Digital Culture

Whose Responsibility is Representation?

By Leah Golder

Following a recent article published by The Guardian, detailing Monica Ali’s depression caused by the reaction to her novel Untold Story, the conversation surrounding who is responsible for representation in literature resurfaced. Should the role fall solely on the same people who are under-represented? Or should society, as a whole, strive for equal representation for all writers and experiences?

The article on Ali claims people were ‘baffled’ that she dared to write about Princess Diana rather than ‘brown people’, people like her. Ali continued to be referenced as the ‘Brick Lane author’ throughout her novel that depicts the life of people from Bangladesh, an experience of ‘brown people’. Being of Bangladeshi heritage, readers and critics have forced Ali into a box where she can, and should, only write on the experience of ethnic minorities. She should do this so that people like her feel represented. Monica Ali has become responsible for the representation of ‘brown people’ and Bangladeshi people, whether she likes it or not.

This responsibility has fallen onto a lot of writers of colour. They are expected to write from their own experiences of racism and inequality, and nothing else. However, when in 2018 only 11% of books published were written by people of colour, writers of colour are finding publishing deals virtually impossible to obtain. If you want to be published, it helps to be white.  And if you are a person of colour, you need to write something ground-breaking to get a look at a publishing deal.

In 2020, a hashtag dominated twitter, #publishingpaidme, which exposes the inequality and pay gap between white writers and writers of colour. Mandy Len Catron tweeted how she got an advance of $400,000 after one of her articles went viral. In her tweet, she explained how this was more than double the highest advance that Roxane Gay was ever offered for her writing. Jasmyn Ward also tweeted about the unfair pay she received. Even after her novel Salvage the Bones won a National Book Award, Ward and her agent ‘fought and fought’ for a $100,000 advance. An advance that a white writer would get as a minimum, without even having to think about negotiating. How can we restrict the topics that writers of colour can write on, and then restrict their ability to share this work and the pay they receive?

The responsibility of representation should be a shared one. In writing, people should have the freedom to write on whatever topic they want. As long as it isn’t offensive or harmful towards anyone, of course. A ‘sensitivity’ Reader will be essential for any white writer writing about a black or ethnic minority experience, to avoid any sense of misrepresentation, but that doesn’t eradicate our sense of responsibility. White writers are the ones getting published and dominating the literary world, and as long as this remains true, we have a shared responsibility to level the field of representation for everyone.

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