The links below are to articles reporting on the winner of the 2020 Miles Franklin literary Award, Tara June Winch for ‘The Yield.’
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As people seek to educate themselves in response to Black Lives Matter protests, sales of books by black British authors, such as Reni Eddo-Lodge and Bernadine Evaristo, have topped the UK bestseller lists. Several recent prestigious awards have also been won by black writers, including Candice Carty-Williams who won book of the year for Queenie at the British Book Awards. Although proud of her achievement, she was also “sad and confused” on discovering she was the first black author to win this award in its 25-year history.
While these firsts must be celebrated, they also shine a light on publishing’s systemic practices, which have maintained inequalities and under-representation for black, Asian and minority ethnic writers and diverse books. Despite awareness of its shortcomings and years of debates and initiatives (diversity schemes, blind recruiting practices and manuscript submission processes) the industry has generally failed to achieve lasting change. This is because they fail to address the broader systemic inequalities faced by people of colour, which contribute to ongoing under-representation in the industry.
A substantial market
Our research on diversity in children’s publishing included an online survey of 330 responses and 28 in-depth follow-up interviews with people working across the sector. We found that a key barrier has been the engrained perception among industry decision-makers that there is a limited market for diverse books. This is a belief that books written by black and diverse authors or featuring non-white characters just don’t sell.
This perception is seen across the industry, including in children’s literature. This is despite evidence of substantial markets. For instance, a third of English primary pupils are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background. However, a report by the Centre For Literacy in Primary Education revealed that although the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic protagonists in children’s books had increased from 1% in 2017 to 4% in 2018, there is still a long way to go to achieve representation that reflects the UK population.
What we found was that the lack of role models in the books read by children and young people of colour meant that they were less likely to aspire to careers in the sector. From those we spoke to, this was compounded by the lack of diversity, particularly in senior roles, in publishing. For those who had pursued a publishing career, experiences of everyday racism and microaggressions were widespread. This added to feelings of frustration and a sense that they were not welcome or did not belong in the industry.
This all has a knock-on effect on what gets published. Authors of colour that we spoke to expressed frustration about the commissioning process. This included quotas for books by or featuring people of colour, a perceived limited appeal for these books and a feeling that authors of colour could only write about race issues.
Reliance on “traditional routes” to publishing also disadvantages black and working-class authors. Publishers reported receiving high volumes of submissions and heavy workloads led to them relying on established writers rather than seeking out new, diverse talent. This has the impact of narrowing the pool of authors from which books are published.
Our participants – including authors, illustrators, editorial assistants and agents – widely reported that a lack of cultural understanding can also lead to the view that diverse books are a riskier investment. They explained how limited promotion and marketing budgets often resulted in lower sales, reinforcing perceptions of limited demand. From their experience, miscommunication at subsequent points along the supply chain about the demand for and availability of diverse books means that those that are published may not even reach bookshop shelves.
These interconnected factors (among others) create a negative cycle which perpetuates the lack of representation of minorities across all parts of the sector, including the lack of authors of colour being nominated for prizes and awards. Recommendations from our research include ensuring diversity on selection panels for events and awards and some good work is already taking place. However, more systematic collaboration and commitment from the sector will be required to produce lasting and meaningful changes and achieve equality and representation.
Our research participants pointed out that social media was allowing individuals to more effectively come together and raise their voices in support of diversity and representation. They expressed hope that this may help to drive forward meaningful and lasting change in the sector. There are signs that this may be the case with recent campaigns emerging in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The #publishingpaidme campaign highlighted racial disparities in publishing advances. The publisher Amistad, an imprint of Harper Collins dedicated to multicultural voices, ran the campaign #BlackoutBestsellerList and #BlackPublishingPower to draw attention to black authors and book professionals and demonstrate the market for these books. The newly formed Black Writers’ Guild, including many of Britain’s best-known authors and poets, wrote an open letter airing concerns and demanding immediate action from publishers. The hope is that these campaigns can focus the industry on bringing about meaningful change.
This remarkable novel opens and closes in the voice of Albert Gondiwindi, the recently deceased grandfather of one of the main characters, August.
Albert was born, he says in the first sentence, on Country known as Ngurambang; and he explains how to pronounce the word. “Ngu-ram-bang. If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste the blood in your words”.
Throughout the novel, his voice keeps re-emerging as he steadily builds a body of Wiradjuri words, and the memories that ground their definitions.
His is one of three main stories that weave their way through Tara June Winch’s The Yield, this year’s Miles Franklin winner. A second story is that of Albert’s granddaughter, August, who comes home for his funeral. August has been living in England for ten years with her “terrible inheritance” (the elements of which unpack across the novel); she provides a key point of focalisation.
The third story comes out of history, and is presented in the form of notes, reports and letters written by the Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, who positions himself as the defender of what he terms “the decent Natives whom I have lived amongst”, residents of the Mission he established in 1880 “to ameliorate the condition of the Native tribes”.
While Greenleaf does take a stand against the brutality of the police and townspeople, his compassion is predicated on paternalism, rather than respect. Consequently, his “contributions” play a role in the colonisation of the region, and in Albert’s life.
Albert was born, as he says, on Ngurambang, but he started life in a temporary fringe area called Tent Town before he “and all the other kids were taken away”, stolen from family and culture.
The violent history of the region is salted throughout the novel: cloaked, in Rev Greenleaf’s writings; expressed vividly in Poppy Albert’s stories; painfully in August’s memories and contemporary experiences and shamefully in the names of local places.
There is the ironically named Prosperous Mission; it stands near the town of Massacre Plains, close to Poisoned Waterhole Creek. The town itself is reached by way of the Broken Highway; the sick and dying of the region find themselves in Broken Hospital and Broken Hospice.
The deployment of such names contains a bitter truth, because although these are fictional places, there are locations right across Australia that unblushingly retain the evidence of racism and genocide. It is writers like Winch, and artists like Julie Gough, who draw attention to this practice and to the history that lies behind it.
History seldom remains tidily in the past, as so many writers have observed; and Poppy Albert too makes it clear: “there are a thousand battles being fought every day because people couldn’t forget something that happened before they were born”. And also, arguably, because what happened before we were born continues to have consequences.
The processes of colonisation that began in the 18th century; the impact of what led to the establishment (and naming) of Massacre Plains; the building of the mission and farm – all combine to shape and (attempt to) limit August’s life, and that of her family.
And these she must experience again when she returns to Australia, to the continuing absence of her disappeared sister Jedda, to Eddie – ex-schoolfriend and scion of Prosperous Farm – and to the testing family relationships she had left behind. Once back, she finds herself involved not just in piecing together her past, but also in a battle to protect her grandmother’s home, and the remnants of the beloved and deeply damaged river, from the depredations of Rinepalm mining company.
That battle itself highlights the very different communities cohabiting. For the urban protesters, it is about the broad problem of environmental destruction. For cousin Joey, it is about resistance to the original act of invasion. (“They want to take land that wasn’t theirs to take, land was given that wasn’t theirs to give!”)
And for August, it seems to offer a point of resolution: “As they walked August thought that grief’s stint was ending. She whispered to Jedda and to Poppy: I am here”.
I won’t say any more about the story; it is, after all, not mine to tell. But I will say that it is a powerful and a deeply moving book. While it is unstinting in its critical gaze at sociopolitical disasters, it also shows the forms resistance can take.
Albert’s dictionary is part of this resistance: it is in language that culture and memory and ways of seeing and thinking function, and survive. Albert’s work to recover language, to set out words and definitions, provides a memorial to those who were steamrollered by history, and a reminder that “we are here still”.