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The Book of Forgotten Authors: Where Were All The BAME Writers?

Posted on 6th November 2017 by Martha Greengrass

When he began researching The Book of Forgotten Authors, Christopher Fowler quickly discovered a notable pattern, an absence of any non-white authors. It was an observation that set him on a hunt for the forgotten BAME authors of the past. Here, in an extra chapter, written exclusively for Waterstones, he discusses his findings and considers how much the landscape of publishing has changed. 

When I first set out to write The Book of Forgotten Authors I did not think about ethnicity or gender; I picked novels by the quality of their writing and the scarcity of the book. Certain patterns quickly started to appear among the authors. Many of the men had fought in a war, a surprising number had been pilots (writing and the air seem to fit naturally together) and many of the women had become disillusioned by the way they were treated by publishers and critics, some writing under their husbands' names. A surprising number wrote to put bread on the table.

By mostly choosing authors who are now no longer with us, a time-frame emerged with a heavy concentration in the post-war 20th century, because this took in the reading of parents and relatives.

Noticeable by their absence were writers of any non-white ethnicity. 

Of course there were always gay writers, because they didn’t look any different and were required to pass for straight, but the only black or Asian writers from that period that I came across on family bookshelves were V. S. Naipaul and Samuel Selvon, who wrote the terrific The Lonely Londoners, a kind of reverse Eldorado story in which a young West Indian gives up paradise to come to a dank, prejudiced London in the 1950s. This novel perfectly catches the feeling of what it's like to find yourself alone in a big city. However, Selvon penned his tale in a richly evocative, hilarious patois that, although easily understandable, limited his readership at the time. Selvon had tried writing it in standard English but the result simply sounded wrong in the mouth of a youngster arriving into an alien culture.

There was another issue; as I discovered when looking for forgotten Booker authors, the most prominent black writers were usually university-educated, not populist paperback authors of the kind I was majoring on. 

In fact, I soon found that I had the opposite problem; when I went back to reread many of the white authors of the 20th century I found their prose filled with bigotry and nationalism. Obviously, one works within the accepted social limits of the times, but to the present eye many good writers were now unpublishable. I’m not simply referring to the coded digs Agatha Christie’s characters regularly came out with about 'swarthy' foreigners, but jaw-dropping racist remarks casually plonked into otherwise interesting books. While many white authors became so embarrassed by the way their prose dated that they withdrew and rewrote them, for others there was no second chance. 

What chance was there that BAME writers were going to sell a book in the UK before the arrival of Monica Ali and others? Wikipedia lists about 120 such writers working in Britain. I knew of Francis Barber, the Jamaican manservant of Samuel Johnson who assisted in compiling his dictionary, and Andrea Levy, born to Jamaican parents, but that was about it. 

Many early BAME writers were also, understandably, activists, and this kept them out of populist territory. You quickly come to realise just how young our history of multi-culturalism is, and why there is still so much work to be done. The non-white authors who were to be found seemed to have been found largely by luck.

However, looking around in bookshops now, I'm immediately struck by the widening range of world authors who write about personal experience in a way that feels universal to all. In a recent survey, 81% of UK readers said that they love literature because it promotes empathy, so there's clearly a market for diverse reading. And much work is being done to recruit people from under-represented backgrounds on both sides of the fence, from encouraging careers in publishing to the creation of specific awards like the Jhalak Prize for BAME authors. 

The drive for more diverse representation is steadily producing results, from the new stand-alone imprint Dialogue Books, dedicated to inclusivity, to the Write Now mentoring and publishing campaign. Visibility is the key; once, authors tended to be lost behind their novels, but live events and community outreach programmes are bringing them into the public arena. 

Roy A K Heath and Mike Phillips are both Guyanese writers who found fame, but a new generation of non-white writers is making headlines. There's crime from Abir Mukherjee in A Rising Man and the award-winning The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross, genetic history reaching back to Roman Britain in Black and British: A Forgotten History from David Olusoga, and I can highly recommend Gary Younge's remarkable and deeply disturbing Another Day in the Death of America. There's even teen SF in Chasing The Stars from Malorie Blackman. Scottish books are on the list too, from Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi, about a young Pakistani DJ growing up in urban Scotland, to Luke Sutherland's blackly comic band-on-the-road saga Jelly Roll. Sadly, both of them are currently out of print.

Those publishers organising prizes and competitions for novels, short stories and YA books from BAME authors still have their work cut out; of the thousands of titles published in the UK last year only a tiny number were from British writers of a non-white background. It seems obvious to me that if we read to feel empathy, we'll want to read fresh stories from unheard-of voices.

Wandering the stacks in South London's delightful Peckham Library, I watched a young West Indian boy immersed in his books and wondered, can you see something of yourself in what you're reading? How much confidence will it take for you to grow up wanting to be a writer?

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