Freedom to Be Heard

by    /  April 4, 2019  / Comments Off on Freedom to Be Heard

By Jared Murphy and COA


One evening this past February, five female authors of color — Naima Coster, Cristina García, Crystal Hana Kim, Wayétu Moore, and Shobha Rao — gathered on the Alphabet City stage for an event titled “Beyond Borders: An Evening of Immigrant Fiction.” Despite unseasonably cold temperatures, nearly every seat was filled. Murmurs of anticipation bubbled throughout the room. This event was a live manifestation of an exciting trend I’d begun to witness online — the rise of writers of color.

Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied Sing. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. These are just a few examples of new releases that have lit up “Best Of” lists and Twitter timelines throughout 2018, as a torrent of new protagonists and authors proudly represented cultures, faces, and stories that had long gone unseen in mainstream publishing.

Or so it felt to me.

In their Q&A session at Alphabet City, the five women on stage reminded me that while the publishing industry has come a long way, there is still much work to be done. In my own echo chamber of fellow young readers, writers, and editors, it was easy to forget that most of the industry has yet to catch on. Straight, white writers still dominate sales and bookstore displays. In the week following this event, I saw only one writer of color — Tayari Jones — in the top 15 of the New York Times Bestseller list.

As the past few years have shown, the problem isn’t finding talented or even “marketable” writers of color. Rather, it’s giving them the platform to share their work with a wider audience. For this to happen, change must come from both inside and outside the publishing industry.

The publishing industry needs to not only publish more writers of color, but to hire more staff members of color. In 2015, Lee & Low Books’ Diversity Baseline Survey found that, in eight review journals and 34 publishers, 86 percent of executives and 79 percent of overall staff were white. (By all accounts, these numbers haven’t budged.) Readers must challenge the publishing industry to diversify their hiring pool — which, as Kim explained, is a challenge intertwined with class. Since non-executive editorial positions are often underpaid, class privilege is often required to afford the financial sacrifice of breaking into the publishing industry.  

At the same time, the authors at Beyond Borders pointed out how new “centers of power” have emerged to champion writers from marginalized communities outside the industry. Kim described the power of social media and the supportive “bookstagram” community; Coster discussed grassroots movements like the Well-Read Black Girl Book Club; and García mentioned workshops and conferences, like Voices of Our Nations (VONA), that support emerging writers of color. By supporting these new centers of power — donating, volunteering, promoting — readers can help authors magnify underrepresented voices beyond the limits of the mainstream publishing industry.  

America promises theoretical freedom of speech — the freedom to write what we’d like without fearing for our safety or recriminations from the law. But many writers of color struggle not only with speaking without fear, but with making their voices heard.

In a national conversation dominated by the same voices and the same stories, we must help raise up new voices. We must advocate for not only true freedom of speech, but also for freedom to be heard.

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