After this week’s Booker prize longlist was announced, the Times asked “Where are the new male hotshot novelists?” I was expecting to see the article discussing the brilliant fiction by men, in particular men of colour, being written at the moment, but they were only mentioned in passing. It seemed the hotshot British male novelists the Times was looking for were really British, male and white.
It’s exhausting that one of the reasons offered for the dearth of these voices is the industry’s efforts to “introduce more racial diversity to their lists”, posing diversity and inclusion once again as pitting people against each other. Ask any Black or Brown writer if they’re the reason white men are being shut out of the books world and they’ll probably shout, because the alternative is crying. In 2016, only one debut novel from a Black British male author was published in the UK. As the Black Writers’ Guild says, despite efforts across the industry, change isn’t happening fast enough.
The thing that bothered me the most was that the Times didn’t speak to a single British male writer of colour, even though authors such as Ashley Hickson-Lovence, Abir Mukherjee, Courttia Newland, Guy Gunaratne, Paul Mendez and Okechukwu Nzelu are writing amazing fiction. So I approached them to ask why, in the conversation about British male novelists, our voices are so often ignored.
There is, of course, a dearth of Black male novelists, and the reasons are manifold. Generally speaking, as Black men living in the west, our predicted grades are marked down, we are disproportionately stopped and searched, we are unfairly punished, overlooked for jobs and overtired from knocking down the walls whiteness puts up. Writing a novel takes years of hard work, often with little encouragement, usually while maintaining full-time employment. One of the reasons it took me so long to write mine is that there were so few Black male (and queer Black male) names on my shelves to give me confidence and permission. My secondary-level English literature curriculum was centred entirely around canonical, dead white men, and I wonder what might have been different for me had I been introduced to James Baldwin and Caryl Phillips – let alone Toni Morrison and Buchi Emecheta – at that age.
A negative review of Rainbow Milk asserted that a “wokeish rant” about white supremacy does not “belong within the hallowed pages of a novel”, the inference being that my frames of reference are foreign to literature. Black male anger and sexuality (and longing and tenderness) are not immediately welcome in hygienically white, middle-class surroundings. I once attended a 10-week creative nonfiction course, and wrote something that neither rhymed nor was intended as poetry, which, upon invitation, I read out loud. The teacher, an older white man with Oxbridge on his CV, responded: “Have you considered rap?” I don’t blame him. The publishing industry can make a lone, ambitious young Black writer – trying to convince sceptical gatekeepers of his potential – feel unbearably othered.
Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez is published by Dialogue Books
Without the already precise contortion it would take for me to present as a man, as British, or even as a novelist along these lines, I know that reading and writing within such reductive binaries only serve to subject mine and others’ work to the same dominant (also dulling, also peer-performative) gaze. I’m not interested in it. Perhaps conversations such as these can only move forward when we confront present myths as what they are: simple myths. Perhaps we should rather work through this current destabilised climate to imagine what it means to move beyond them.
Personally, I seek to evade these labels entirely and write from a position of dissent and as (hopefully) part of cacophony. As a member of any artistic community proper – in Britain and beyond – this is what I hope to encourage, listen and watch for among fellow writers and artists. As theorist Jack Halberstam suggests: listening to cacophony and noise tells us that there is a wild beyond the structure we inhabit and that inhabit us. So, I’m with Jack in search of the wild. And the likes of Fred Moten and others who insist on imagining (really, creating anything) from a position of the ungovernable, to write instead from a place of private freedom and collective study.
In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne is published by Tinder Press
I tend to think of certain literary articles as junk food, things I should stay away from in order to remain healthy. Keeping my mental constitution fit and well has grown vital, as I habitually look elsewhere for stimulation. Prizes and other accolades tend not to matter. It’s a path I walk solo, an urge of my own.
Lately, I’ve found inspiration in the works of Paul Mendez and Michael Donker. Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me is a towering achievement, strengthened rather than lessened by the fact I know and have worked with him. I’m amazed at his literary mind and raw emotion. As a male writer in search of inspiration, I always learn much from women. Nikita Lalwani’s You People is exquisite, Irenosen Okojie always sparkles, and the writing of Yvonne Battle-Felton and Luan Goldie consistently has me in awe. Alex Wheatle forges onward, blazing a trail. Further afield, Robert Jones Jr’s forthcoming debut The Prophets is magisterial and will change lives. Percival Everett’s I am Not Sidney Poitier is a masterclass in every possible way, while Josephine Woodson’s Red at the Bone glistens with sheer beauty.
It’s a bumper year for writers of colour, so let’s remind ourselves of that. The novel and the male author will survive as long as we keep on the page.
A River Called Time by Courttia Newland will be published by Canongate in January 2021
Of course, in a perfect world, all of publishing would be more open-minded and inclusive, but I would say its current model holds back progress on this, too much of the time. However, if there must be trends, then I personally don’t feel aggrieved that women are in the spotlight, now, although I want the umbrella of “women” to be as inclusive as possible.
Of all the labels that might apply to me (“Black writer”, “African writer”, “queer writer”, “northern writer”) the one I’m least invested in is “male writer”. I identify as male, but the connotations of that label aren’t entirely positive, because of who critics sometimes seem to associate with that. Yes, it tends to mean being white, middle-aged, Oxbridge-educated (if British) and middle-class, which are narrow enough parameters by themselves while not being inherently good. But it goes beyond that: the idea of a hotshot male novelist (and the names commonly listed under that heading) seems to suggest a very specific kind of novelist, someone who is just disruptive enough, while being close enough to the establishment to make readers and editors feel safe. Is that the future? Was it ever, really? How many “great male novelists” are black and queer? Perhaps, then, the ancestry of “great male novelists” is not my own; perhaps mine is elsewhere.
The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu is published by Dialogue Books
As I see it, publishing seems to be a white woman’s world. From agent to publicist to publisher, you would be hard pushed to find many male figures of colour in positions of power within the publishing industry. Why is this? It could stem from the problematic notion that Black boys and Black men don’t read. In my experience as a secondary school English teacher of five years, this generalisation simply isn’t true. Undoubtedly, I sometimes had to work harder to sell a canonised “classic” to a student, but to tarnish every young Black boy with the same brush is debilitating and unhelpful. If current grime and drill music is anything to go by, many Black boys can be witty wordsmiths with an evident craft to playfully manipulate the English language musically. Is there a dearth of British male novelists? My answer would be no, there are just not enough talented writers given the same platform as their white counterparts.
The 392 by Ashley Hickson-Lovence is published by Own It!
You might argue that this is an issue with what is classed as literary fiction, but then I’d say you have a problem with how you’re defining fiction. There are great male novelists writing cutting-edge crime fiction, exploring social and personal issues, while also telling great stories. Too many people in this country have been conditioned to see literature as an almost exclusively white endeavour. Look at any list of best books published in any newspaper and you’ll find those lists to be almost exclusively white. Invest in more writers! Publish more of their work and back the books you publish with real marketing spend. Help to grow the market by making the wider readership aware that there is a diversity of talent out there.
Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee is published by Vintage
The fee for this article has been donated to fund a place on a Guardian Masterclass for an unpublished writer of colour.