Chamamanda Adichie’s TED Talk on ‘the danger of the single story’ is incredibly powerful and was an excellent introduction for me into the issue of ethnic diversity in publishing. The point: how important it is for people to read themselves in stories but also the power of publishing to reinforce narratives and the moral imperative to work to change this story.
Jacaranda is a small, London based publisher run by two black women. Their ethos and mission is a direct response to the problems identified by Adiche. I had the pleasure of hearing from Jazzmine Breary, one half of Jacaranda, last night and left feeling optimistic about the future but angry at our present.
What follows is a personal attempt to amalgamate what was said by Jazzmine and Frances (one of Jacaranda’s authors’) with what I understand of the state of the publishing industry and the route to greater diversity.
Diversity for Jacaranda is writing by anyone, for anyone, about anything. This final qualifier is something which I have considered before. Black authors writing about being black is obviously an improvement on no black authors. However, in my mind true diversity is intrinsically linked with freedom. Black authors should not need to write about ‘black subjects’. As Frances succinctly put it ‘black is not a genre’.
Frances herself writes commercial women’s fiction. Her protagonist is black and the bulk of the novel takes place in Ghana (bear in mind I have not read this book) despite this the novel is primarily a romance novel. All that separates it from others in its genre is the blackness of its author and of its protagonist. The fight which Jazzmine describes regarding the placement of this novel within bookshops was eye opening. Resisting assumptions about the target audience and the content of the novel to gain Frances’s story its proper place beside other commercial women’s fiction has paid off.
When asked about the current state of diversity in publishing Jazzmine reflected that the high risk nature of doing anything new, particularly in an industry as volatile as publishing, forms a barrier to diversity for larger publishing houses. She therefore sees the role of Jacaranda as that of trailblazer. If this tiny publishing house can demonstrate the viability of diverse publishing then others will soon pick up the mantle. This is already beginning to happen. Dan Keiran of Unbound discussed The Good Immigrant as proving that there was a ‘burgeoning market’ for more diverse books. [https://www.thebookseller.com/news/dan-kieran-diversity-703936] The anthology was enormously successful through crowdfunding before it was picked up by Penguin Random House. For me this is a key example of the wariness of big publishers surrounding new ventures. They want diversity buy are only willing to invest when it has been a tried and tested success. This, therefore, is part of the task of publishing houses like Jacaranda. There is a pressure to demonstrate the financial legitimacy of their ventures and can only hope that eventually everyone else will follow suit.
This last point brings out two other key messages which came from the evening. The importance of doing your research and of supporting your emotional/ethical/personal feeling with business based evidence. In Jazzmine’s words ‘legacies don’t last on passion alone’. Her message was a powerful one. Particularly for a person so prone to flights of idealistic fancy. The need to ground your ambitions and sense of what is right in research and evidence has certainly been taken on by this aspiring publisher. It was clear, from what Jazzmine said, that Jacaranda is successful, small but successful, because it combines the passions of authors and publishers with sounds business acumen. In pursuit of their goals, primarily a more diverse publishing industry and book market, they have not sacrificed the quality of their products. Another soundbite from Jazzmine which I enjoyed: ‘don’t lose quality in pursuit of the hype’, a message which I think is particularly relevant in our current media climate.
The final piece of wisdom imparted by Jazzmine and Frances was this: that diversity publishing will only have achieved its goals when no one is talking about it. It seems that Jacaranda and other houses like it will be content when they are just publishers. For this to happen they must continue to produce quality books for everyone, by everyone, about anything. And once these books are produced they must fight to have them placed in booksellers in their rightful place, as genre fiction, or histories, or biographies and not as ‘black’ books. The novelty of a non-white author writing about ‘white themes’ will eventually wear off and race can slip into the background, if that is the author’s ambition, and Jacaranda is working hard to make this happen.
As I mentioned at the beginning I left feeling optimistic about the future and angry about our present. Part of Jacardanda’s success may lie in their not harbouring this same anger, they recognise that change is happening and they seem to have an understanding of why this change is faltering and far too slow. Regardless of what is going on around them they have remained true to their mission of diversity and continue to combine quality, knowledge and passion to get their message into the world.
Frances Mensah Williams’ novel From Pigfoot to Pasta now has a sequel titled Second Helpings and is available from all major retailers.
The TED Talk I mention at the beginning of this post can be found here https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en
Some more information about Jacaranda is available here https://www.jacarandabooksartmusic.co.uk/about/