I am delighted to post this blog by Leila Rasheed looking at the journey of Megaphone so far as well as making a call for action in the future. Leila believes that children’s literature is not the niche interest it’s often assumed to be but rather it is a foundation of society. Her work on Megaphone goes someway to ensuring that all children, and writers, get to benefit from the power that literature holds.
In late 2015 Megaphone (www.megaphonewrite.com) , a writer development programme aimed at BAME writers of children’s fiction, opened to applications for the first time. I’m delighted to say that our five participants – Danielle Jawando, Tina Freeth, Joyce Efia Harmer, Nafisa Muhtadi and Avantika Taneja – have just been selected from more than sixty excellent applications. A panel of editors and publishers helped make the final choice from a shortlist of ten. I’m truly excited to begin working with these talented writers, who are writing on a wide range of subjects and in a range of styles and voices, and I feel this is a good time to take stock and look forward.
So what have I learned so far?
The applications came from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, broadly in line with national demographics, and overwhelmingly from women. The decisions were made on the basis of anonymous writing samples – we asked for letters of application also, but these were just to ascertain the writers understood the commitment that would be necessary for a year-long course. The successful participants had all taken creative writing courses or written in other modes previously (though as stated above we did not make the selection on this basis). All applicants had made big sacrifices for their writing – investing money and time, taking sabbaticals from work and so forth. Several were writing in the face of substantially difficult circumstances.
This illustrates that it takes a lot of investment in one’s writing to reach even the stage of being selected for a writer development programme such as Megaphone. Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to invest in their writing – not everyone can afford it, or easily access opportunities. I believe we ought to develop more targeted opportunities to create a ladder of development for children’s writers. This is the only way we will get a range of voices in children’s literature that represents the whole spectrum of British life – and we need such a range, because I feel strongly that children’s literature is not the niche interest it’s often assumed to be; it is a foundation of society, the art which has the most impact. It is where the next generation learns not only its values but also its understanding of what a story is and how meaning is made – the very structure of thought. I also believe that everyone should have the opportunity to connect with the next generation. This needn’t always mean writing for mainstream publication; it could (for example) mean creating projects where older people can write stories from their life in a way that will engage and entertain their grand-children. Megaphone has a very specific aim, which means that it has to work on the principle of selection, but there is room for many other schemes to develop. I would love to see more of these ‘rungs’ created – and see them made available across the UK.
I was struck by how many people in their letters of application expressed a feeling that Megaphone was not merely opportune, but really needed. Many felt excluded from mainstream publishing and were delighted to find a project that specifically targeted and welcomed them. We know from the Writing The Future report (https://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/resources/view/writing-the-future) and from the recent, excellent Bare Lit festival (http://barelitfestival.com/ ), that BAME writers are often bypassing mainstream publishing altogether because they do not see themselves supported and valued there – and that is no different in children’s literature. Nosy Crow’s call for BAME writers (http://nosycrow.com/blog/an-update-on-our-open-call-for-childrens-fiction-submissions-from-debut-bame-writers/ )is great news and has already drawn many submissions, but I wonder how many more writers have not even heard it because they’ve already decided that mainstream publishing wasn’t open to them and are not tuned to those channels.
I know from the amount of support I’ve been generously offered with Megaphone that mainstream children’s publishers really do want to publish a more diverse group of people. My experience so far leads me to believe that they should begin by asking themselves: how does my organisation, how does my website, how does my list look to non-white people? Does my publishing company look welcoming to them? Or does it look like somewhere they will always be the odd one out, asked embarrassing questions, be expected to change the most important things about themselves and their writing? Does it look like somewhere they’ll find themselves fighting a cover whitewash? Does it look like somewhere that expects BAME readers to buy their books, or somewhere that would be surprised to hear that non-white people read? To attract BAME writers, I believe mainstream publishers need to think about BAME readers – they are the same people after all.
It is a struggle for any writer to find their voice and the confidence to use it, but especially so when the contents of the library and the bookshop provide so little evidence that the world wants to hear what someone like you has to say. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote, describing the hostility that faced female writers as opposed to the indifference that faced male ones:
“The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?”
Too often, the world’s message to British BAME people is simply, ‘You don’t write’. I hope that Megaphone can contribute to changing that message.
One thing I learned when I studied children’s literature at Roehampton is that children’s literature has always been radical and engaged with society; from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies to Jan Needle’s Wild Wood. This is a history we can celebrate and build on. All of us who are involved in children’s literature need to be more willing to identify and critique the effect that growing up with literature that has until recently either excluded non-white people or presented them only as stereotypes has had on us. Just as I internalised the idea that I couldn’t write about myself, it has had an effect on our assumptions, on our cultural values, on what we include and exclude, on what presences we have come to expect and what absences we have learned to tolerate. So these are some things that I personally would like to see in the future:
Sound research into how BAME people engage with children’s fiction. This will be the bedrock for targeted and effective action. I want to know exactly how many picture books with Black or Asian or other minority ethnic main characters are published per year in Britain. I want to know how BAME parents feel about buying books for their child, and where they buy books and why, and what change if any they would like to see. I would like to know how many books by BAME authors are shortlisted for major children’s literature prizes. I want to know what the gaps and absences we’ve not thought to question yet are.
We need BAME writers and publishers to keep on writing and talking about their experiences and sharing them. We need to define the problem before we can fix it. We need white writers to keep being conscious and positive about equality, to counterbalance those who are not.
We need projects that work for everyone. I do think that Megaphone legitimately offers publishers something of real value: they would love to cast their net for writers wider, but they aren’t a school for writers and they quite reasonably want to publish books they can sell. Megaphone creates a conduit from writer to publisher. Editors need a close-to-perfect manuscript, but a writer development programme can work with what comes before that – and potentially can keep people writing and submitting rather than giving up.
I’d love to see the history of non-white publishing and writing for children and teenagers collected and recorded so we can see how much has been achieved by people like Verna Wilkins (http://www.tamarindbooks.co.uk/downloads/tamarind_righttobeseen.pdf ). I don’t think we celebrate this enough. A book, a website? A Heritage Lottery Fund project?
I’d like to see BAME readers, parents, book buyers, to make themselves even more visible as a consumer force. I would like to see people getting vocal about this. I’d like to see active questioning: why isn’t my child anywhere in your bookshop? And why should I spend money in a place that excludes my child?
I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks. What should we be doing next?
follow Leila on twitter @LeilaR