Bali Rai is the multi-award winning author of over 30 young adult, teen and children’s books. His writing pushes boundaries and has made him extremely popular on the school visit circuit across the world. Two of his books are recommended reads for KS3 and GCSE. He lives in Leicester, and wrote his first novel, (un)arranged marriage, whilst managing a city centre bar. Bali spends his spare time cooking, reading, listening to reggae music and following Liverpool FC.
Let’s pretend the magic is there and you can have exactly what you want. How would you like diversity in publishing to be?
In an ideal world, diversity would be the norm rather than something we aspire to. The everyday publishing world, and everything around it, would involve the voices of those who are missing as a matter of course. From authors, poets and illustrators, to editors, publicity, sales, booksellers, librarians etc… we’d see a genuine mix of people that truly reflects our society. We’d also see more diverse books being displayed prominently on bookshelves, being reviewed and promoted equally, and never use the phrase “niche” to describe anything at all.
What do you think we: publishers, agents, authors, schools, bloggers and readers should/could do to get us there?
I think that one of the biggest things is opening reading eyes and minds to different literary styles. There is an inbuilt notion of what literature is, and what makes a classic book etc… in a Western or British context. Anything outside of that is seen as different, niche or special. It’s not – it’s just another way of thinking that isn’t informed by an English literature degree or a love for the “classics” etc… We also need to forget about what we think makes a good book and allow space for things that we might not enjoy, but which others might.
In my experience, most young people (and adults, actually) will read about any character, as long as they are enjoying the story. They aren’t prejudiced in that way – so it is the reading choices they are provided which create the issue. When almost every book is about a white, middle class child, you begin to think that those are the only people about whom writing is permissible or warranted. From the adults, we need more support for diverse work, greater promotion of level a playing field that isn’t set in favour of the traditional, and of white, middle and upper class people. We, as adults, need to stop putting BAME, LGBT etc… writers into pigeonholes and imposing our views about what makes great literature on the population as a whole. That’s what the current situation is – a ethnically and socially homogenous group deciding what gets published, and how, and for whom, based on their own likes or dislikes.
During the Diversity Debate at Bath you talked about the problem of gatekeepers. Can you elaborate on this?
Gatekeepers come in various forms. There are librarians (in and out of school), and also teachers. These people have a role to play – they have to make sure that a child, for example, isn’t taking home a book that they cannot cope with, or that might lead to a parent complaining. As authors, we may scoff at the idea of complaining parents, but for these gatekeepers, it affects their jobs directly. I can go into a school or library for a day and say what I like – it is the adults who are there all day, every day, who get it in the neck when things go wrong. I’d like these gatekeepers to be more representative of society but they aren’t the biggest problem. In fact I understand why a librarian might not recommend one of my YA titles to a 13 year old.
The issue is beyond that, into publishing. I’ve had some great editors – two in particular who’ve been totally open and brilliant about my work, despite the subject matter being completely outside their own experiences of life. But I’ve also met many people who will read, for example, The Whisper (a book about drug dealing, gangs and inner-city culture), and then try and tell me what they think is wrong or even inauthentic. That’s what drives me insane. I was born in an inner city, brought-up in an inner city, and am a product of British inner city multiculturalism. If I’m a tourist anywhere, it’s outside of that sphere, in the nice middle class world of publishing. People like me don’t often become authors, and when I write stuff like The Whisper or The Last Taboo etc… that’s me writing about things I know. So, when an editor or whoever asks me about authenticity, what is their basis for asking? Is it because they come from the same background as me? No. Is it because they’ve experienced that way of life, as I have? No. The imposition of their ideas about what constitutes “authentic” “street” language and moral codes restrict my work. It’s not an insult to say these people have no understanding of the multicultural world I come from (and still live in) – it’s just a fact of life. I don’t know anything about aristocratic culture, so who am I to ask a person, writing about that way of life, questions pertaining to the authenticity of their writing?
There is a huge difference in the cultural experiences of the middle class people who mostly populate the literary world, in whatever area, and those who come from what was once termed working class culture. The way of life, the nuances within language, the moral codes, the aspirations – these things are not the same as in middle class culture. I’m not saying working class culture is more worthy or less, nor that there aren’t issues with it – of course there are. I chose to write about the former because of the issues, and as such, I’m already swimming against the tide. I’ve heard fellow authors from middle and upper-middle class backgrounds laugh at the idea of an “issue novel”, denigrate the concept of them even. So when these gatekeepers (within the publishing world) question the authenticity of the language I use, the situations I explore, I feel like screaming. I had someone congratulate me once on the “brilliant way you get street language just right”. WTF??? People like me don’t use words like “street” – it’s the Daily Mail and the One Show who do that. And, again, how do you know I’ve got it “just right” – what experience is your judgement based on?
How do you feel about authors writing diverse books outside their experience?
I’m always pleased to see authors writing outside of their experience, especially when this adds to the number of diverse protagonists/characters. I think accuracy is important, but at a time when true diversity is a dream rather than a reality, it is heartwarming to see fellow authors trying to shift the balance away from the usual suspects. Maybe we forgo a touch of authenticity in exchange for seeing those characters out there, and that encourages more diverse writers to step forward? Tanya Landman’s great and historically accurate Buffalo Soldier is just one, obvious example of this – and the fact that it won such a prestigious award is also very welcome. It opens a door to more diversity, and makes clear that writing about diverse characters is just as engaging, as worthwhile, as readable as anything else. I’ve spent years writing about characters who don’t always look like me, and aren’t the same gender. In Web of Darkness, I even had a gay, male character – and despite my not being gay, it was easy to write him (and I hope he comes across as real). They key is to see human beings first, not gay or black, or whatever. Then, as writers we can get any voice 80% right. The next 20% – the complete authenticity is perhaps only possible if you are from the same background as the characters whose voices you right. That’s not a bad thing – 80% is better than 0% – and it shows a willingness to represent those people whose voices are least heard.
When you were growing up were there any books that you felt you could identify with?
There were a few – mostly odd books that stuck out because they were so different. I talk often about the huge influx of US books by US-based authors into British YA, and how this restricts and prevents British authors from writing about British culture. That’s never been a dig at those US authors, many of them brilliant writers. It’s about having British publishers publish British authors, and how there is less space than ever for these writers, which is wrong. And, as a teen, S.E Hinton was a massive influence on me – and she’s obviously American. Her books were about what Americans call “blue collar” lifestyles however, and in that regard they too weren’t exactly common.
Then there was Bernard Ashley and a few others, and my role model and biggest inspiration, Sue Townsend, who wrote books about the “next-door neighbours”. Properly British books, about the kind of people I saw all around me, who weren’t the same people going to Oxbridge or buying £100 coffee machines and panicking about their dinner party offering. Mostly however, I was reading stories about middle class white kids, with middle class parents, living middle class lifestyles. There’s nothing wrong with that – there’s just too much of it, which is detrimental to representation of working class lifestyles, of ethnically and racially diverse backgrounds etc… There’s never been a balance and it doesn’t look like there will be any sort of rebalancing anytime soon.
Are there any books you want to recommend?
Not so much books as writers. People like Malorie Blackman, Catherine Johnson, Kevin Brooks, Anne Cassidy, Alan Gibbons, Alex Wheatle, Courttia Newland, Narinder Dhami, Sufiya Ahmed, SF Said, Phil Earle, Benjamin Zephaniah, Keren David, Tanya Landman, Sarah Benwell, Leila Rasheed, Helena Pielichaty, Melvin Burgess and more.
How do you feel about being seen as a diverse author?
Haha – I’ve been a British Asian author and an Asian author, even an “issues” writer, so I guess diverse author was always going to happen. I would ask what that means, and why the need to say it? Does Michael Morpurgo get called a white author? Is Jacqueline Wilson non-diverse? I’m happy to be recognized as someone who is trying to change things, but it doesn’t make me what I am. My writing doesn’t deserve to be put into a tidy little niche like that, and nor does anyone else’s. I’m part of a wave of authors who aren’t from that nice middle class world, who write about other voices, most of them hidden, and who bring the ordinary, everyday British people who make up the majority, into the literary world as characters and readers.
If it helps that people like me are called “diverse” then great – but I don’t think it does. It just sticks us into a box, and gives the notion of worthiness to what we’re trying to achieve. It isn’t worthy to want more diverse characters in fiction. It isn’t about an agenda (although perhaps there is one now). It isn’t about discriminating against middle class, hetero able-bodied white people either. It’s about rebalancing the playing field. It’s about asking for real, true representation. It’s about making sure that everyone in Britain feels that literature is something for them too – rather than something for other people. And in the BAME community, reading, being an author, working in the industry, loving books really IS something that “other” people do. BAME people aren’t represented to any degree that matches their presence in British life. They are rarely the central characters. Their multicultural version of Britishness is hardly ever explored, and when it is, it’s stuck on niche shelves, and given bugger-all promotion beyond that niche. So, when people ask why more BAME people aren’t getting involved, it’s because literature isn’t a huge part of their culture. Why would it be, when they are ignored for the most part?
What’s the misconception about publishing and diversity?
That things are changing. It is still as difficult today, for a British BAME teen to read about him/herself as a central character, as it was when I was a teen. Or maybe just slightly better. BAME people are 14% of the UK population, yet how many BAME protagonists were in British YA or children’s fiction last year? 1%? 0.5% – it wasn’t much more than that – I’d stake my house on it.
LGBT fiction is now more widespread, but yet again, to what degree? Is it niche-marketed, is it alluded to with the “diverse” tag? Yes, in my opinion. Then there’s the representation of those less physically able than the majority. The blind teens, or those in wheelchairs etc… And certain groups are completely missing – like the British Chinese community which gave us Gok Wan. Where are they in books?
I know from first-hand experience that there are some wonderful people in publishing, trying to do things differently. But the bottom line is profit. Big publishers’ first port of call is the bottom line. If something more diverse sells massive numbers, then they will back it. Until then, they will say they want change, but it won’t happen. And how does an author representing more diverse voices get big sales? Mostly through promotion and marketing spend. Yes, they can build a network of fans – but that isn’t guaranteed to happen and even if it does, it doesn’t guarantee anything beyond. And, when you sign a publishing contract with the big houses, you give up most of the earnings and take a paltry 7.5% or thereabouts. The publishers are supposed to promote you – it’s part of the agreement. Yet, I’ve heard (as I did in Bath) that it’s now up to us, as authors, to promote ourselves. Great – when do I get more of the profit then, considering you’re no longer doing what you agreed to do? Oh yes…never.
How do you break the cycle? With money. You take a book about more diverse voices and you promote it just as you’d promote the latest fake book by some “celebrity” making more money of the back of a ghost writer. You have posters on the tube, on buses, on bus shelters and in railway stations etc. You pay for book table space and deals at Waterstones and on the biggest sales and review sites. You push it as your big title at Christmas, when the really big sales happen, and get the author onto the BBC etc… You promote the book and put money behind it. Only, that isn’t going to happen because it’s easier to promote the “big” authors as they pay for themselves. That’s what publishers do, and it’s all about profit margins. That’s the reality of this industry, and if someone breaks through that, it will be about their own hard work, or luck rather than judgement on the part of publishers.
Is there a difference between the UK and US when it comes to promoting diversity in publishing? (If so, what can we learn from each other?)
I don’t know very much about US publishing, as I’ve never had a book taken by a US publisher. Recently I’ve watched on as many of my white peers have increased their presence in US markets. My non-white peers have not been so welcomed. I would argue that profit is profit, no matter which side of the Atlantic you are on, and as such, that’s what drives big US publishers too. But we do know that US publishing is horrendously homogenous – especially when it comes to race and ethnicity. I don’t think one side is doing better than the other – so I’m not sure what we can learn from each other. Both sides are as bad, and both need to change. The We Need Diverse Books website is a great. If you want to read about the problems facing more diverse authors, editors, illustrators etc… it is well worth a look.
Is Diversity a “fad” ?
Yes and no.
Yes, because it has become something big publishers can back, without actually having to change anything at all. It’s become a “worthy” cause that (nearly) everyone agrees on. There is much handwringing and mea culpa nonsense going on, but very little cheque signing being done. If they wanted to change it, they could very easily. And they might start with promoting authors equally. Here’s an idea… Why not give David Walliams’ marketing and promo budget to Malorie Blackman or Benjamin Zephaniah or Kevin Brooks and let Walliams find his market on his own? Why not engage in what is often termed positive discrimination? I’m sure that white, hetero middle class literature could handle a couple of years in which it isn’t the big fish. Actually, as a recent spat on Twitter between a well-known YA author and others showed – perhaps they can’t.
No – because there are people who have argued for diversity for a long time. Verna Wilkins of Tamarind, Malorie and many, many others have been at the forefront of this issue, and they were there long before this current explosion in interest. Melvin Burgess was doing diverse YA in the 1990s with a few others, Bernard Ashley in the 1980s. Alan Gibbons has spent most of his career writing about everyday teens, many of which have traditionally been hidden voices. None of this is new, just because there are shiny websites now and more debates than ever before. And there are areas where the changes are happening faster than others. I’ve seen more LGBT fiction in the past five years than ever before, and that’s only positive, but we can do with much more. And I haven’t seen a corresponding increase in fiction about BAME characters. I haven’t seen more fiction about disabled characters. I haven’t seen more exploration of the poorest underclass in British society at a time when they are being stereotyped, made scapegoats, and further impoverished at a rate not seen since Victorian times. People like me will continue to write this stuff, whether it is fashionable or not.
And finally, what is the question you wish people would ask and never do?
I can’t think of one. I’ve been in this industry for nearly sixteen years now, and I’ve heard nearly every question there is. Perhaps the time has come to stop asking questions and to create change? Perhaps the question I’d like to be asked is this – are you delighted that diversity in publishing is no longer the issue it once was? That would be a great question to answer because it would mean that things have changed. Maybe I’ll get to answer that when I’m eighty…