Why Being a POC Author Sucks Sometimes

By Guest Contributor Ellen Oh, cross-posted from Hello Ello

When I do my diversity presentation for high schools, I open with this chart:

It’s an immediate attention grabber. Why? Because this highlights the gap in diversity of caucasian and POC authors. This is an informal survey taken by author Roxanne Gay that breaks out authors reviewed by the NYT in 2011 by race. Nearly 90% are caucasian. This by no means shows a complete breakdown of publishing. But I would venture to say that a more accurate number of published books might even further compound the gap between caucasian authors and POC authors.

Ms. Gay states in her article that “These days, it is difficult for any writer to get a book published. We’re all clawing. However, if you are a writer of color, not only do you face a steeper climb getting your book published, you face an even more arduous journey if you want that book to receive critical attention. It shouldn’t be this way. Writers deserve that same fighting chance regardless of who they are but here we are, talking about the same old thing—these institutional biases that even by a count of 2011 data, remain deeply ingrained.”

I am a person of color, a minority, and I am a published author. Did it feel like it was harder for me than a caucasian author to get published? I can’t answer that. I have no idea what their path to publication felt like. But I can talk about my own path and the roadblocks that I came across. I can talk about being told over and over again by other writers and publishing professionals that no one would buy a book about ancient Korea. I can talk about having my writing ridiculed by saying it reads like a bad translation of a Chinese book, even though English is my native language, and I’m not Chinese. I have numerous tales of the type of dissuading I endured, but I didn’t give up because I believed that there needed to be more books like mine out there. And I was extremely lucky to get published by a wonderful publisher.

I wrote a children’s book. Historically, children’s books have always been a wonderful place to find multicultural books… at least compared to other areas of publishing. With librarians and teachers looking for diversity, there have been many more multicultural titles in children’s publishing. Although I would not say it is the same for YA. In this aspect, I am speaking most specifically about chapter, picture and middle grade books. Or so I believed. But now I have a new graphic to share in my diversity presentations.

This is a new graphic by Lee & Low books that put an end to my rosy colored view of diversity and publishing in children’s. The percentage of books by and about people of color has hovered around 10% for nearly 20 years. When I first saw this graphic, I was absolutely stunned. I had no idea how little had changed. And when I read the accompanying articlehere, I found myself nodding my head in dismay.

Betsy Bird, School Library Journal blogger at A Fuse #8 said “The public outcry for more multicultural books has so far been more of a public whimper.” And I have to ask, why? Is the problem supply or is the problem demand?”

From the viewpoint of a minority woman, I believe the demand is there. But maybe the default of “white culture” is so ingrained that even minorities don’t know to demand for more. We read what is there. What’s available to us. They say girls read boy books but boys don’t read girl books. Is the parallel POC read white books but whites don’t read POC books? I don’t think so. I think that the truth is, they are not exposed to them.

Publishers seem to believe that multicultural books just don’t sell as well. But do they get the same marketing push as non-POC books? Are all things equal when they are sent out into the world? I would hazard a guess that they are not. Because if you do not believe that multi-cultural books will sell well, then you will not put the marketing money behind them and thereby you create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now I have been lucky, my books have had terrific marketing support from my publisher. So the question then goes to the other side of the coin. Where are the booksellers, the librarians, the teachers on pushing the multicultural books? It’s not just enough to ask publishers to publish the books, there must be help from the other side. There has to be a support system for these books once they are published, to help get them into the children’s hands. And that is not all up to the publisher.

I once asked a YA librarian if she thought there were enough diverse titles and she said that they were there, but you just have to know how to look for them. Isn’t that part of the problem? That they are invisible and no one knows about them? How are they shelved in bookstores and libraries? How easy are they to find? Of the 112 titles chosen by YALSA for the 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults list, less than 10% were by POC authors. The 2013 list is looking like it may fare even worse. So if teen librarians are looking to these lists that are so woefully underrepresented, does this not aggravate the underlying problem?

One thing that really stood out for me is this series of questions by Ms. Bird, “Finally, we need to officially address how we feel about white authors and illustrators writing books about people of other races. Is it never okay? Sometimes okay? Always okay?”

To this – I want to offer up a response from writer Claire Light because I couldn’t say it better:

What I want to add to the debate is a small piece of truth that gets glossed over. In response to the complaint of white writers about writing about people of color: “Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t,” I want to say: Absolutely.

It’s absolutely true. You’re damned either way. Race and racism exist in this society, and if you ignore them, you’re expressing a racial privilege…

If you do do it and get it “wrong”, you’ll get reamed, and rightfully so. It’s presumptuous of you to think that you have the right to represent a culture you don’t belong to if you can’t be bothered to properly examine and accurately portray that culture.

Further, if you do it and get it “right”, or rather, don’t get it wrong, you’ll still get reamed by members of that culture you’ve represented who rightfully resent a white writer’s success representing their culture. After all, every American ethnic minority has its writers: good and bad. The good writers are mostly ignored. Inevitably, some white writer will come along and do a bang-up job portraying that culture and will get–in one book, in one section of a book–more attention than the poc writer got over the course of three or five or ten books.

You’re a white writer trying to do the right thing, but no matter what you do, it’s wrong. And that’s so unfair to you, isn’t it?
Welcome to a tiny taste of what it’s like to be a person of color.

I want to tell you an honest truth people, because of all the racism I have endured in my life (and even seeing the racism my own children have had to face) I cannot help but resent when caucasians write about Asian culture. Yes, I resent them. I absolutely do. Yet, at the same time, I appreciate them for at least trying to do it, when they do it right.

It is a complicated situation. There is no easy answer. We need diversity in literature. We need it desperately. Diversity is not only for the under-represented—the truth is, diversity is important for everyone. All people need to be exposed to other races and other cultures in positive ways. All people need to learn tolerance and acceptance of differences. When we promote only a homogeneous view of society in our literature and our media, and deem books or movies about minorities as unsuccessful, it harms everyone. And so it is important that all authors include diversity in their books.

But there is that part of me that wonders why is it that when I see a list about what Asian fantasy books are out there, the books are predominantly by caucasian authors. Are POC writers not writing them or are they being passed over for books written by non-POC authors instead? And why is it that books by or about POC don’t tend to sell as well as other “mainstream” books. What is the difference? Is it the difference in how they are marketed? Is it their cover art? Where they are placed in the bookstore or library? How they are pushed or not pushed by the booksellers, librarians, and teachers?

The reality is, there are just not a lot of POC authors out there. We are not representing the 37% of our population when we only amount to 10% of publishing. When you look at diversity panels or even the YA tag in racebending.com, the authors tend to be predominantly white because they reflect publishing.

This is why I can’t help but be resentful. I freely admit it. It sucks being a POC author sometimes. You feel invisible. You feel passed over. And true or not, it feels harder for us to get to tell our own stories. And that shouldn’t be the way things are.

I want to see more of me in publishing. I want to see more POC authors overcoming the publishing barrier and writing about their cultures. I want to see diversity panels filled with… diversity! We need to be performing on stage with our counterparts, not just watching in the audience.

We need to represent.

We need to belong.

  • fedupwiththehype

    I’m a published author. I have currently 30 books published all of which are contemporary and historical romance. You think POC in publishing is overlooked in fiction — I can tell you some stories about the segregation of romance for POC. And here’s my issue. I write Interracial Romance. Which is really a dilemma, because traditional press agents and publishers told me White Women don’t want to read of a heroine that doesnt look like them and Black women don’t want to read a heroine with a man outside of their race. So I self-published and recently released a book that sold 5K copies in one month. Now that meay be small numbers to most, but for me it was a huge accomplishment. I refuse to give up, be ignored, or complacent. Yeah it suckx to be a POC author but I know no other way.

  • http://sumayyahsaidso.com/ Sumayyah

    Seeing writers of color published in mainstream places would be a wonderful thing. However, there ARE several, perhaps hundreds, of writers of color that have gone the independent route and desperately need sales. Perhaps we should stop focusing so much on the big publishing houses and pay more attention to the indie presses. As a friend just reminded me, self-publishing IS an option, one that is overlooked quite a bit.

  • KatherineK

    I’d love to see some lists of books by authors of colour. My daughter is five and if she’s anything like me she’ll start hoovering up the books pretty soon. I find what I can but the issue for me is definitely visibility – where/how do I find them? If I look in book shops or libraries I see the usual suspects over and over again and honestly I have limited time to do the detailed research that it turns out is needed to create a more diverse collection. I’ll keep trying.
    I’ve managed to find a couple of lists of childrens books that merit the label of feminist by being told about them. So, can anyone point me to any similar lists for authors of colour?

  • jumpouttheboat

    Thanks for sharing. I so wanted my YA to make a hit I suggested to the publisher to leave my picture off the blurb. Off course I changed my mind, but I still wonder it is would have made a difference in the sales.
    All of my books are universal in storyline and just happen to have characters of color. You would think the world (by now) would know life isn’t written in black and white.

  • http://blog.leeandlow.com/ Hannah

    Here, here, Ellen! I will definitely be pointing people to this post when they ask why the color of an author matters. It’s not that people shouldn’t write cross-culturally, but for authors who do so, it’s important to come to the task with an understanding of the inequalities, privileges, and obstacles that have existed for so long, in publishing and beyond.

    I just want to also point out, for any unpublished authors of color who may be reading, that Lee & Low Books has two annual writing contests specifically for unpublished authors of color:

    -The New Voices Award, for picture book manuscripts: http://www.leeandlow.com/p/new_voices_award.mhtml
    -The New Visions Award, for middle grade/young adult novels (science fiction, fantasy, and mystery): http://www.leeandlow.com/p/new_visions_award.mhtml
    The winners of both contests receive a cash prize and a publication contract with Lee & Low Books.

  • Kai Leakes

    Great post. I am a POC author (Sin Eaters: Devotion Book One by Kai Leakes) and everything you so eloquently shared, I live and breathe. It’s frustrating and I wish it would change for the better. But, as I’ve been told, all I can do is keep writing and maybe my works of fantasy, romance, and future YA stories will reach more readers and be enjoyed. Thank you for this article.

  • Emmeaki

    This is why I just published my own book. Not only am I a black woman, but the main characters in my novel are Asian-American. A double whammy! Screw traditional publishing and do it yourself! POC should not have to wait around to get permission to be an author. Create your own publishing company!

    All Fall Down
    http://www.amazon.com/All-Fall-Down-Melissa-Aki/dp/0615516092/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

  • Cranium Rinse

    As a Reader Of Color, I find the lack of diversity frustrating too. I’m a SciFi fan and that genre is as multi-cultural as a sheet of plain white paper. I got so sick of reading about white heroes saving the white kingdom from white villains with a white army. But finding Authors Of Color hasn’t been easy either. They are out there, but even critically acclaimed authors like Octavia Butler are pretty much unknown to modern scifi readers. And, forget going to a bookstore! The Barnes and noble shoves all the Black authors under African American fiction, regardless of the actual genre. And the local black owned bookstore, doesn’t have any scifi authors at all!

    I’ve found myself asking, what am I willing to give up? My favorite genre or representation? How do i, as a black reader, deal with the fact that my favorite genre (and, honestly, most of my favorite series) consistently create worlds where people who look like me simply don’t exist? Not that we’re evil or stereotypes, but that we’re not even there.

    Sorry for the thread jack, but you hit a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while. I can attest, the demand for Authors Of Color is there. But for whatever reason, there seems to be some sort of disconnect or obstacle preventing the books from getting from the writers to the readers.

    Clearly, I don’t have any answers, but damn it’s frustrating.