THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

Introduction

Find out about social sciences at the British Library including collections, events and research. This blog includes contributions from curators and guest posts by academics, students and practitioners. Read more

01 September 2017

Bringing Voices Together: the importance of independent Black publishing

A guest post by Kadija George   

Kadija George, FRSA is a Birmingham University alumni and currently an AHRC/TECHNE scholarship PhD candidate at Brighton University researching Black British Publishers.  She is the Publications Manager for Peepal Tree’s Inscribe imprint, an editor of several groundbreaking anthologies and publisher of SABLE LitMag.  She is a Fellow of the George Bell Institute and a Fellow of the Kennedy Arts Centre of Performance Arts Management. 

Why do we need Black publishers if one of our societal objectives is to nurture a diverse society in Britain? Because diversity is paralleled with having options; we need gay publishers, women publishers as well as Black publishers.

This does not mean though that Black publishers (or any other ‘minority’ publisher) should be eschewed as being ghettoised, but rather as specialised. Therefore, when Shappi Khorsandi, withdrew her longlisted novel, Nina Is Not OK, for consideration for the Jhalak Prize, saying that, she “felt like my skin colour was up for an award rather than my book” [i] , she assumed that being nominated for the prize would place her in a category that would stigmatise her or limit her audience, yet such prizes highlight the books for what they are – good work, well written. With just 51 books being nominated though, it should shame the mainstream white dominated publishing industry in Britain into doing better with regards to publishing Black writers; an estimated 184,000 books were published in 2013 in the UK. [ii]

Aside from this, there are five broad reasons rationalising the need for, and increased awareness of Black publishers:-

Black publishers take on writers without shock or stereotype. If a writer approaches a Black publisher with a ‘thirty something’ love story between a devout Muslim and a devout Christian who live happily ever, this does not present a story that is unrealistic to a Black publisher; they understand that it is an ordinary part of everyday life (which means that Black writers' work is humorous at times, too). These are black lives, and they matter without the need to challenge the writer’s credentials, their authenticity or the need to be validated by white expertise.

They are also often the only ones willing to take the risk to publish work that is viewed as ‘experimental’, giving the writer permission to be who they are, to write what they want. The best of such work, which often does not easily fit into any one genre is published by independent Black press or is self-published, such as Walter Moseley’s The graphomanic’s primer: a semi surrealist memoir  (Black Classic Press) or Tim Fielder’s Matty’s Rocket, (dieselfunk.com).

Secondly, publishing is more than the physical product for Black publishers as there is the equal need to educate the Black community. This was contained in John La Rose’s 'Dream to Change the World' when he established New Beacon Books in 1966.

Those who migrated to Britain in the 1950’s, who were to become publishers, were equally activists in the community. Social justice work was an integral aspect of their work, supporting the lives of those of African descent who (im)migrated to Britain from the West Indies, Africa and Asia and for the human rights of communities and activists abroad who were under attack, such as Ngũgĩ  wa Thiong’o and Angela Davies (West Indian Digest, Vol. 1, no 8, Nov/Dec 1971). They were at the forefront of campaigns such as the New Cross Massacre (The New Cross Massacre Story (New Beacon 1981), and challenged authorities regarding the murder of Stephen Lawrence - Black Deaths in Police Custody and Human Rights: The Failure of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry by David Mayberry (Hansib Publications, 1993).

  New Cross Frt Cvr 

The New Cross Massacre Story (New Beacon 1981)

The third factor is that they are information providers, utilising the pamphlet as a tool to send out political and social messages, such as the Pan African Association in 1898 announcing the need for a conference to address the dire position of black people in the world. The practical outcome was the first Pan African conference in 1900. Similarly, informing the community of how West Indian children were being (dis)educated in British Schools sparked a movement that started in late 1960’s and carried on until the mid-1980’s that comprised establishing supplementary schools and led to associations of black professionals and the black family to reverse this situation. How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System (1971) by Bernard Coard (New Beacon) originated as a paper at a conference.

Fourthly, black publishers claim and re-claim the printing of classic texts that may otherwise have remained invisible. New Beacon’s re-publishing Froudacity by JJ Thomas (1969) with an introductory essay by CLR James, ‘The West Indian Intellectual’ are two classic works between one cover. Walter Rodney’s The Groundings with My Brothers, was originally printed on a Gestetner, by Bogle L’Ouverture (1969), a title which, along with his next book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa(1972), remain in high demand.

 

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Froudacity / JJ Thomas (1969)

 

Finally, Black publishers ensure the visibility of Black people’s lives in British history.

Not telling the Black British story denies all British people of their true history: 

…the idea of not accepting inhibiting traditions, but being constantly inventive and novel; because one of the problems I can see facing West Indians in Britain in future, is the inhibiting tradition of the education system. This not only affects West Indians as you all ready realise, but ordinary Britons, but it is the rupture of the traditions which underline this tradition which will be important... (John La Rose – letter to Kamau Brathwaite - 24 Feb 1969 - GPI Institute GB2904 LRA/01/143/04)

This underlines the work undertaken by David Olusaga in his TV series and accompanying book, Black and British, A Forgotten History (shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize) in which he disrupts the telling of British history.  His core point is this; it is not possible to tell British history without telling the story of Black British history which is not just about the people who live(d) in Britain, but those in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia too. When Britain became an empire, their colonies would forever be a part of British history. This history includes the history of the book.  Olusaga also pointed out that it is novels such as Andrea Levy’s Small Island that tell important aspects of Black history. [iv]

This is why the ‘Bringing Voices Together’ networking event is needed, because the British Library is surely the first place for people to visit to find out about the history of the book in Britain, and that history needs to ensure the inclusivity of the history of Black British books and publishers, so that it is not as Olusaga says, a ‘deliberately forgotten’ history. (David Olusaga, Brighton University, 30 November 2016)

Related posts: Bringing Voices Together: Inclusivity in Independent Publishing in Contemporary Britain, 7th September

Related links: All about African publishers

Twitter: @kadijattug

 

17 August 2017

Writers of Colour in independent publishing - Bringing voices together: a guest post from Dr. Kavita Bhanot

This blog post was written by Dr. Kavita Bhanot who has been involved in the development of Bringing Voices Together (7th September), a networking event organised by PhD placement student in Contemporary British Collections, Chantelle Lewis. Kavita will be one of the panellists on the day seeking to discuss issues of representation within publishing, how they’re being countered, and recommending the ways the British Library can engage more actively with independent publishers committed to inclusivity.

Kavita Bhanot writes fiction, non-fiction and reviews. She is editor of the anthology Too Asian, Not Asian Enough (Tindal Street Press 2011), the forthcoming Book of Birmingham (Comma Press, 2018) and co-editor of the first Bare Lit anthology (Brain Mill Press, 2017). She has a PhD from Manchester University, is a reader and mentor with The Literary Consultancy and is currently Honorary Creative Writing Fellow at Leicester University.

  Kavita

What is the difference between a published book and a typed manuscript on somebody’s computer? Whilst editing, giving feedback on novels and short stories over the years, I have come across countless writers who are writing or have written remarkable books. And I have been struck by how vulnerable writers are to the whims and fancies, or structural blockades, of the gatekeepers in the publishing industry. These walls are all the more impenetrable and incomprehensible for writers of colour – there is little correlation between ‘quality’ of work, ‘content’, and what gets published. Many other factors come into play, such as how marketable a work or a writer is; how ‘true’ or palatable the work is for white readers; whether something else with a similar subject matter has been published recently; if another writer of a similar background has recently been launched.

The sense of vulnerability that the relationship of dependency on the publishing industry produces has led writers I know to breakdown, depression, to giving up writing - supposing that they are just not good enough, to a feeling of hopelessness, pointlessness.

Is the answer to participate in conversations about diversity, to enter competitions, to join mentoring schemes - even if we’ve been writing for five, ten, fifteen years? Are we to be perpetual children, beneficiaries of paternalism, needing advice and guidance? Do we always have to stand with begging bowls, asking for encouragement, support and recognition, grateful for anything we get? Doesn’t the ‘need’ for recognition from the ‘mainstream’ continue to make us vulnerable and dependent, so we hand over all our self-worth to people and institutions with power? How does it help us to develop self-esteem, a strong inner core, which is what is needed above all to continue writing?

And the excessive focus on publishers and their lack of interest in our work diverts us from thinking about what really matters – the writing. It can lead us to seek acceptance by writing what publishers want us to write. Or in subtle ways, it can lead us to not interrogate what has come before, and reproduce this, not thinking about what we are writing, how we are writing, who we are writing for. My work for several years has been to unpack the ways in which whiteness has often been centred in our writing in conscious and unconscious ways. This perspective is normalised. Being able to see this, to read it and to write differently requires a great deal of effort and self-care. Focussing on ‘diversity’ distracts us from this work.

It is important for writers of colour to develop a political and creative vision, to nurture self-belief and to create collective structures of mutual support founded in a political core. A core that is not fixed, but is open to self-interrogation, change and complexity. Writers of colour should not feel dependent on existing established structures, they should and increasingly are, finding or creating independent outlets.

While publishing conglomerates and media empires become concentrated into a few increasingly powerful and commercial corporate houses, the number of writers of colour producing work that is experimental in form and content is also increasing, work that emerges from activism and critical thinking, work that is of little interest, is unpalatable even, to the ‘mainstream’. These writers are not waiting for anyone’s recognition - they are turning to online forums, they are creating websites, setting up independent publishing initiatives, they are self-publishing, producing chapbooks, booklets, magazines, e books, crowd-funded books – and they are using social media to promote their work. It is from these spaces that paradigm shifting work can and is emerging, a different way of looking at the world, building on but also unlike what has come before, because it is responding to the present moment.

For the most, such work tends to remain unseen by the ‘mainstream’ – until the power of the collective voice becomes so threatening that it can no longer be ignored. And then there is an effort to co-opt it, to absorb some of the more acceptable elements in order to appear inclusive. The odd writer will be published, turned into a celebrity, so it appears that space is being made for new perspectives, new voices. Some people entrenched in the ‘mainstream’ will jump on the bandwagon, appearing to propagate elements of the new discourse, some of which now seems to have become acceptable to the ‘mainstream’. All this works to keep out voices that are truly threatening.

So why is it important that the British Library keep apace with these changes, putting time and effort into identifying these texts, documents, works of literature that emerge from critical, activist spaces, acknowledging their existence, making them available to be read?

No place or institution is neutral, but due to the assumption that everything that is published in the UK is available in the British Library, there is a perceived neutrality inherent in the idea of the Library. A great deal of scholarship, literature and research emerges from the British Library - the place and the catalogue. The Library therefore comes to define the boundaries, foundations and paradigms of a great deal of the scholarship coming out of Britain through what it includes and excludes in its catalogue. Whilst those who are producing work outside the ‘mainstream’ may not be aware of the processes or procedures or even the need to send their work to the Library, it is important for the British Library to reach out, to do the research to find and acquire these works. So that emerging literature and scholarship, rather than drawing only on what exists in ‘mainstream’ spaces, might write about, reference, build on these texts – not as ‘raw material’, but as political, intellectual, creative contributions in their own right. The circulation of knowledge can become more meaningful if public funded institutions like the British Library can take such initiative.

 

Related posts: Bringing Voices Together / Chantelle Lewis

Decolonise, not Diversify / Kavita Bhanot in Media Diversified.

 

02 August 2017

Bringing Voices Together: Inclusivity in Independent Publishing in Contemporary Britain, 7th September

Chantelle Lewis is a PhD student working at the British Library on a project on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) publishing. In this post, Chantelle describes her project and a forthcoming event at the Library.

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My name is Chantelle Lewis and I am a PhD student in the Sociology department at Goldsmiths College. My research is focused on the lived experiences of mixed race families in mono-cultural British towns. Since beginning my PhD, I have been interested in 'race' in Britain, racialised inequalities and the legacies of colonialism. I am keen to become a public sociologist emphasising how sociological research can help shape important social policies.

I am currently working as a PhD placement researcher within the Contemporary British Publications team at the British Library. The title of my placement is ‘Independent, D-I-Y, and activist BAME publishing, in print and online, in 21st century Britain’. I am interested in the current production of inclusive publications, and how the Library can better engage with independent publishers and activists invested in widening representation of writers of colour.

I began by using the Library’s online catalogue to assess its holdings of independent and activist publishing committed to writers of colour. Following this, I met with writers, publishers and activists, and asked them about their experience of supporting independent expression in print and online. The result of these meetings will be a networking event at the British Library titled 'Bringing Voices Together'.  I was inspired to organise Bringing Voices Together after the project illuminated devolved literary practices which could help structure a pragmatic response by the British Library.

The event will bring together people from the arts, literary, and activist world, together with staff from the British Library. The group will include people invested in the development of platforms for diverse forms of expression, as many face similar obstacles in a predominantly mono-cultural industry. 

Whilst meeting with writers, publishers and activists, I began to feel like there were key people I was speaking to who could benefit by connecting with others committed to inclusivity.  Inspired by the on-going project run by Birkbeck History department - History Acts , where historians meet with activists to discuss the possibility of collaboration, I was keen to do something similar as part of my placement. As well as having writers and publishers involved, there will be academics and researchers at the event. I am hopeful that this will allow for interdisciplinary discussions on past and present expression by writers of colour.

Part of Bringing Voices Together will be to gather information for the British Library’s Contemporary Britain web pages on independent publishers who have committed to writers of colour in print and digital formats. This will serve as a starting point for the Library to become actively engaged with the varied formations of contemporary publishing in Britain. This information is also intended to help bookshops and public libraries connect with different voices, as well as offering more wide-ranging options for users of the Library.  We’ll update this post with more details after the event.

Over the coming weeks, there will be a series of guest blog posts from myself and some of the people I have met who are engaged with inclusive independent publishing. Alongside the updates to the Contemporary Britain web pages, these articles will show that Bringing Voices Together is intended to be action driven, coupled with giving a much needed platform to different modes of expression. It also contributes to the notion of legacy and how collaboration can be at the forefront of change.

The fusion of attendees and speakers from publishing, literary, academic and activist backgrounds will allow a range of stakeholders to meet and debate the contemporary issues in publishing and the innovative ways these are being addressed. This will lead to a celebration of resourceful production which has been rewarded by the widening presence of public appreciation. It will also comment on the positive aspects of independent publishing and the opportunities it can present for inclusive expression.

The event gives all involved the opportunity to contribute to a conversation on inclusionary practices in publishing. The principle aim of the afternoon will be to provide recommendations on how the British Library can become more closely involved with writers of colour in independent publishing.

Chantelle Lewis BSc, MA and PhD candidate in Sociology