Each of the four immigrant authors who spoke on this panel I moderated last night offered moving accounts of their immigrant journeys. Hope’s family escaped Idi Amin’s genocide and landed in Minnesota; Marco straddles the Mexican American border as he pursues a doctoral degree; Zoe moved from Iran through England to America to marry her Iranian husband; Krysada’s family fled Laos after his grandfather was released from prison camps following the Vietnam war. I interrupted a burgeoning writing career as a children’s lit author to remake myself as a writer of immigrant narratives, when I married my husband in Berkeley.
We spoke about the specific struggles we faced as writers of color in a publishing industry that latest industry surveys have found to be 89% white. Here is the opening statement I gave:
I began organizing literary events that highlight people of color last October with the story telling event San Diego Beyond the Pale because after nearly 15 years of living in San Diego, I was fed up with being the only brown person at every literary gathering. And when I got tired of going to those parties, I thought, Why don’t I just throw my own party?! I throw great parties!
So thank you for coming to this party. Look around. It’s probably unlike any literary event you’ve ever been too in San Diego because for one thing, everyone onstage is a person of color. For another, the audience better resembles the population of this city, of this state. Because whether or not this fact is represented in San Diego’s writing scene or in American books, we are moving toward an increasingly diverse population.
According to a 2015 U.S. Census report, more than half of U.S. children under 18 will be part of a minority ethnic or race group by the year 2020. 2015 was three years ago, and as I look around the neighborhood, the children in my daughter’s school, I can only think that for people of color, our time is not coming. It has arrived.
So would it be too much to ask that publishers produce more books by and about people of color?
In her article “The Uncomfortable Truth about Children’s Books” (Mother Jones, 2015) Dashka Slater writes: “Within five years, more than half of America’s children and teenagers will have at least one nonwhite parent. But when the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at 3,200 children’s books published in the United States last year, it found that only 14 percent had black, Latino, Asian, or Native American main characters. Meanwhile, industry data collected by publisher Lee & Low and others suggest that roughly 80 percent of the children’s book world—authors and illustrators, editors, execs, marketers, and reviewers—is white, like me.”
I’m willing to bet that there are more animal than people of color as protagonists in children’s books. I love the Cat in the Hat as much as the next person, but is that the best we can offer our young readers? One of the reasons I write is that I want to my daughter to see herself and people like her in stories, rather than having to imagine herself in the shoes of yet another white girl coming of age. As novelist Mira Jacob writes, “We are DYING to see ourselves anywhere.
I grew up in Manila, where my culture, ethnicity, religion, social class, and politics identified as the majority. Now that I live in America, I suppose I am part of a minority. But I refuse to behave or be treated like one. And this is why I write stories where people of color are not just accessories to the main event but major players in each act.
What follows below is text from a handout we distributed to attendees.
Food for Thought (To Go with those Snacks)
If you are reading this, I can safely assume you are at the Immigrant Authors’ panel this afternoon at the San Diego Public Library. Welcome! I hope you are enjoying the cookies, generously provided by UCSD SPACES.
The conversation we’re about to have could easily go on for days, years, decades. Two hours on a Saturday afternoon is barely enough to cover the most basic points. Here then are a few links to online articles you can read at your own leisure. They deal specifically with the issue of diversity in publishing, but read enough of them and you will notice how the points they make could easily be applied to dealing with and seeking out diversity in life.
I’ve selected some juicy quotes but hope that you eventually read all the articles.
Now as they say at the movie theater, turn your cell phone off, tuck this sheet in your purse or pocket and enjoy the show.
> “To be Other in America is to be coveted and hated at the same time” -Jenny Zhang, in They Pretend to Be Us, While Pretending We Don’t Exist –
>”When one group’s voices—white people’s—ride roughshod as the predominantly “best” work to publish, read, teach, and sell as a complete history, that is a violence that editors must meet directly, head on and actively—even aggressively—in order to counter the force of history that denies voices and positions their words as less than, even untrue, in the face of other stories privileged as the “best.” What shameful bullshit. ” –
Amy King, in Equity in Publishing: What Should Editors be Doing? – roundtable discussion by Antonio Aiello. Read pm at the link below:
>”The problem is and has always been the exclusion of writers of color and other marginalized writers who have to push aside their own work and fight for inclusion, over and over and over again.” –
Roxane Gay, in The Worst Kind of Groundhog Day: Let’s Talk (Again) about Diversity in Publishing.
>”American audiences are capable of so much more than some in your industry imagine…White Americans can care about more than just themselves. They really can. And the rest of us? We are DYING to see ourselves anywhere.” –
Novelist Mira Jacob, in I Gave a Speech About Race in the Publishing Industry and Nobody Heard Me.
….And if you don’t care for the opinions of the writers above, then please consider the facts that support their thoughts:
“A Younger Workforce, Still Predominantly White” -Publishers’ Weekly:
If you prefer pie charts, you’ll find the same stats in bigger, prettier charts here:
We are most grateful to Marc Chery who opened up the library’s lovely auditorium for us this afternoon. This is what inclusiveness looks like.
Thank you very much for supporting this POC-centric event. We hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as you liked the food.
Stay tuned for the next one.