always preferred authentic literary voices. If a white author can achieve that, then great, but this is a very touchy subject… I’m not sure if I can commit to an answer. Fabulous post.

    • June 25, 2011 6:16 pm

      Yes, I think knowing the source can be important. Often times it doesn’t bother me and it feels right, Lydia, but other times…. yeah. Shudder. :)

  13. June 22, 2011 8:04 pm

    I’d like to comment on the thread between J and Kinna – about the assumption that a book by a Nigerian about Nigeria would be less accessible. It seems bizarre to me but I have also encountered this attitude from American readers about Australian literature written by Australians. Memorably, I once had to explain what gum trees were like to a member of the Bookies Too online book group.
    It suggests to me that this insularity is a problem that derives from school education. It ought not to be ‘brave’ or adventurous to explore the culture of others in any form; it ought to be an essential part of living in a global world in the 21st century. Stories in authentic voices from around the world should be introduced to children when they are small (as they are in my school library program) and extended to reading samples of world literature by the time they are in college. Of course children should learn about their own country, but their education should be inclusive. IMO America should lead the way in this because theirs is the dominant world culture and they run the risk of being resented if they don’t.
    If you check out the book shops in Australia you will find UK, Canada and US literature alongside Australian, but few books in translation from other places. However readers are moving online and into eBooks where there is more diversity and (thanks to the influence of bloggers like Stu) increasingly works in translation are being read and talked about. I read an Israeli book (in translation) with the 21st century Yahoo book group this month, and loved it because it was an opportunity to learn about a culture I knew nothing about apart from the stereotypical stuff we read via the newspapers. Thanks to Kinna and the Book Depository I have a dozen African authors on my TBR. This isn’t adventurous reading, this is reading about humanity in all its delicious diversity.
    Kinna and Amy, I wonder if the rise of digital pubishing, including some forms of self-publishing will lead to a flowering of authentic voices in world literature? I don’t want to see the end of the publisher’s role in filtering out dross, but I do want to see voices come up from under that are being filtered out of the marketplace for us by insular attitudes. If the big publishers don’t make a space for Africans writing about Africa or Filipinos writing about the Philippines or whatever, then those publishers can now be by-passed via self-publishing processes. There will need to be some sort of collective that sorts the dross out so that what is available is properly edited and so forth, (and there’s a role for honest appraisal and review by blogs such as ours) but books produced through something like Smash Words – with a grass-roots digital marketing campaign behind it – could break through those invisible walls.

    • June 25, 2011 6:21 pm

      Wow, I’m especially surprised to hear that people have that attitude about Australian lit, I always thought of Australia as kind of similar to North America / Britain / etc. I DEFINITELY agree with you that it should be common sense and expected to explore other countries rather than brave or adventurous. It just seems silly not to, especially in such an interconnected world.

      BookDepository is proving a great source for more of these books isn’t it? And bloggers are definitely doing a lot to push international and translated literature and I definitely appreciate it. I’m happy to have found this community, even if my to be read pile and wallet sometimes aren’t ;)

      I do think that is a great point about the rise of self-publishing also. Some of the books I’ve found for my Nigerian Lit project have been self-published (both in paper copies or ebooks) and while a few needed some editing work, I would definitely believe that they would be more authentic. They are targeted at a local rather than international audience and don’t require as much to get them published. At the same time, it’s not a guaranteed money maker either in the sense that they still have to find readers so they might still be focused to international audiences for ebooks especially. Would love to hear Kinna’s opinion as well on this :)

    • tolmsted permalink
      June 30, 2011 11:42 am

      Lisa! I should have known you’d beat me to the self-publishing question! :)

  14. celawerd permalink
    June 22, 2011 9:27 pm

    There is a famous quote that goes “Stories are never written, only rewritten.” but I see your point.

    • June 25, 2011 6:22 pm

      Yes, that is a great quote celawerd… It does imply that the story was first written though and not just appropriated :)

  15. RogueAnthropologist permalink
    June 22, 2011 11:44 pm

    I really like the honesty in this post–that you are having an ongoing conversation with yourself and opening it up to readers. I have these kinds of conversations with myself often.

    Have you read this article, “How to Write About Africa”?
    http://www.granta.com/Magazine/92/How-to-Write-about-Africa/Page-1

    • June 25, 2011 6:23 pm

      Thank you RogueAnthropologist! I actually had that link forwarded to me almost immediately after publishing the post :) Fantastic article for sure. I, too, often have these conversations with myself and I’m always curious what others think. I love posting them to get more opinions.

  16. June 23, 2011 3:41 am

    This is a great post and to begin with I would refer you to an article written by Binyavanga Wainaina a Kenyan titled How to Write About Africa. This rhetorical writing spells out how stereotype most of these books about Africa are. It is freely available on the internet.

    The West have come to believe their own ‘truth’ about Africa. To them Africa is a land of the suffering and the dying. Like biblical Bethlehem they ask ‘what good can come out of Africa’. Thus anyone who comes to Africa comes with a prejudiced mind. Yes, Africa has its own problems and it is this problems they only see, then scale it up and then ‘bingo’ they have verified their hypothesis. Should I say Americans are serial killers because I see them on TV shooting guns and killing people, that even the good guys in movies have to kill about 10 people to get the one bad guy? Yet, if I should conclude and say that Americans kill too much, an American would tell me that isn’t the picture. Yet that same person is quick to accept the commercialised views about Africa.

    Recently, a so-called journalist came to Ghana to write about an underground scam. In his reportage, which was published by CNN on its site, the guy said in Ghana almost 99% of the people sell ice water (i.e. water in sachets). Can you believe that? A country of 24million, only 1% is in any proper job. He went on further to state that the Presidential Palace (which we call Jubilee House) has columns covered in gold but the road in front of it is untarred and dusty. And all these things he reported on are false. In fact it enraged the Ghanaian blogging community that almost everybody wrote something about it. But it fascinated the people at CNN to the extent that even though they were not the initial source of the story they offered their platform for it to reach several people. Is this not the kind of stories the West wants to hear?

    They would be fed by what they want. in fact some still even believe we live on trees… they can continue to believe whatever they want. The fact is there is duality to every issue. Just as there are homeless individuals in America there would be homeless individuals in Ghana too. You can mention proportion but it is still homelessness.

    The funny thing is some Africans have bought into this issue and also toe that path. Why? Because that’s what sells and that’s what publishers want to publish. If you write about anything else it won’t be published and it won’t sell. Conrad’s book is the text book about Africa and so too would Naipaul’s latest offering going to be.

    • June 25, 2011 6:36 pm

      I have read that article Nana, it is fantastic. Was actually sent to me shortly after I posted this and was great to read it again! I read about the article you are talking about too on CNN, definitely caused a lot of anger – and rightfully so. There are way too many stereotypes and you are right, readers just lap it up and believe it. Sadly you are right – Conrad and Naipaul are remembered and known way too much!!

  17. June 23, 2011 7:00 am

    Insightful post, Amy, and I very much enjoyed reading it.

    I hope no one takes offence at what I’m about to say – Saying it’s ironic for you as a white person to write about diverstity in publishing is like saying only black people can write about racism. It is not. We should all feel free to criticise what we find wanting in the systems around us.
    As a black person – I am no more ‘qualified’ to write about diversity than you are. As long as one is aware of the issues and able to air them in a way that encourages debate, that is all that is required. And judging by your post and the comments here, you have done just that.

    • June 25, 2011 6:38 pm

      I suppose that is true Adura, we can all talk about diversity. Though I guess I just sometimes wonder if I’m not as qualified to review African lit and etc because just like western authors, I don’t know for sure what is or isn’t true. But yes, as long as lots of people chip in I think we end up with interesting points of view and at least something approximating a truth!

  18. June 23, 2011 7:21 am

    On the issue of diversity in publishing, you raise some important points. It’s true that the world of publishing is dominated by the western societal point of view for reasons already discussed by Kinna – to a large extent. One of the reasons I started “Adura Ojo Presents” was to give African authors and aspiring authors a voice – on the web which is accessible to many people across the globe. African authors still struggle to get their voices heard and it is true that the more these stories are told by indigenous people themselves, the more empowered the communities are. The days of “colonial reporting” should be well and truly over.

    That said, I do make an exception for non-locals who actually live among the people – people like Susanne Wenger who lived and died in Nigeria. Such people live what they write – write what they live – and have also done their research.

    • June 25, 2011 6:39 pm

      Yes, I love that you’ve started your site and are promoting more African authors, Adura. I hope that if we keep promoting them, people will start reading them, and the stereotypes and prejudices against literature from other countries will diminish. And you are right – research makes a big difference!

  19. June 26, 2011 10:40 am

    Your list is exactly the reason why I hated Little Bee.

    • June 27, 2011 9:00 am

      *sobs* I tried to start Little Bee on audio yesterday. It was really scarily bad, especially the fake Nigerian accent attempt. I must try to find a paper copy if I want to examine it because there is no way I can listen to it for 10 hours Doret.

  20. June 27, 2011 12:57 pm

    Such an interesting post Amy. I really do agree about what you said and I think it is such a shame that so many voices go unheard in the world of book publishing. However, it also made me wonder about some things. You see, I agree, but there are two questions I had regarding your thoughts. First, it reminded me of this issue in the study of history: before, historians used to write mostly about the ‘upper class’, the ‘big men’ so to say, the class that left the most sources behind. When, in the seventies historians started realising that this wasn’t what history should be about, that the majority of the people living at that time had been ignored, they tried to write history about the lower classes, women, people from other countries who used to be the victim of colonial rule. And to do so, they had to work with the limited sources available: read sources “against the grain” and all that. And I wonder if that situation isn’t somehow similar to what you say here: we can never know what life was like a 100 years ago, not for big men and not for everyone else, but at least for those big men there are some sources available. But if you accept that you can never know what life was like back then, does it mean that you have to give up trying to write about it? Because, when you think like that, trying to write the history of women or industrial workers might be pointless. But I don’t think it is.. I know you said that there is nothing wrong with writing about Africa from a white men’s point of view, and I agree. I think the problem is that this vision is hardly contrasted with a vision from “Africa” itself. But it does not mean those books are unworthy to read. I guess in a way we need books like that to make us and keep us aware that there are issues to write about outside of the European or American sphere. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that this is the way in which it occurs, I just don’t think it is necessarily bad either. And that’s where I get stuck, because I agree with you, but at the same time I don’t want to discount people trying to write about issues that are important, albeit in a very flawed manner.
    And then there’s the second question I had. As much as I agree we need to have more literature from Africa, I want to problematize the idea that “as a white European” you cannot “understand” Africa as an African can. While one part of me leans towards nodding along with this vigorously, another part of me wants to question whether it isn’t a very Western/colonial assumption that these people are different and that these two cultures are completely opposing and not to be understood by another. But then I guess that idea is ingrained in the kind of fiction about Africa we get to read as Westerners. The notion that there is a particular group of Westerners that are appointed to “translate” African culture to Western culture is such a colonial notion that it makes me angry just thinking about it. However, at the same time, by assuming that we need Africans writing about their culture so we can read about it from a “true African” perspective kind of seems to support the same assumptions that the other is wholly different. I don’t know, this comment leads nowhere, I guess it just shows how confusing these issues are to me.

    Again, I do agree with the gist of your argument that publishing seems very selective and that this should change. However, I’m trying to consider if there is a way to formulate this argument without it sounding “colonial” in one way or another.

    • June 27, 2011 12:58 pm

      I just realised, I don’t mean to say your post is written using wrong words or something. It’s just, when writing about such issues there always seem to be such looming issues surrounding it that I doubt whether there is a perfect way to talk about them.

    • June 29, 2011 9:11 pm

      Such interesting thoughts Iris! You really have me thinking!! I think that maybe we need a variety and that everyone can write but the authenticity is important in that we sometimes make money on other people’s stories and they don’t have the privileges to write their own stories and make money on them, you know? So no necessarily that they need to be translated or that they are different, though they can get the ‘voice’ better, the dialect, the places, etc, but that they should profit from their own stories as well. And writing about people who are gone is different, I think, though has similar issues – I think the author has to be very careful to do her / his best to get it right as opposed to using stereotypes and making unfair assumptions, ya know?

  21. June 29, 2011 3:07 pm

    I guess the problem with having diversity in books is that most people stick to their own. A lot of straight white people only really know other straight white people and therefore struggle to write characters outside that. You could say the author should try harder to meet interesting people, but you could also say that’s the way a lot of the world is.

    I personally wince a bit when a character’s skin colour is described only when they’re black, i.e. author and reader have assumed that everyone else in the book is white and that that doesn’t need saying. On the other hand, maybe in some books where no-one’s skin colour is described we could just as easily imagine them all sorts of multi-ethnic combinations!

    • June 29, 2011 9:13 pm

      Yes, that can definitely be a drawback, but at least if everyone has their own to stick to, it isn’t only the straight white people that have that privilege Nose in a book, we might as well give everyone that privilege ;)

      Great point about the only person being described being black, that isn’t a good solution. But if hints are dropped and everyone seems white from those, it is frustrating. I’m not sure what the easy solution is. Maybe we have to get better about visualizing the books as more multi-ethnic as well. Thanks!

  22. tolmsted permalink
    June 30, 2011 11:46 am

    Amy –

    I completely understand your concerns about an authentic voice and the ability of Western authors to properly represent cultures outside of their own. At the same time I remember that my interest in African lit began years ago after reading a book by a White/Western author that was set in Africa. I think – a bit like the Chronicles of Narnia – doorways can open in the strangest of places. So I believe that the more books & literature that deal with diversity in subject matter is a good thing, regardless of who is writing them. Of course, misinformation or misrepresentation is never acceptable. Ever.

    Having said that, I agree that there’s a huge inequality between the number of Western vs. non-Western authors/translated authors who are published. I’ve mixed feelings about why that is. I can’t help thinking that a large part has to do with marketing – I don’t think International Lit gets a strong push by publishers, and part of me wonders if that creates a “wag the dog” scenario. International/Non-Western authors are not as aggressively advertised because publishers believe Western readers won’t be interested and so Western readers don’t read International/Non-Western authors because they don’t see them advertised.

    In a way, though, it makes being a blogger all the more interesting & exciting. If traditional review outlets are being replaced by bloggers – then it stands to reason that we have the ability (and responsibility?) to change that dynamic. We have more freedom than the marketing departments of the publishing houses or reviewers who work for the papers because we don’t have a vested interest in the bottom line. Let’s face it – if I choose to review some obscure 1920’s Jewish author who converted to the Muslim faith and wrote only 2 novels in German (which are sitting on Mariner’s backlist) – what can anyone do about it? Fire me? :-)

    The flip-side of that is: when I read/review a novel like Syjuco’s Ilustrado – where so much seems to depend on my knowledge of the Filipino culture – am I the right person to be making judgment? My answer in that particular case remains yes, but it’s still an important question. The more I think about it, the more the complex the issue becomes. I’m glad you’ve started this dialogue.

    • August 12, 2011 9:02 pm

      Yes tolmsted, I think actually that Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl might have been the first book I read that featured Africa, and though she was born in Nigeria she moved to London at the age of four. You are right that it can take books that are more our ‘normal’ fare to get us interested and willing to make the jump. But I wonder if the availability of the white / European / North American authors writing about Africa makes it seem like we don’t have to make the jump, makes us less likely to read outside our ‘comfort zone’ to begin with?

      I think it is definitely a ‘wag the dog’ type situation. I’ve heard from people who couldn’t get their stories published because they weren’t the ‘typical’ African story and they ‘wouldn’t sell’, so that is at least part of it. Publishers won’t take the chance in promoting the books to us.

      Being a blogger is DEFINITELY fantastic :D We get to read all the good stuff and the worst that can happen is we get internet crazies telling us we read stupid books. Which is frankly hilarious ;) I do sometimes wonder if I’m the right person to review some of these books (or even to talk about issues like this!) but I always just include a disclaimer and hope for the best. I try to at least be honest that I’m reading and writing as an outsider, in the hopes of getting more people to read, not as anyone who can verify the accuracy. I do think about it a lot though…

  23. February 4, 2012 3:46 pm

    I really wanted to vote for 2 items…of course you need to read many sources to get a better idea of the true picture….how can any one person claim to present the “truth” of an entire culture no matter whether they are “insiders” or “outsiders”. Each has an important perspective to bring to a given situation/event/time period etc. But the fact is, minority voices are horribly unrepresented in the publishing world and every effort must be made to ensure this changes. This is important in children’s literature as well.

    • February 7, 2012 8:29 pm

      Yes, I usually wish I could do that on questions like this too Debbie ;) It’s definitely an interesting topic and I love the discussion that is generated. I agree that multiple versions of the truth are always necessary too!

Trackbacks

  1. Just passin’ time | Crazy Quilts
  2. Reviewing and Diversity, With Suggestions « Amy Reads
  3. June 2011 Reading Wrap-Up « Amy Reads
  4. Random Updates « Amy Reads
  5. Blogging and Diversity: The Question of Self-Published Books | Iris on Books
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