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).

In which I confess things about code

I have a confession and my confession is this:
I have a masters degree in computer science and am an out-and-proud geek, yet I couldn’t code my way out of a wet paper bag.
Ask me to use existing software to work out the viewshed analysis of an ancient Mesopotamian settlement, or display the pottery distribution of an Egyptian burial mound and I am *there*. I’ve even been known to set up the odd blog and website in my time, tinkering with templates and settings and what-have-you. I wrote this post using markup language to make certain words bold and create the hyperlinks and so forth.
But ask me to do anything more complex than working out why something isn’t displaying as italic on a webpage and I am lost. Honestly, anything more involved than coding a simple webpage (and let’s not forget using tables for layout was still an accepted practice when I learnt, gods help me) and I am stumped.

Suggest I create a computer programme from scratch? I will laugh and laugh at you. And then go hide under my desk hugging my MacBook, sobbing, feeling like a traitor to my geek-self.
Coding is a skill set I have just never learnt.

I’m clearly not scared of computers or technology and I have been playing with them since my father first brought one home in the late 80’s. I cut my geek-teeth on DOS and the C: prompt.

Somewhere along the way, however, I fell into the role of playing with (and frequently breaking!) the software that my brother coded. I became all about making existing software dance to my tune – learning what could be bent to do what was needed, and what you just had to work around because “it wasn’t built for that”. When faced with these limitations however, for some reason, I never thought “well, the tool I want doesn’t exist, so why don’t I just make my own?”

Which is crazy, when you think about it.

Because I am, first and foremost, all about learning the WHY. I have to figure out how things work and their underlying logic. It’s why I am constantly trying new things, picking up new hobbies. I am driven to understand how things are put together. So it would make sense, wouldn’t it, if I was to learn more about how the software I love playing with was coded and put together?

It’s not really because I doubt my ability. I’ve just… never learnt. Is that because I was never given the opportunity? Was it assumed that the boys would learn this stuff whilst the girls would just learn the touch-typing? Did I mentally just put this stuff into a “the things my brother does” box and move on to other things?

No matter.
2015 seems like the perfect time to change that. And Emma Barnes couldn’t agree more – her clarion call in the Bookseller lays out wonderfully all the reasons we should, every one of us, be reaching for that how-to guide. (Whilst Publishing-centric, the argument holds true for any industry really).
It really isn’t rocket science. Learn to code and you will be much better prepared to understand what is possible and to know when the tech-heads are having a laugh and taking you for a ride. You’ll be better placed to articulate what you actually want. You will be able to understand the limitations – certain things HAVE to be done certain ways because you decided things right at the beginning. Do ISBNs have 9, 10, or 13 digits, for example. Only code the capacity for 9 into your programme at the start and… Oops! Time and money to fix.

I’m not saying we all have to become professional coders and build our own Twitter, or version of Word, our own publishing platform, or a remote control that turns the kettle on in the morning three minutes before the alarm goes off so it’s boiling when I stumble into the kitchen…

(OK, someone has to build me that. NOW.)

I’m not saying you have to build a whole new thing from scratch. We can’t all be the ideas people and we can’t all have the desire, or quite frankly the time, to be the next Silicon Valley innovator. But in this day and age of open source, RaspberryPIs, and APIs, I do think we all need to educate ourselves and learn at least the basics.

Computers don’t scare me. Code, for some reason, does. A little bit. So here I will make my stand and say “Enough”. I will not be defeated Ruby, or Python, or Java, or (insert programming language here). I am reaching for the coding tutorials and I am excited about it.

I really am.

Who’s going to join me?


One Month In

It’s been a month now, or just over to be counting true, that I have been living in the city of the dreaming spires. I figured now might be a good time to have a look back and see how it has all gone.

I’ll make no bones about it, from the first I have loved Oxford. I love the buildings, I love the vibe, I love the area. I am at the northern edge of my geographical comfort zone (till you reach the Borders anyway) but it still feels southern enough for me. Being only an hour-ish from Southampton and London by train does help. A lot! I have yet to explore the greater Oxfordshire area, but I’ve only been here a month and I don’t have a car (or know anyone with a car) – give me a chance.

As for the job. Oh, the job. *sigh of contentment* I have been having meetings over the past month with various people from different departments around the division and they all keep asking me the same questions:
1) How am I enjoying Oxford
2) How am I enjoying the job
3) How did I get into publishing
4) Why did you get into publishing

My answer to 1) and 2) is still at the bouncing-up-and-down on the chair, squeeeeing like an excited toddler hocked-up on Halloween candy, stage. I quite simply haven’t stopped grinning from ear to ear since I walked through the door on my first day. There’s got to be a down-side around here somewhere, but I have yet to stumble across it. I reckon it’s hiding in the bottom of the author contracts filing cabinet (my nemesis), waiting to jump out and attack me. In the manner of the bogarts from Harry Potter, it is probably going to take the form of a freakishly important interest list that slipped down the back of my In Tray, never to be seen till this moment… It may not sound scary to you, but to me, that’s like total collywobbles time. That, and credit control running after me, pitchforks waving, yelling “you set this customer up as a 97 when they are obviously a 99!!!”

Worst-case scenarios which have clearly been influenced by the subject matter I spend my days surrounded by (kids books can be really scary!) aside, I am loving the job.

How and Why I got into publishing are questions whose answers I am still working on. “I just love books” is a pretty safe bet. It is nice to be surrounded by people who – in the case of my boss on Friday night, literally – throw titles at you and demand you have great conversations about them. Getting more into it, I keep coming back to the last couple of years working for SCC. Time and again, we worked with clients who had only the most basic levels of literacy, if that, and they kept bring up 1) how alienated from mainstream life they felt and 2) how this alienation at least contributed to the assorted lifestyle choices which had them coming to our offices at the end of the day. There is no doubt in my mind that education is the silver bullet to so many problems. Part of that is getting children hooked on reading, and getting them hooked young. How do you hook them? By creating beautiful, funny and engaging books that they want to read.

The best bit of my job so far was last week when, as a result of a massive tidy out of the office (as an aside, I think it might finally have hit them that when they hired someone who liked to organise, that’s what they got), I had a huge pile of old proofs and slightly battered books. It was the recycling or the waiting embrace of some hapless infant for them, and I chose the infant. I spent a happy half hour sorting through the pile, picking out those I think he will enjoy, and those I think he SHOULD read. I am not expecting all of them to be read, or enjoyed, but even if just one sparks an interest in a new author or genre… The desire to go down the library and see what else there is out there… Then that was a good day.

Corrupting new minds. Mwhahahaaaaa. Yup, that’s why I got into publishing *devil*

OK Cas, I can hear you all mutter, there has to be something that isn’t going so rosy, because, well, this is you we’re talking about. There’s always something.

I am missing the folks from Southampton more than I thought I would. I hadn’t realised quite how meshed I was in certain networks, till they were no longer just down the road from me. Even if I didn’t see them every day, just knowing they were there made a huge difference. I have never been a big one for labels, but I am clearly more “alt” than I had figured, because in Oxford I am surrounded by lovely, lovely people – who are all very normal. Or rather, all very wacky, but in their own Oxford way, which isn’t quite my way. For example, I am the only one I know up here with any ink or multiple piercings, let alone cropped purple hair! I certainly can’t imagine any of them rocking out to NIN at the Dungeon!

I am comfortable around the people here and a making good friends, plus picking up old friendships, but always I am feeling a certain subtle push to tone down bits of me. There aren’t the people, yet, who I can totally be myself around. It is a little bit draining, so I find myself dashing down on the train to badger Neko for tea and corsets (not a euphemism). I am not expecting it to be like this forever, however. I know for sure these things take time, and that it took time for me to settle into Southampton. I will find “my people” here in Oxford. In the meantime, I am spending a lot more time on Facebook!

Will I stay here in Oxford? How can you ask me that after just a month! Right now, I am loving it here. The city is the perfect blend of town and country – not too big, not too small. The job is one with prospects in a field I know is for me. I am 26 now and yes, certain nesting tendencies are starting to make slight nudges in the back of my brain. I want to settle down. I want a place of my own, to decorate as I will, and to have a pet cat. The student style of relocating every six months/year no longer seems quiet so fun. I want to get my stuff out of storage. I want all my books in one house, not scattered across three counties! At the same time, I get itchy feet. After three, four years in a place I feel the need to find somewhere new. New horizons. New people. So I have just moaned for two paragraphs about how I have yet to find people I can be myself around, but I am loving the process of finding them anew. The thought of a whole life in one place appeals to the 2.4 side of my nature, but mostly it is giving me the heeby-jeebies. Perhaps what I really want isn’t a place, it is a person. Someone to travel on with me. Now there’s a thought…

Anything else? Well, I fit into a pair of size 14 jeans for the first time in many a year. And the Aspiration Trousers! They are a leetle snug still, but with a tunic over the top they look ace. So what if the silly diet nurse’s scales say I am not loosing anything. My dimensions are slowly, surely shrinking, and that is good to hear finally.

P.S. I’m getting another tattoo. Don’t tell my father.