Taken from the FB page of Na’imah B Robert
Dreams of a Multicultural Author7 June 2014 at 21:58
“We’re going bookshop, innit.”
Not the kind of thing one is likely to hear a group of streetwise youth saying while riding the bus after school. However, if we are to extend the reach of our books beyond those who have already been bitten by the reading bug, we are going to have to make books more accessible and more relevant to a wider variety of readers.
We all know that the book industry needs to diversify, that we need more multicultural authors, more multicultural stories. But we also need to find, develop and celebrate the existence of a diverse readership. This means going out of our way to attract readers from ethnic minorities, from different linguistic traditions, and from a wider variety of backgrounds.
There is intrinsic value in the diversity of what we offer our youth to read. As a member of a minority, to be represented, to see your struggles and challenges reflected in a protagonist’s journey, is empowering. Just for a few hours, you don’t have to translate; you don’t have to explain. For those few hours, you are not The Other, you are the hero of the story.
And that’s why we ‘multicultural authors’ do what we do. That is why we write about the lives of brown people or people of other faiths, or people with disabilities, why some of our books may need glossaries, why some of our plots will be a learning process for the average reader, why we will continue to honour this niche, hoping that, one day, the world will realise that our stories are just as important, just as universal, as their more ‘mainstream’ counterparts.
As language ceases to be a barrier to second and third generation immigrants and their children, we must be aware that, in our country, reading and owning books is often a class issue. There is the question of the prohibitive cost of buying books, especially for the very young; the issue of spending priorities and the way reading is viewed in value terms.
If we are to reach a more diverse readership, we must acknowledge that this readership requires nurture. It requires investment, in terms of time and finances. It requires writers willing to tell diverse stories. It requires publishers courageous enough to see the big picture and take the long view: the more diverse readers we can attract and get hooked on reading, the stronger the future of multicultural publishing, and publishing as a whole.
We ‘book people’ are fighting a war. We are fighting against a dumbed-down, entertainment-obsessed society. We are fighting against a narrow test-driven curriculum. We are fighting against cutbacks and setbacks and very real economic imperatives.
Diversifying children’s books should be part of our battle plan.
I have a dream: that one day, a group of hijabi girls will be on the bus, tweeting about going to a book launch; that one day, a young black boy with fancy kicks will spend some of his cash on a great book he heard about; that one day, young people of all backgrounds will recognise the treasure trove that is a bookshop and feel ownership of the stories it holds.
That is my dream. And that, I think, is the dream of everyone who takes part in this labour of love, this art, this passion, this lovely, crazy business of telling stories.
First published in The Bookseller, April 2014