By Shannon Adams
In 1994, Publishers Weekly ran a story titled “Houses with No Doors,” which listed minorities’ lack of interest in the literary field as one of the reasons for the industry’s “overwhelming whiteness.”
Eighteen years later, of the 742 books reviewed by the New York Times in that year, only 28 of them were written by women of color, according to Haitian-American author Roxane Gay’s graduate assistant Phillip Gallagher.
This March, in an article titled “Why is Publishing so White?”, Publishers Weekly explained that the industry remains nearly as white now as it was in 1994.
Although the public may recognize J. K Rowling, Nora Roberts and Stephenie Meyer, they fail to recognize J.California Cooper, Esmeralda Santiago, and Bharati Mukherjee, just to name a few.
“As women of color we are underrepresented,” says Oya Bisi, who runs The Women of Color Writers Workshop in Brooklyn New York- “It is as simple as that.”
Bisi adds that the problem is not an insufficient number of minority female writers, but that their work is not always considered for publication by editors, who are predominately white, because of classism: a prejudice against, or in favor of one party, and other related phobias coming from the public.
Furthermore, people who are not of color fear that in describing someone who is, they will offend or “put off” other readers and because of that mindset, minority characters lack dimension and often are misrepresentations of the real thing.
In other words, a white female character may be described as having olive skin, wide green eyes and cascading brunette hair, whereas a African-American woman may be described as only being “black.”
English professor Liz Gray, who has had two poetry collections published, is no stranger to some of the issues faced by minority women writers.
“One of the hindrances that women of color in literature do face is this feeling of imposter syndrome,” Gray says. “Is my success because of things I can’t control, or is it my talent?”
It is a sad truth that there are people who judge others solely by ethnicity, gender or a combination of the two.
“In a lot of ways when people look at me, they may not necessarily think I’m an American [citizen],” Gray shares. “They definitely don’t associate me with so-called ‘white America.’ Before, people could at least associate me with an area of the world, my last name being Chang. Now, they don’t know what to do.”
All the while, publishers avoid publishing authors they fear won’t make any money; unfortunately, many of those authors are women of color: the people who know exactly how to describe themselves and their characters.
“Some of my writers who look to get published or get into MFA programs are rejected because they don’t fit the status quo,” Bisi explains. “Who’s going to buy this? Who is going to want your little stories? Do they fit the model?”
Questions like these are not only a result of discrimination, but they also leave the person on the receiving end asking questions, such as does my story not matter?
Bisi insists that is not the case.
“We are telling the story that is female,” she shared. “Women’s voices are important to the world. If we are stifled that point of view will be lost. ”
As a young African-American woman who considers writing necessary to my own survival, and who aspires to make a living on it, these findings are extremely discouraging.
As much as I read in school, I can only recall two novels written by a woman of color, nor a story that featured an minority character, and I attended a predominately African- American school.
The realization of this raised many red flags for me, as it should for anyone who considers herself a lover of the literary.
Consider the following: Bisi’s workshop is the only one for women of color that exists in the United States and has been for 17 years.
This suggests there is a lack of assistance for minority women who want to pursue writing or receive recognition for their work and therefore they are not being persuaded to continue.
Vendors of their publications are also vulnerable.
Between 2002 and 2012 two-thirds of black-owned bookstores closed.
According to Publishers Weekly’s “A Glimmer of Hope for Black-Owned Bookstores,” of the 400 that remained afterward, only 67 of those bookstores remain open as of January.
These stores close because there is a lack of advertisement or recognition regarding the work.
Publishers assume people won’t care about minority stories because they can’t relate and the cycle goes on; despite the fact that literature, no matter what it may be about, is always relatable and useful to someone.
People like Ariell Johnson, who opened her own comic store on the East Coast, and EvelynBurdette,19,whoin2010self-published seven books, know this and they are the type of women literature needs.
Still, the problem persists.
An executive from one of the Big Five publishing houses HR explained she felt her company did not have a diversity problem; still, the company refused to provide proof to
back up said claim. It is this blind avoidance that compounds the problem. We ignore it and it continues to grow.
“Literary is a very dangerous word,” Bisi explains. “It is a very limiting word because who is to say what is literary and what is not?”
In short, it is just an easier way to discriminate against people of color, especially the women, who are already discriminated against.
Moreover, considering that authors tend to write from different points of view, their stories may not always reflect their own beliefs, so why work so hard to market to specific ethnicities?
That is the source of this issue entirely, our need to classify.
The argument may be made, that women of color don’t write as often as Caucasian women do or that the writing isn’t as “good,” but that isn’t true.
You’ve probably heard of Belinda Mckeon, and her novel “Tender,” but more than likely there hasn’t been a whisper about Sareeta Domingo, Anjali Joseph or Han Kang, who all have books scheduled to be released this year.
This is because studies show 79 percent of the literary industry is Caucasian and unconscious bias is an issue.
The simple fact is this: non-Caucasian perspective does matter and, ultimately, women need to be supportive of other women. We need to start the change.
We need to encourage more programs, such as We Need Diverse books, a grass roots campaign dedicated to honoring the lives of all young people through literature.
Companies, such as the Barbara J. Zitwer Agency, who publish international bestsellers and the newest American foreign authors, are helping to do this and you can help too: Log onto your nearest bookstore’s website and find yourself a book written by a woman of color. Read it and promote it just as you would any otherbook.
“Women of color have as much a right to be a part of the mainstream as everybody else,” Bisi said. “It is important that people know what we felt, what we thought.”