Diversity in Publishing: Where do I Fit In?

A call for the need of diverse voices in publishing.

By Melinda Ruth, Poetry Reader

October 11th 2018 was the 30th anniversary of National Coming Out Day, a day designated to celebrate the coming out of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, (and numerous other) identities.

A few days before National Coming Out Day, our class discussed the diversity, or lack thereof, in the publishing industry, and how it affects the industry as a whole. As a queer identified woman, this discussion left me with a harrowing question: Where, if at all, do I fit into the literary publishing industry?

My immediate feeling, is that I don’t. There is a startling lack of coverage on LGBT (formally LGBTTQQIAAP) representation in the industry, both as editors and as writers. In fact, there is a disconcerting lack of diversity in the publishing industry in general. If you’re looking for statistics on ableism in literary publishing, you will be hard pressed to find them.

Recent years have brought about a literary awakening in gender bias. Since the VIDA count began in 2011, the literary community has been forced to confront an ugly truth: that the publishing community is still predominantly led by white, straight, men. The last few years have seen a push for greater diversity in the publishing world, and is statistically expressed through the expanded interest of the VIDA count, in which “the 2015 edition surveyed for the first time the race, ethnicity, sexual identity and ability of its female writers.”

While this is a step in the right direction, it’s still not enough. Even though greater interest has been expressed, the survey still “found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the best represented women were straight, white and able-bodied.” Basically, you still have to be white, straight and not differently abled to succeed.

Another survey, this time conducted by Lee & Low Publishers, “asked publishing houses and review journals to report the racial/ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation of employees, as well as the percentage of their employees who have a disability.”

The results were still dim.

The survey found that overall the industry is still 79 percent white, 78 percent women, 88 straight and 82 percent not differently abled. These statistics leave me wondering, if the industry in now 78 percent women, then why are we still publishing primarily straight white male voices?

The answer is far more complex than I have the space to answer, but it boils down to this: We have been trained our entire lives to read and place value on the straight white male experience and perspective. Everything we watch, read, and hear tells us that their stories are the most valued, and therefore the ones everyone wants to hear.

This concept also negatively impacts the representation of people of color in the publishing industry.

Using the excuse of the limited market, publishers regularly stifle the voices of people of color, stating that their work is just not marketable and therefore, not publishable. According to Saray McCarry, “the industry has already decided [what] is ‘marketable’–heterosexual narratives featuring white characters.”

There is this false concern that if we prioritize diverse works, we compromise quality. So apparently, there is no place for the stories of people of color (as well as LGBT and the differently abled) in the “market.”

By devaluing minority voices, the publishing industry creates a need for minority writers to find different avenues to publish their work, pushing them towards niche publishing houses, that aren’t often esteemed in the industry, or self publishing through spaces such as Amazon. Unfortunately, while this helps get minority work out there, it hinders their chances of breaking into the “mainstream” of the publishing industry.

It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped.

The number one question now is, how do we change this? The answer is two-fold: (1) Editors must seek out minority voices, placing equal value on their works, to that of white male works. Editors must also seek out more diverse employees, actively pursuing minorities to fill open positions. (2) Readers need to read outside of their perspective, learning to value experiences not their own and thereby creating a demand for diverse works.

Arkana’s mission is to seek out marginalized voices, and incorporate diverse works into every issue we produce. So where should our readers start?

Aside from reading each issue and overwhelming submittable with minority voices, my class has come up with a short list of diverse books to introduce you to reading outside of your experience:

  1. Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead. Danez is a black, gay, POZ poet who prefers the pronouns they/them and writes about the experiences of black boys. Danex also writes about their struggle with their sexuality and POZ diagnosis.
  2. Kalia Kao Yang, The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father. Born in a Thai refugee camp in 1980, Kao Kalia Yang and family immigrated to Minnesota when she was six, driven from Laos by America’s Secret War. Her book focuses on her fathers role as a Hmong song poet who is responsible for recounting the history of their people.
  3. Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas, Don’t Come Back (21st Century Essays). An essayist raised (mostly) in Bogota, Colombia, her work focuses on growing up amidst violence and local myths, in an exploration of identity.
  4. Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. An English novelist, he is most famous for this novel about an autistic boy who sets out to solve the murder of his neighbor’s dog.
  5. Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Apocalyptic Swing. An American, lesbian poet who explores the tension between the ideas of the small town, gender, sexuality, violence and the body in her work.
  6. Thomas Page McBee, Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man. The first Transgender man to box in Madison Square Gardens, McBee writes about his experience transitioning and the idea of “manhood” and “violence.”

As for me, I’m still searching for my place to fit.


Melinda is a Baltimore transplant who is currently a graduate student at the University of Central Arkansas, seeking her MFA in Poetry. She has pieces published in Pleiades, The Emerson Review, Red Earth Review, and more. When not writing, Melinda enjoys good coffee, expanding her artistic tastes and late nights with her dog.
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