By: Saije Rusimovici, Staff Writer
Books written by Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour (BIPOC) offer important stories, perspectives, and voices that reflect the diverse experiences of people of colour. Not only is it important for readers to have books they identify with, but it’s essential for those outside these communities to read beyond the colonial perspectives depicted in mainstream novels. This should begin with BIPOC women being featured in the classroom at early ages, but the larger issue is a sheer lack of representation in the publishing industry. While movements like Black Lives Matter have propped up more Black authors, publishers need to work towards platforming BIPOC voices regardless of the news cycle. The stories BIPOC women have to share are so much more than just what’s in the headlines.
Almost every book we read in Canadian elementary schools consists of a cast of white heroes and heroines. Books like Hatchet and The Outsiders offer narratives composed of stories from the perspective of white men. Looking back at my childhood, this is more than a little unsettling as my school’s population was predominantly composed of people of colour. Many of my classmates didn’t speak English as their first language, as they had newly arrived in Canada. The stories in our curriculum lacked the cultural diversity needed to represent the multiculturalism in our school.
The books we read should reflect the diversity we see around us every day. A big part of connecting to literature is being able to relate to the characters in the books you are reading. However, when predominately white publishers decide white is the default “relatable” story — what does that tell us about their efforts to connect with people of colour? Our learning is shaped by the stories we are exposed to. There needs to be representation and access to diverse books because people of colour deserve to see themselves in the stories they read.
Despite the impression that many BIPOC authors are climbing the bestseller charts, research from a sample of published books demonstrates that a stunning 95% of published authors are still white. The bestselling BIPOC authors we tend to see featured at bookstores are written by celebrities, politicians, and athletes of colour, giving the illusion that there are more BIPOC authors being published than there actually are. In reality, only 22 out of 220 authors on the fiction bestseller list were people of colour in 2020. The less famous, mid-list authors are “overwhelmingly white.” This sends a message about what kind of status is needed to make it as a BIPOC writer.
Those who work in publishing directly influence the representation we see in books. According to a survey from 2019, 85% of people “who acquire and edit books” are white. Literary agent and former editor Marie Dutton Brown said there is “fluctuation in publishers’ support for Black writers to the news cycle, which periodically directs the nation’s attention to acts of brutality against Black people.” Because of this, Dutton Brown also notes that “many white editors are not exposed to Black life beyond the headlines.”
It can be exceedingly difficult for BIPOC women to get their books published and pursue careers in the publishing industry. Women of colour who work in publishing have described it as a “very white, very privileged industry.” Despite over half of the people working in publishing being women, only 7% of these women are Asian, 6% are Latinx, and 5% are Black. Because few women of colour are in the publishing industry, fighting for inclusivity can be exhausting when they are so overwhelmingly underrepresented. A Career in Books by Kate Gavino is an exceptional example that illustrates what it’s like to be a BIPOC woman in publishing.
The internal dynamics of major publishing houses must be changed to uplift and showcase content written by women of colour. A big part of this is having mentors for women of colour coming in at entry-level positions that have similar backgrounds and experiences. It is extremely important that publishers “hire, promote, and listen to people who they have historically sidelined” to ensure that BIPOC stories are celebrated and shared on a regular basis, not just when they’re relevant to the news cycle.