Liz Thomas, Yahoo! News, March 7, 2016
As the film and music industries grapple with the fallout from the race rows that dogged the Oscars and the Brit Awards, English author Bali Rai warns publishing too has a serious diversity issue.
The award-winning writer, who has Indian heritage but was born and grew up in Leicester, echoes critics of Hollywood and the Academy Awards when he suggests gatekeepers are only recognising a narrow band of talent and ideas, which does not properly reflect society.
He explains: “Publishing in the UK is a white, middle and upper class monolith. Britain is 14 percent non-white, yet how many authors reflect that? If it’s more than 0.5 percent, I’d be shocked,” Rai tells AFP, in an interview ahead of his appearance at the Hong Kong Young Readers Festival.
“It is a sad fact that non-white people, the LGBT community and many more do not see themselves in UK fiction from childhood. So many–including me to begin with–grow up thinking that books are about middle and upper class white people,” he adds.
The 44-year-old, who specialises in teen fiction, describes his background as “multi-cultural, working class” adding that traditionally, “people like me don’t become authors”.
He says: “It’s about more than racism in society–although that exists–it’s about publishers being unwilling to think outside of their narrow ivory-tower worlds and break with tradition.
“Imagine if Harry Potter had been called Harish Patel or Hamza Pathan, for example? Would those books have been published, never mind become the mega-successes that they became? Right now, in the UK, the answer is no.”
He warns this reluctance to take risks, challenge orthodoxy, and seek out unheard voices in society is not only failing aspiring writers, but readers as well.
“If I were dictator for a day, and could change publishing . . . I would give my entire advertising budget to the rebels and the risk-takers, and the least represented,” he says, adding: “It might not make as much profit possibly, but it would add much more to literature.
His own novels, which are informed in part by his own work and life experiences, tackle issues such as suicide, honour killings, drug abuse, and racism, and are hugely popular with young adults, though the subject matter is known to make some parents nervous.
Rai is unapologetic: “Teenagers, in my experience, are their own best censors, anyway. They simply put down books that they don’t like or can’t deal with.”