On book reviews, BAME authors, ghost writers, diversity, and THAT BOOK

So recently a celebrity published a book, that book had had the input of a “consultant” (industry speak for likely ghost-written), and a famous author wrote a review-slash-comment piece in the Guardian ostensibly denouncing the practice of celebrity authors and ghost-writers.

The book? The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain.
The reviewer? Jenny Colgan.
The review/comment piece? Here in the Guardian.

My problem? The ill thought through, and racist tone that permeated the article, turning what should have been a book review into an ugly example of a systemic problem that plagues not just my industry but the wider world we all live in.

OK, let’s get a few things out of the way first.
Have I read the book in question? No.
Will I be reading the book in question? It wasn’t on the TBR list before this but it sure is now.
Am I a published author? No. (Aspiring, yes. Completed manuscript, no).
Do I understand how the publishing process and world works? Yes.
Am I from a BAME background? No.

So what qualifies me to talk about this? Qualifications, or lack there of, have never stopped anyone saying anything on the internet before, but I do have four+ years working in Rights at a major publishing house, and ongoing employment in the publishing industry on the HR side. In a previous career I helped the disadvantaged back into education and employment. I am an avid reader. I am not perfect and do not have all the answers, but I am a functioning member of society with empathy and an awareness of the world around me, and a willingness to learn.

I am also queer, non-christian, and a woman. I have used a wheelchair in the past, have suffered severe and debilitating physical illness, and continue to battle with mental health concerns. I have, at one time or another faced (and continue to face) potential discrimination. I am white, however, and currently able bodied, as well as being highly educated, from an upper middle class background, and I am fully aware that I have passing privilege. I am lucky – many others aren’t. This isn’t a post about me, but having this information might help explain to you, the reader, why diversity is a hot topic for me and something I will vocally promote on twitter, tumblr, and to everyone who will listen.

I believe to the very core of my being that diversity matters. Diversity in the workforce, in the media we consume, in our leadership… Across the board, the world is better when as many people as possible are represented. I also firmly believe books are one important tool in improving diversity and access to ideas is fundamentally important. The publishing industry – and media as a whole – as it stands is too white, too cis gendered, too heterosexual – both the authors who are published and the people doing the publishing.

Would my life have been better if as a kid/teenager if I had had access to books with bisexual characters in them, or if I had seen them on TV? Without a single doubt, yes. Hell, seeing/reading about anyone under the LGBT+ umbrella would have helped me as a queer kid stuck in rural Somerset in a time before the internet. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a young kid from a BME/BAME background to see a book written by and about people who look like them or have home lives like theirs.

Don’t believe me? Read some #ownvoices.

The situation is dire enough that an 11 year old girl, Marly Dias, felt compelled to start a campaign #1000blackgirlbooks because, in her words:

“In my fifth-grade class I was only able to read books about white boys and their dogs. I understood that my teacher could connect with those characters, so he asked us to read those books. But I didn’t relate to them, so I didn’t learn lessons from those stories”

interview in the Guardian.

Related to this point is that pretty much every study ever shows that people become readers, and enjoy reading, when you get them young. Why is reading important? Well for starters, around 50% of the prison population in the UK is functionally illiterate, which in turn impacts their potential for future employment, and employment is proven to significantly reduce reoffending rates… I’m not saying if you don’t read you’re going to become a criminal, but if you CAN’T read life is substantially harder for you. And if the books you are told to read as a child don’t appeal to you or seem relevant to you, then it isn’t surprising that you won’t read them and in turn come to feel that books and reading aren’t for you.

Which brings me, in an admittedly roundabout way, to what prompted this post in the first place. This review of The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain, most well known for winning the Great British Bake Off in 2015, and a Muslim woman of colour. The review is by Jenny Colgan, successful author of lots of books, and a (presumably) Christian white woman. Colgan wants us to believe the piece is about the dubious practice of celebrity authors and ghost-writers and how the popularity of celebrity takes away from “proper” authors.

That is not what the piece is actually about at all. The whole article leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, but a few things really stand out. Beginning with:

“Hussain is just so brimful of talent… Does she really need to put her name to a novel, too, when there’s only so much shelf space to go around?”

Er, hold on a minute. Firstly, Ms Hussain can only be a baker? If she is that talented, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that she might be able to write too? Many people have double careers. If we’re talking authors alone, Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor. Virginia Woolf was a Publisher. Murakami ran a coffee and jazz bar. Vonnegut was a publicist. Octavia Butler washed dishes. T.S. Eliot worked in a bank. Toni Morrison worked as an editor.

Why can’t Hussain write a book? Writers can, and do, come from any conceivable background. Being a baker does not preclude writing talent. Yes writing a good book is hard but a lot of people have done it over the years and a lot of people will continue to do so for many years to come.

About that whole “consultant/helper/ghost-writer” topic. We simply do not know how much of the book belongs to Hussain, and how much to Ayisha Malik (a talented novelist in her own right who, incidentally, also has a second career). The delightfully ambiguous “written with” on the title page could cover everything from Patterson levels of input from Hussain all the way through to Naomi Campbell’s “I didn’t read my own book”. There are some sensible and fair criticisms to be made about ghostwriting and celebrity book publishing, but if you are going to make them, MAKE THEM, and don’t hide them in something you are calling a review that criticises just one person.

Is it that Hussain doesn’t look like we expect authors to look, or that she comes from a background we don’t usually find authors coming from? She didn’t follow a traditional path to getting published – that doesn’t mean her book isn’t worth space. To me, it means it is worth twice the space because she HASN’T had the privilege, opportunities, or access that your more common white author has. It is hard to draw any conclusion from this comment other than the fact that the idea of a multi-faceted successful brown Muslim woman is just too alien to be believed.

Secondly, “only so much shelf space to go around”?! This sentiment is repeated in the last paragraph with the line “it feels greedy”.

How… How can someone actually write that? Nadiya Hussain has just as much right to write, or co-write, a book as any of the rest of us. It escapes me how anyone can actually flat out say that this woman of colour – TWO women of colour if you count the ghost-writer – are taking up space, being greedy. There are gazillion white women celebrities out there with books/clothing/perfume lines. Where was the ire then? Where are the Guardian comment pieces about Katie Price? Or Zoella? Or the Middleton sister? Any of these? In writing this review and not one of the others, Jenny Colgan chose to take umbrage at the one woman of colour who has dared to stick her head above the parapet and that is unconscionable.

She does helpfully go on to say that if we want to read warm-hearted sagas about second-generation immigration, Meera Syal is a wonderful novelist. Yes, Meera Syal is a wonderful novelist, but one person cannot tell the stories of an entire culture, which doesn’t even get into the point that Syal and Hussain are from two different cultures. (Meera Syal’s family comes from the Punjab; Nadyia Hussain’s from Bangladesh). It’s not inconceivable to think that Syal’s experiences will differ to Hussain’s.

Sometimes flipping an idea can help illustrate a point: how many light and entertaining books about a straight white girl who is disappointed in love, moves to a new location, takes up a new hobby/career, finds herself, and falls in love again should be published? Whose voice out of the many in that robust part of the market should we pick to highlight as the only one we are supposed to read?

The review reaches it’s peak when it says:

“I was hoping for insights into a culture I don’t understand as well as I’d like”.

To paraphrase several twitter conversations I had since the review went live: WHAT THE ACTUAL EVER LOVING FUCK?!
The implication that a book by a BAME author has to teach you about their culture is insulting. You cannot, I repeat CANNOT, bemoan that somebody hasn’t laid out their a culture and religion as exotic decoration and ‘learning experience’ for you.

Yes, a fiction book by a BAME author can teach me about a culture different from mine, but only in the way that a fiction book by an author from France might incidentally teach me about living in France or being French. Or a book by a Scottish author living in a castle can teach me about a life of privilege. The purpose of a fiction book is not education, it is entertainment, and if you go into it expecting education, rather than enjoying a book on its own merits, then you need to rethink your attitude and check your privilege at the door, not attack the author.

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is a book about second generation immigrant women by second generation immigrant women – not exactly common on the shelves or bestseller lists. The world didn’t exactly need another Jilly Cooper novel, or another James Patterson – but, because books are NOT the zero-sum game the reviewer claims, we got them. Here’s a thing: maybe this book isn’t for you. Shocker, I know, but not everyone wants to read the same books. Not everyone looks like you or enjoys the same things you do. Not every book is published with you as the intended reader.

I would ask Jenny Colgan – all of us – to think, for a minute, of the bespectacled child avidly reading in the library so lovingly described in the opening of the review and realise that they might be Black, or Asian, or mixed race. Or Gay, Bisexual, Transgender. Now tell me the type of book YOU’D publish to help them dream, help them realise that books might one day be their life? Perhaps an author with some degree of shared life experience is better able to show them that they are not alone and that there are other people in the world who are like them, who understand where they are coming from.

Simply put, I hope this book sells like hot cakes. I hope The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters goes to the top of the charts and stays there for ages. I hope Ayisha Malik made a deal that gets her a portion of the royalties and she earns lots of money and goes on to write even more books of her own. I hope the exposure she gets means her own titles get more readership. I hope Nadiya Hussain goes on to write more books, or cook things, or… whatever it is she wants to do with her life. I hope young girls and boys from BME/BAME backgrounds see these books and think “Hang on, I can do that too!” I hope people keep reading, that people keep talking, that soon the fact that I had to write this 2000+ word blog is no longer necessary.

But until that day? Diversity matters. Check your privilege. Listen to people who are different from you and stop expecting the world to only serve up products you like. Become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Don’t stop questioning. Use your privilege for good, to build people up and amplify the voices of people who are less fortunate.

And if you really want to read some more and educate yourself about the experiences of people who are different from you? Reading The Good Immigrant is a good place to start.

(This post was written after conversations with a couple of very intelligent and wonderful women – thank you. Cxxx).