Asian Representation in Publishing

It’s important when we’re diversifying our bookshelves and expanding our reading that we include Asian authors. I’ve noted, many times, that when we think of ‘Asian authors’ we often think of East Asia – China or Japan, for example. There are broad categorisations and generalisations, and I’m often left thinking: where is the diversity?

Publishers say they value diversity, that they wish to seek out and champion under-represented voices. And in many cases, I see that happening. I’ve seen a really fantastic focus on black authors and experiences, and whilst there is still a long way to go it gives me a sense of hope. But I am so ready to see this for Asian authors from countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia or Myanmar (I want South East Asian representation. PLEASE). I feel like there’s a similar thing for South Asia, where India seems to be presented as representative of the entire region.

When I see lists of ‘must read books by Asian authors,’ the vast majority of the recommendations will be Indian, Chinese or Japanese. I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing – it’s positive that there’s an interest in Asian writers – but it does worry me that in many instances the experiences of Asia are predominantly represented by specific nations, as if these countries represent the entirety of Asia – as if ‘Asian’ is just one monolithic culture. Or that these distinct cultures are interchangeable.

As a starting point, diversity needs to be stopped being seen as an additional extra. If publishers are serious about diversity, they need to invest more resources in reaching new audiences.

“Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing”

I know that increased visibility doesn’t necessarily mean positive representation. Throughout history the West has demonised Asian populations  and there are a lot of racist stereotypes in Western society surrounding these more visible cultures. There’s also the issue of colourism and classism within Asia, and the more positive Western perceptions of wealthier (and whiter) Asian cultures. For example, whilst India is well represented, many of the stories fixate on North Indian, often Hindu, communities and avoids much needed conversation about castes and colourism. It’s also important to note that in our conversations about diversity, we need to consider accessibility to a global market (after all, books aren’t just made for Western audiences). For example, when I lived in Malaysia, a new book would cost you upwards of about RM35 (and I can only imagine that’s increased) which is an awful lot to be spending and definitely restricts accessibility.

The success of Asian authors is to be praised, but we can celebrate their success whilst still recognising we have further to go.

Asia is made up of a rich combination of cultures, each distinct and important, and seeing them celebrated means so much. There are so many ethnicities, religions, languages. So many different myths and legends. There is so much potential. Asian communities are hungry for representation and recognition in mainstream, popular media. Just look at how moved the South East Asian community was when Disney announced ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ or the joy at seeing Asian actors playing lead roles in ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ or the success of ‘Minari,’ which was nominated for six Oscars.

There is a desire for representation, and publishers need to catch up, not only in author representation, but in the industry as a whole. The 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey outlined in the US 76% publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents identify as White. In the UK, where I am based, BAME representation within the workforce has remained at about 13% since 2017. I’ve been really heartened by the number of initiatives amongst UK based publishers to increase BAME representation and foster an inclusive environment, but I also hope that the industry will continue to be proactive and push for accelerated change.

There is no discernible change to any of the racial categories [within the publishing workforce]. In other words, the field is just as White today as it was [in 2015].

The Diversity Baseline Survey, by Lee & Low Books

It’s a terrible thing when you realise that you’ve reached the point where you don’t expect to see yourself represented in novels, where the best you can hope for is a non-white, racially ambiguous character. When you come across a character that somewhat looks like you, or is ‘close enough’ culturally that you just accepted it or even celebrate it, and don’t expect more.

Asian representation is so, so important and it’s hard to deny that there is an imbalance, especially in terms of the authors being published.

I don’t want to end on such a depressing note, so I’ll definitely be posting a list of recommended books by Asian authors! Watch this space!

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