#BritLitBerlin 2017: Diverse Voices, New Directions

On 26-28 January, the 32th British Council Literature Seminar opened its doors at the ever-inspiring Werkstatt der Kulturen (link). Seven authors and many seminar participants discussed the topic “Diverse Voices, New Directions”. This is the attempt of a summary plus links for further reading (at the end of the post).

BritLitBerlin KonferenzmappeMy first attempt to write about the conference made it to 11 pages. I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy reading such a long text on a screen. And I guess it was rather foolish to think I could (or should) write about all the things we covered anyway. So I decided to cover more details about the authors and their works in separate postings and pick out those aspects of the discussions I found most interesting for this highly subjective account of #BritLitBerlin 2017.

The last weekend in January was once again all about British literature, developments in the literary field, and the (re)discovery of a number of authors. This year, Bernardine Evaristo chaired the seminar and invited the following fantastic writers: Malika Booker, Sharon Dodua Otoo, Catherine Johnson, Hari Kunzru, Irenosen Okojie, and Nikesh Shukla. The audience got to enjoy individual readings of their works (and the obligatory Q&A), two panel discussions – “New routes into publishing” and “Can Creative Writing be taught?” – and some workshops on Saturday morning.

Representation matters

One of our starting points was the still prevailing underrepresentation in the British literary field (but I’m afraid not only there) of people of a certain ethnicity, gender, class, or health conditions. And while the underrepresentation of people of colour (that was the term used by the authors themselves) was at the heart of this seminar, we were also reminded of the other discriminations as the mechanisms that cause them tend to be quite similar.

The underrepresentation we spoke about included the fact that fewer writers of colour were published, but also that representations in novels, poems, plays etc. were biased towards white (and middle-class) characters. A recurring quote from Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth (2000) summed up the problem very well: “There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection.“ The authors at the seminar could all relate to this quotation and it came up time and again, e.g. in the discussions about creative writing classes. We were told that repeatedly, participants felt the need to write stories about English characters that are modelled after stories from the English canon. And it took a lot of time, space and support to understand and make them understand that it doesn’t have to be this way, the authors confirmed. What this underrepresentation does to people can also be explored through the essays in Nikesh Shukla’s collection The Good Immigrant, for example. We will publish a review of this excellent and inspiring book later on the Literary Field Kaleidoscope.

One of the problems the speakers identified is hardly new, but still a problem: most gatekeepers are white (and male), be it in the publishing industry or academia. You might find the “Writing the Future. Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Marketplace” report very interesting in this context. It was edited by Danuta Kean and commissioned by Spread the Word (link). This situation has a major influence on the selection and production of literature, e.g. the fact that there are fewer people of colour from novels to children’s books that readers can identify with.

Chinua Achebe once famously said: “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.” This resonated with all the authors at the seminar who turned their frustration with the status quo to something creative and created characters and stories that make the literary landscape more diverse, e.g. by introducing children of colour in YA novels (Catherine Johnson), Black characters in magical realism (Irenosen Okojie) and poetry (Malika Booker) or elderly Caribbean men, who are homosexual and still have a sex life (Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman), to name just a few. Catherine Johnson praised the “incredible power of literature” to visit different spaces and times and even “rewrite history”. She went on: “People like me, we belong here. Don’t let anyone tell you, you don’t.”

Ways into publishing

So there are authors who write the stories, but how do they get published and find their readers? And has British publishing really become more diverse? I think it’s fair to say that we all remained rather sceptical about it. Statistics show that only a small fraction of traditionally published books is written by people of colour or portray characters of colour. Some publishers appear to have something like the odd “token Black author” rather than a truly diverse front list. Again, have a look at the “Writing the Future” report in this context (link).

Ways into publishing

Ways into publishing panel: Bernardine Evaristo, Siena Parker, Malika Booker, and Nikesh Shukla

I thought it was interesting that the economic argument was emphasized much stronger than others: in order to convince publishers to change their selection patterns, the authors stressed that books by writers of colour and with characters of colour did sell, that there was a market for them and that they should be included in publishers’ lists as a consequence. I suspect that this focus results from the fact that the addressees of such arguments are mostly publishers (rather than academics). And publishers might not care that much about the values of bibliodiversity. Publishers as well as authors might worry more about paying their rent and putting food on their table and hence go for the economic justification.

There is, however, some hope that not all publishers adhere to outdated selection patterns. The Complete Works (TCW) states on their website (link) that in 2016, “almost 10% of poets published by a major press in the UK are black or Asian”, which is a dramatic rise from the 1% in 2005. Which is no doubt also thanks to initiatives like TCW, Arvon, Spread the Word and others. In addition, there are small presses, and many agents in the industry currently seem to be interested in underrepresented voices and authors with non-traditional backgrounds. During the discussion, the suspicion was expressed that it might be a bit easier to enter the industry as a poet, as nobody really expects a lot of income from poetry publishing and there are some funding bodies supporting various programmes and institutions. Let’s just hope (and fight for it) that this funding is not cut any further.

Even Penguin Random House has understood that they will receive more of the same – authors as well as employees – through their traditional channels. So they came up with two measures, the WriteNow” campaign and a change of their recruiting. “WriteNow” is a “nationwide campaign to find, mentor and publish new writers” that is carried out in cooperation with Commonword, Writing West Midlands and Spread the Word. The texts sent in for application do not need to be what they call “issues based”, in other words, they don’t have to be about the writer’s (minority) community. Underrepresented communities can be from so-called ethnic minorities, LGBTQ or disabled – it is not limited to one specific group. Part of the idea is to establish long-term relationship with the 10 authors that are selected. (The title just sounds a bit awkward, as if the authors they’re trying to attract had not written before. But maybe I am just a bit picky.)

The second strategy is to help people with non-traditional education careers to enter publishing. So Penguin Random House no longer requires a degree as an entrance qualification, as Siena Parker (PRH) told us during the panel discussion. Their strategy also includes looking for new people outside of London and providing paid jobs – because otherwise one’ll only get those students or young professionals who can afford to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. A problem we in Germany know too well… Recruitment may be only one step and changing an organisation’s culture more difficult, but it’s better than nothing and it might make a difference.

Alternative ways to publish books

TGIHowever, it seems as if the publishing industry moved at a very slow pace and authors are looking for alternative options. Unbound is one of those options; Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant was published with them. Unbound is a publisher who provides a crowdfunding platform for books: once the required means are raised, Unbound acts like a traditional publisher. They have experienced editors on board as well as people who help with marketing and distribution. Thanks to the crowdfunding nature, publisher and authors make a profit as soon as the first copy is sold. And as so many people invested in the project, there is already a first group of readers and disseminators. Of course, Nikesh Shukla told us, having a strong community of followers on Social Media or offline helps… You can find out more about The Good Immigrant project and Unbound on this site (link)  and all about other books that are currently looking for contributors over here (link).

Creative Writing – in theory and practice

In addition to readings and discussions, the seminar also offered a selection of workshops. I attended Catherine Johnson’s workshop with the title “Telling the Truth through Lies”. I’m not a creative writer, but kind of enjoy leaving my comfort zone every once in a while and be challenged. Catherine repeatedly gave us “the permission to play” and figure out, what it is we want to write about, what characters we want to create and which perspectives we want to give a voice. But she also “warned” us that a lot of what we might write will land in the bin. Nevertheless, in order to write something good, we’d have to continue to write – and develop ways to find out what we ourselves deem as good. And then we experimented and played for a while and I have to say that I really enjoyed having the space and time and opportunity to do it.

creative writing panel

Catherine Johnson, Irenosen Okojie, Bernardine Evaristo, and Sharon Dodua Otoo discussing creative writing

Later on, there was a panel discussion about the question “Can creative writing be taught?” Well, to be honest, after the creative writing workshops, this seemed like a silly question. Anyway, off we went and the focus shifted to questions such as should it be taught (yes, why not, other arts & crafts are taught, too) and how can it be taught (different opinions, but a lot in the direction of: provide space to experiment and expose participants to other writers’ works). The answer to “Who gets to decide what’s good enough?” depends on the respective course. But overall, the gatekeepers are often white and men and there are not so many students of colour (on average). In addition, access is further restricted by high fees, in particular for university degrees, but there are also free (shorter) courses, as we were reminded. Spread the Word was one of the institutions that were mentioned repeatedly in this context. In Germany, in contrast, while only two universities offer creative writing degrees, there are many opportunities at adult education centres (Volkshochschulen). This led us to the question why creative writing needs to come in the shape of a university degree at all, e.g. an MA to write a novel. The argument was made that such a structured course gave participants a ‘permission’ to spend time researching and writing – something that might be more difficult in a different routine. Irenosen Okojie praised the fact that different formats existed; that way, everybody could “find the route that suits you”. Malika Booker, for example, found a space to write through The Complete Works and gained more confidence. In addition, it helped her to enlarge her network and make her a good teacher.

Catherine Johnson, however, reminded us of another ingredient for a healthy literary field: “What we need is readers, more readers!”

Reading matters

But how do we get people to read? For example by offering a wide choice of books, topics and perspectives, by creating books that speak to more than the mainstream (white) audience. Another answer was directed at parents, who should read to their children and expose them to books early on. But what if the parents – for whatever reason – can’t or simply don’t do it? We were not able to answer this question entirely. It might be an interesting field to explore for a future seminar.

We also talked about authors as readers. All authors at the seminar agreed that if you wanted to be an author, you needed to read and expose yourself to other people’s stories. No doubt, the available stories are numerous. However, the question of translation was raised. While books in translation form a substantial parts in the German and French book markets (I don’t believe the 65% figure that was mentioned, though), only little is translated into English (approx. 3% of the available books). Why is that? Do publishers believe that their field covers ‘enough’ perspectives because there is such a huge production of Anglophone literature? I believe that the same we discussed for other books applies: you need to find an audience for these books; and this is one of the jobs of the publisher. Yes, it is difficult because of the large output and fight for attention, but it can be done, if this is your choice.

Mentoring programmes & communities

Moving on to something that was at the heart of many discussions during the seminars: the need for an author to find a community as a support group and sounding board and the great opportunity that mentoring and other communal programmes offer. The great work of The Complete Works (TCW), Malika’s Kitchen, and Spread the Word was praised in many contexts. It gave the participants a community they could talk to, more confidence, the permission to experiment with their writing as well as some more writing skills and skills needed to navigate the market.

According to Malika Booker, “one of the best currencies” the scheme (TCW) provided was the fact that mentors wrote essays about their mentees – not only because it is a consecration by an established agent in the field, but also because “it enables a more engaged conversation about the work.” And it starts a discourse based on the work and not the ethnicity of the author.


Sharon Dodua Otoo and Malika Booker

Sharon Dodua Otoo and Malika Booker

Malika Booker emphasized the importance of TCW for writers of colour: “When Bernardine created this space [TCW], there was no other space for us.” And it is quite striking that all authors on the panel were also engaged in various forms of activism. Bernardine Evaristo stated: “There is only so much that will happen without lobbying. And when you stop, there will be a backslide.” Nikesh Shukla added to this: “I feel compelled to do the lobbying and activism work.” He said he was only here thanks to those who paved a part of the way before him. While he can’t repay them, he feels that he can ‘pay forward’ and thus sustain a community and a craft. “Without us paying forward, the stories will be lost.” Perspectives matter. And language matters (if I may quote from his story “Namaste”). Nikesh Shukla wants to continue to put the word out there and attract attention to books with ‘new’ perspectives and he feels “more hopeful than I did several years ago”.

 The end – or the beginning?

All the authors who participated in the seminar seemed incredibly involved and committed to keeping up their good work, lobbying tirelessly and contributing to the change of the publishing industry. And while things are of course better than 50 years ago, there remains a lot to be done.

What I wish for is that the fight for a more diverse literary field is not only fought by the often referred to “underrepresented communities”, but by all agents in the field. Because bibliodiversity will enrich us all and discrimination won’t. I hope that after this seminar we can all act as disseminators and work in our own areas and literary fields to make them more diverse and include more perspectives than the usual suspects. And the Literary Field Kaleidoscope will also contribute to this.


3 Women: Jeannine Mayani, Gonza Ngoumou and Bona Ngoumou

We started the seminar with a welcome speech by Rachel Launay, the director of the British Council in Germany, who asked us to keep building bridges and not remain silent in these times where others build walls. I think we were all glad about this space of communication, exchange and respect that we were offered. The conclusion of the conference couldn’t have been any better: the band 3 Women (Jeannine Mayani, Gonza Ngoumou and Bona Ngoumou, link) performed a number of wonderful songs – and a spontaneous jam session with Malika Booker and her “Prayer” poems. They added another form of encounter and communication to the seminar and reminded us through their music that there is more that unites us than divides us. A truly inspiring end of the conference.

Read some more….

I’m going to add two books recommended by Nikesh Shukla via Twitter because I think they fit the “Diverse Voices, New Directions” theme of the conference.

2 books we should turn into bestsellers: The Things I Would Tell You, edited by @SabrinaMahfouz, is an incredible collection of fiction and poetry from British Muslim women (link). And A Country Of Refuge, edited by Lucy Popescu, is a collection of short fiction/memoir/essay/poetry by writers writing about refugees (link).

He goes on: “Books can change the world. And these two deserve to top the charts and be read by everyone. They’re so incredibly important.” By the way, please feel free to add your own recommendations, too. You can post them in the comments section of this blog or email them to me (s.v.lente at gmail dot com) and I’ll do it for you.


More about the authors and their works