Beyond a ‘Colourful’ India: The Struggles of British Asian Writers
“I was once told by an agent – ‘Since it is about India, I am expecting to see more colour’,” says author Mona Dash.
A debate has been raging amongst the British Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers for some time now.
The debate stems from their struggle to get their works published.
What is the crux of the issue? Many writers feel that publishers are afraid to market and publish their work – and that, they aren’t too aware of the fact that there’s a market for the kind of fiction these writers write.
The Fight for Diversity
Nilesh Shukla, whose debut novel Coconut Unlimited was published by Quartet Books, has been particularly vocal about the need for diversity in UK’s publishing industry.
For me, the fight for diversity in the UK publishing industry has just begun – although it existed long before.
Shukla’s novel The Good Immigrant was crowd funded by its publisher in just three days.
“This (crowd fund) shows that there’s an existence of readership for our kind of works also,” he adds.
In a bid to increase the visibility of South Asian writers in Britain, nine-odd British fiction writers of South Asian origin in 2011 came together to set up ‘The Whole Kahani’. According to information on its page, the collective was set up “to give a new voice to old stories and increase the visibility of South Asian writers in Britain.”
I find that in the world of poetry and short stories, editors are very open-minded; my work has been welcomed and published. However, when I submit my novel, which is set completely in India and revolves around a culture clash between rural and urban India (with nothing to do with the East-West binary), I often receive a different response. Those themes may not appeal to some agents or editors.Kavita A Jindal, co-founder of The Whole Kahani
Jindal adds, however, that she understands there is a commercial aspect to it. “They might be looking for something they can relate to and that is within the limits of their experience. Publishing is a business.”
Mona Dash, another member of the group says,
I feel that when the agent or publisher sees that the writer is of Indian origin, they expect the writing to be about India – and not just that, they expect it to be of a certain type.
“I was once told by an agent – 'Since it is about India, I am expecting to see more colour,’” revealed the author of Untamed Heart.
Originally from Odisha, Dash argues:
As someone who has been brought up in India, my writing about the country is about its reality, and not necessary a stylised, nostalgic version. Unfortunately, in my experience, this is not what Western publishers want. I’ve also found that if one writes about the West and the way of life here, that doesn’t seem to be accepted by Western publishers either.
Why India “Provides a Huge Literary Magnet”
The challenge faced by these authors is not just in convincing the Western publishers but also being published by Indian publishers.
“Indian readers prefer to read books by Western publishers. The balance, therefore, of the theme, the content, the style and the publications is much more challenging for a writer of diaspora than it is for other writers,” Dash adds.
Several British Asian authors are also of the opinion that UK publishers are unaware of the large British Asian market, and the appetite for stories written by them.
Says London-based writer, Renita D’Silva,
When I was sending out my manuscript, I did get rejected a few times. According to the publishers, the ‘Indian fiction market was saturated’. My understanding is that publishing trends come and go – and at the time of submitting, some publishers believed that Indian fiction was going out of fashion. I was given this piece of advice and it kept me going – ‘If you have a story to tell and believe in it and love it, then others will too, regardless of genre and trends.’
However, for Sharon Maas, the Guyanes-born novelist, who was educated in England, lived in India, and subsequently in Germany and the UK, the relationship with UK publishers is different.
Her debut novel Of Marriageable Age is a family saga that strives to link India and Guyana through its characters, bringing in Guyana’s history as well as echoes of the British Raj.
I loved writing this book, and it immediately found a major publisher in HarperCollins. It sold to several foreign countries as well, and was in fact a huge best-seller in France. The Indian part of it seems to be its strongest aspect – so many people have told me that they feel transported to India through it, and in fact that’s how I felt while writing it – I wanted to bring India to life, the India that I knew.
This was followed by two more novels, Peacocks Dancing and The Speech of Angels –both of which have Indian settings, and were published by HarperCollins.
In 2014, she signed with the UK digital publisher Bookouture, which re-published Of Marriageable Age, and Peacocks Dancing as The Lost Daughter of India.
They (Bookouture) also feel that India provides a huge literary magnet for Western readers, and prefer that I write books set in India rather than in Guyana. I expect to be writing more books set in India in future.
Meanwhile, James Lewis, senior communications officer at HarperCollins Publishers, says:
We recognise that there are real issues around diversity in the publishing industry. At HarperCollins, we’ve been working to address those issues, both in our workforce and in the content we produce.
Perhaps there is hope yet.
(Anjana Parikh works with the healthcare sector in the UK. She's also a freelance writer based in Manchester. Before relocating to the UK in 2013, she worked as a full-time journalist with some of India's leading dailies like The Times of India, Deccan Herald and The Sunday Guardian. She also worked as the News Editor for a leading British Asian weekly Asian Lite. Apart from reading and writing, she also loves rambling and singing.)
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