As publishing becomes more varied and diverse, challenges remain for writers of colour
By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Pioneering Jamaican-Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson looks at how far we’ve come, finding allies and empowering yourself to tell your stories
Writers of colour in traditionally underrepresented publishing categories like science fiction, horror and fantasy – which can be loosely tucked under the umbrella term of speculative fiction – have gained a greater profile in the last few years, with creators such as N. K. Jemisin and Cherie Dimaline achieving both accolades and commercial success. Yet publishing remains an uneven landscape.
Nalo Hopkinson, a professor at the UBC School of Creative Writing and an award-winning science fiction author, understands this paradox.
Now based in Vancouver, Hopkinson grew up in the Caribbean and eventually moved to Toronto. Her father was a high school English teacher and her mother a library clerk. They fostered in Hopkinson a love of literature, including speculative fiction. In the 1990s, when she bumped into the work of African American author Samuel R. Delany, she began to think about science fiction differently and noticed a lack of Black voices.
“I started looking around and the field was very white. At that point, when I started collecting the work of Black writers of speculative fiction, all I could fill was one shelf,” she says. “I remember an anthology that I found about Africa and not a single contributor was African. It’s very different now.”
Connecting writers online
Hopkinson believes the Internet was one of the forces that caused a seismic change in speculative fiction. In the 1990s, when Hopkinson’s first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, was released, authors seeking publication sent self-addressed stamped envelopes to magazines and waited months for replies. As publications began to migrate from print to online spaces, submitting became easier, especially for authors outside the United States. New print-on-demand technology and e-books allowed small publishers to produce their own anthologies on a reduced budget. Social media and forums facilitated networking across continents.
As a result, more and more writers of colour began to pop up and interact online, critiquing works, sharing knowledge and drawing attention to themselves. Eventually, traditional publishers took notice. “The mainstream is always very tentative, but now they are becoming more interested in other kinds of narratives. They don’t want to miss out on them,” says Hopkinson.
Despite gains, barriers remain
Gone are the days when Black characters would be painted white for book covers, as happened with Octavia Butler’s novels in the 1980s. Even 15 years ago, Nnedi Okorafor had to pressure a designer to include a Black woman on the cover of her novel The Shadow Speaker. Yet publishing is still laden with invisible barriers.
In 2018, there were more children’s books featuring animals and other non-human characters (27 per cent) than all types of visible minorities combined (23 per cent).
Penguin Random House conducted a study showing white contributors accounted for 76 per cent of their books released in the 2019-2021 period. Hispanic authors, who represent 18.5 percent of the population of the United States, accounted for 5.1 per cent of all contributors.
The imbalance extends to bestsellers, where authors of colour still represent a fraction of all books sold.
Translations can be an important source of income, but writers of colour have traditionally been deemed less marketable in many countries. The translation process itself may create unique challenges. “In France, for instance, you write something that has any creole or any vernacular in it, they’re going to translate it into standard French, which means all the nuances of culture, class, even race are lost,” says Hopkinson.
Empowering diverse voices
Hopkinson believes universities can help enrich the literary landscape by embracing genre fiction, looking at alternatives that deviate from traditional forms of learning and helping students develop a sense of belonging. For example, the traditional workshop model, where students sit around a circle discussing their stories, may be of little value to a student if they are the only writer of colour in a class.
“I encounter a lot of emerging writers who come from a marginalized community who feel that they won’t be welcomed,” she explains.
Hopkinson believes something that helped her become a writer was “middle class entitlement.” She grew up in a place where Black people were in the majority, where her father was a teacher and her mother a librarian and literature seemed an obtainable pursuit.
“There’s a certain type of entitlement because of that. Not wealth, but entitlement,” she says. “That sense of I have a right to be here.”
The hardest lesson for Hopkinson to teach is this self-empowerment.
Look for the helpers
It’s easy to become discouraged, but there are often allies in unexpected places. Early on in her career, Hopkinson was surprised to see there were several Black women in her publisher’s marketing department. She was not alone. And the industry, though seemingly inflexible, does experience change.
Recently, while working on The Sandman Universe: House of Whispers comic book, she was happy to see an editor who had little experience with Black characters was able to quickly grasp the kind of artwork the project required.
“Within a couple of weeks, she was telling me ‘I don’t think they got the hair right, it looks too straight.’ Once I identified it as an issue and described it to her, she started learning.”
In the end, Hopkinson’s advice for writers of colour is to march forth boldly.
“Too often we reject ourselves before the industry has a chance to do it for us,” she says. “This means you don’t get a chance to find out where the allies are, because they’re there. So, occasionally, go somewhere where you don’t think you’ll be accepted and see what happens. You might be surprised.”
Learn more about why Black storytelling matters
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a bestselling author and a freelance writer. This article was published on April 1, 2022. Feel free to republish the text of this article, but please follow our guidelines for attribution and seek any necessary permissions before doing so. Please note that images are not included in this blanket licence.