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We are Spartacus: the publishing industry and race

As one of only a handful of non-white authors on the British crime fiction map, I thought it might be worthwhile spending a moment reflecting on the worldwide rebalancing touched off by the George Floyd killing in America. Fear not. There’s no need to put on your tin hats and dive for the trenches. My purpose isn’t to haul anyone over the coals. But there’s little doubt that some of what I say might make for uncomfortable reading. More importantly, I will ask you to reflect, at a personal level, on what we mean by systemic inequality, particularly as it applies to the publishing industry.

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First, some background. My parents are from the subcontinent. They came to the UK in the early seventies, lured by the immigrant dream. The streets of London may not have been paved with gold, but they were paved with opportunity. My father, who was not literate, spent his life in honest labour, in an industrial bakery, while my mother raised children, demonstrating the much-lauded immigrant work ethic by slaving away at her sewing machine every hour she wasn’t feeding us or stopping us from poking each other’s eyes out with eraser-tipped pencils. She instilled in us the need, above all else, to study, to educate ourselves, to progress.

So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that my parents were, in a broad sense, xenophobes, too? Not overtly. They didn’t oppress anyone; or traffic slaves across the oceans; or pillage defenceless communities for profit. But their attitude towards black people – cultivated by the insular world they had grown up in – was, at best, indifferent, or, at worst, mistrustful.

Here’s a simple, unpalatable truth. Racism, in its most basic form, is a feature of most societies. It shouldn’t be. But it is. A simple example illustrates my point.

The outpouring of angst and handwringing currently gripping the world has seen celebrities across the globe express their views on racism (rightly so), only for some to discover that a seat on this particular bandwagon can be an uncomfortable one. In India, numerous Bollywood stars were called out for the disparity between their #blacklivesmatter tweets and the fact that they had fronted campaigns for skin-lightening creams. Across the subcontinent, lighter skin has traditionally been valued (usually alluded to in matrimonial ads by the rainbow-bending adjective “wheatish”), so much so that white foreigners, especially Brits, are treated with overt deference, while black people are routinely afforded a lesser welcome. An odd perversity, given that it was the whites that pillaged the subcontinent for three centuries while, with those of Afro-Caribbean descent, one might assume Indians would evince a colonial-era solidarity.

Let me be clear: this idea of a sort of universal xenophobic instinct does not in any way excuse or mitigate the horrors of the slave trade, or the enormous, long-term damage done to black people because of that terrible practice. Nor does it justify the entrenched, systemic prejudice that continues to colour western societies, prejudice that culminates in overt racism of the kind that permits white American policemen to routinely kill black men with little fear of reprisal, and prejudice of the less obvious kind that serves to keep black people ‘in their place’. My point was merely to demonstrate that, in the wider, global race equality agenda now under discussion, we all have a part to play.

Part of the issue is that many well-meaning efforts to redress the balance are hampered by a profound lack of insight into how unconscious bias can affect the lives of people of colour, in a million different, small, but, ultimately, debilitating ways. The problem is further hampered by an education system that often fails to properly tackle the ‘race issue’.

Yet, the problem must be addressed. Because the world has become a smaller place. The goldfish bowl has shrunk and we are now all swimming in the same seas. It behoves us to make the effort, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also the most effective means of progressing humanity towards a more equitable, more meritocratic, global society. If the Covid-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is how interdependent we are.

Coming, now, to the publishing industry. Cards on the table. Since my first book was published six years ago, I have received tremendous support from my agent, publisher, critics, bloggers, readers, event organisers, and crime writers. My experience is not typical. A simple look at the statistics tells us what we already know. Any way you slice it and dice it – diversity of publishing staff, published writers of colour, books featuring characters of colour – the industry is dominated by white thought and enterprise. Some of this can be ascribed to the fact that, in terms of population, BAME communities, by definition, are a minority. You wouldn’t expect there to be a 50:50 split along these dimensions. That isn’t the issue. The problem is the entrenched attitudes that make it so damned difficult for writers of colour to break into the industry and then to enjoy the same rewards and freedom of expression that is accorded to their white counterparts.

The world’s most successful crime writer, James Patterson, became famous with a series about a streetwise black detective, Alex Cross. James Patterson is not black. Nothing wrong with that scenario, in my opinion. Authors should not be constrained by artificial constructions of propriety. But, if the industry is being honest with itself, it will acknowledge that a writer of colour attempting to do something similar – trying, as it were, to write outside of their cultural straightjacket – is rarely accorded the same privilege. Questions of ‘authenticity’, ‘voice’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ suddenly come racing to the fore, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters questioning our right to go to the ball. Asian writers, for instance, are often expected to pen literary tomes about colonialism or exposes of the immigrant experience. Again, nothing wrong with that, and, indeed, brilliant writing is regularly published exploring those themes. But there are so many other stories that we would like to tell. White writers can be published writing about matters far outside their experience – wizards, serial killers, aliens. But for non-white writers, the same consideration is much harder to find. A lot of this is not the result of overt racism, but rather the mindset that accepts as perceived wisdom the idea that profitability comes almost entirely from white authors writing white stories, or writers of colour writing stories suited to their ethnic background. This thought is so prevalent in the industry that it may as well be an eleventh commandment.

A terrific article by Laura B. McGrath, associate director of the Stanford University Literary Lab, in a Jan 2019 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, entitled “Comping White” identifies the true nature of the problem. Paraphrasing her research, it goes like this: publishers buy new books by comparing them to books that have been successful. Is this the new Harry Potter? Is this the next Gone Girl? Given that the majority of books are white, the process becomes a closed loop, a vicious cycle. The industry buys and promotes white books because they sell. White books sell because they’re the only books the industry buys and promotes. Do you see the problem?

Making the gatekeepers more diverse, McGrath argues, will have only a marginal impact. It’s the system that’s at fault. The same applies to practically any walk of life that you might care to name – hence the reason so few people of colour in boardrooms, or lecturing at top universities, or opening Michelin-starred restaurants. White people have done all those things successfully before, so why take a chance on the unproven?

Until we change this structural, often unconscious, bias, all the current furore around race will do little to improve the prospects of the average BAME person.

Can readers help? Of course! By voting with their feet. By buying books written by authors of colour, readers signal to publishers that they won’t be put off by a ‘funny-sounding’ name on the cover, or a protagonist who doesn’t share their own cultural background. The only bar should be quality.

In an ideal world, a good story, well told, should stand on its own merits.

What else can we do? In my opinion, people shape people. If we want better, more thoughtful attitudes in the industry, we must all stand up and be counted. Solidarity is the name of the game. A solidarity of thought that acknowledges that a genuine change of perspective is needed. From agent to reader, all along the chain. What we need, in other words, is for all of us to stand up and say: ‘We are Spartacus.’

Vaseem Khan, author, Midnight at Malabar House and Baby Ganesh series

London, June 2020

#CriminologyBookClub: The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown

As you know from our last #CriminologyBookClub entry a small group of us decided the best way to thrive in lockdown was to seek solace in reading and talking about books. Building on on what has quickly become standard practice, we’ve decided to continue with all seven bloggers contributing! Our fourth book was chosen by all of us (unanimously)  after we fell in love with the first instalment. Without more ado, let’s see why we all adore Inspector Chopra (retired) et al.:

Another great edition to the Baby Ganesh agency series. After thoroughly enjoying the first book, I was slightly sceptical that book 2 would bring me the same level of excitement as the former. I was pleasantly surprised! The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown, will take you on a picturesque journey across Mumbai. The story definitely pumps up the pace giving the reader more mystery and excitement. We now get more of an insight into characters such as inspector Chopra (retired) and his devoted wife Poppy. We also get to meet some new characters such as the loveable young boy Irfan, and of course the star of the show Ganesh, Chopra’s mysterious elephant. This novel has mystery within mystery, humour, suspense and some history, which is a great combination for anyone who wants to have an enjoyable read.

@svr2727

In the second instalment of detective Chopra’s detective (retired) adventures he is investigating the disappearance of the infamous Koh-i-noor diamond.  The mythical gem disappears from a well-guarded place putting a strain on Anglo-Indian relations.  In the midst of an international incident, the retired inspector is trying to make sense of the case with his usual crew and some new additions.  In this instalment of the genre, the cultural clash becomes more obvious, with the main character trying to make sense of the colonial past and his feelings about the imprint it left behind.  The sidekick elephant remains youthful, impulsive and at times petulant advancing him from a human child to a moody teenager.  The case comes with some twists and turns, but the most interesting part is the way the main characters develop, especially in the face of some interesting sub-plots

@manosdaskalou

I am usually, very critical, of everything I read, even more so of books I love. However, with Inspector Chopra et al., I am completely missing my critical faculties. This book, like the first, is warm, colourful and welcoming. It has moments of delightful humour (unicycles and giant birthday cake), pathos (burns and a comforting trunk) to high drama (a missing child and pachyderm). Throughout, I didn’t want to read too much at any sitting, but that was only because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Vaseem Khan’s wonderful characters, even if only for a short while…

@paulaabowles

It was a pleasure to read the second book of the Inspector Chopra series. Yes, sometimes the characters go through some difficult times, the extreme inequalities between the rich and poor are made clear and Britain’s infamous colonial past (and present) plays a significant part of the plot, yet the book remains a heart-warming and up-beat read. The current character developments and introduction of new character Irfan is wonderfully done. Cannot wait to read the next book in the series!

@haleysread

One of the reasons for critiquing a book is to provide a balanced view for would be readers. An almost impossible task in the case of Vaseem Khan’s second Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation. Lost in a colourful world, and swept along with the intrigue of the plot and multiple sub plots involving both delightful and dark characters, the will to find a crumb of negativity is quickly broken. You know this is not real and, yet it could be, you know that some of the things that are portrayed are awful, but they just add to the narrative and you know and really hope that when the baby elephant Ganesha is in trouble, it will all work out fine, as it should. Knowing these things, rather than detracting from the need to quickly get to the end, just add to the need to turn page after page. Willpower is needed to avoid finishing the book in one hit. Rarely can I say that once again I finished a book and sat back with a feeling of inner warmth and a smile on my face. If there is anything negative to say about the book, well it was all over far too quickly.

@5teveh

The second Inspector Chopra book is even more thrilling than the first! As I read it I felt as though I genuinely knew the characters and I found myself worrying about them and hoping things would resolve for them. The book deals with some serious themes alongside some laugh out loud funny moments and I couldn’t put it down. Can’t wait to read the third instalment!

@saffrongarside

I have always found that the rule for sequels in film is: they are never a good as the original/first. Now, there are exceptions to the rule, however these for me are few and far between. However, when it comes to literature I have found that the sequels are as good if not better than the original- this is the rule. And my favourite writers are ones who have created a literature series (or multiple): with each book getting better and better. The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown (Chopra 2.0) by Vaseem Khan has maintained my rule for literature and sequels! Hurray! After the explosive first instalment where we are introduced to Inspector Chopra, Poppy and Baby Ganesha, the pressure was well and truly on for the second book to deliver. And By Joe! Deliver it did! Fast paced, with multiple side-stories (which in all fairness are more important that the theft of the crown), reinforce all the emotion you felt for the characters in the first book and makes you open your heart to little Irfan! Excellent read, beautiful characters, humorous plots! Roll on book number 3!

@jesjames50

#CriminologyBookClub: The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra

As you know from our last #CriminologyBookClub entry a small group of us decided the best way to thrive in lockdown was to seek solace in reading and talking about books. This blog entry is very different from any other we’ve published before, in that it has seven bloggers contributing! There is a very good reason why and that is because @manosdaskalou managed to choose a book that delighted all of us, and believe me, that is a challenge for a group of bibliophiles. Without more ado, let’s see what everyone thought:

“The second book of book club was a huge success- excellent choice @manosdaskalou! The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan was delightful! Whilst fulfilling all the ‘usual stuff’ associated with a crime novel, it also adds a layer of fantasy and wonder which is usually alien to crime fiction. As I raced through the novel, falling in love with characters- Poppy is kick ass, the complete opposite of drippy Carol (The Yellow Room) and safe to say I now want a baby Elephant; I was transformed into another world, something which crime fiction has never done for me before. It brought back feelings of nostalgia and memories of reading David Eddings and Derek Landy in the summer after GCSEs, when life was simpler and full of joy! A wonderful, intriguing and mysterious crime novel with a hint of fantasy, pulling you away to a different place. An enchanting and wonderful read which blends serious social injustices and issues with mystery, suspense and humour- I cannot wait to see what Inspector Chopra and Ganesha get up to next!”

@jesjames50

“The problem with writing a mere paragraph for a blog about a book that I really did enjoy is that I fear I won’t be able to do it justice.  The story, well I’m sure others might tell you what the book is about but, if you want to know, really want to know, read it.  Rarely can I say that I couldn’t wait to finish the book and yet didn’t want it to finish.  The characters come to life, especially the elephant, in a way that makes it seem almost real, but not quite. The story moves on at a fast pace and yet has a steadiness to it. There are surprises along the way and, yet they are almost expected, it was always going to be that way. Within the narrative there is a demonstration of what we know to be good in humans and, yet it encompasses so much of what we know to be bad. How then can I have left the final page, sad that the book was finished, but uplifted by the narrative and almost salivating at the anticipation of reading the next in the series? The plaudits on the cover don’t do it justice, to answer my question, all I can reiterate is that you have to read it to understand.”

@5teveh

“When I first received this book, I was a bit sceptical, as I did not know how an elephant was going to be incorporated into a detective crime novel. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The first book in the series was a delight and a much-needed escape in these uncertain times. This book captured my attention very quickly and whisked me off on a colourful, picturesque adventure to Mumbai, with the amazing inspector Chopra and of course the star of the story, Ganesh the mysterious baby elephant. The book introduces you to an interesting plot. At first you are made to think that the focus of the book will be on Inspector Chopra investigating the murder of a young man. However, you are quickly introduced to the wider issues that sit at the heart of social and economic challenges present in India. Without leaving you glum, the book has a nice balance of crime and mystery, coupled with humour, great food, wonderful scenery and lovable characters. I liked this book as it was unique to any other books that I have read. I am looking forward to continuing the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series.”

@svr2727

“Vaseem’s novel had me from to get-go. Set in bustling Mumbai this novel has more depth than the usual “whodunit” scenario. This book is a criminologist’s dream, as yes, we all find out who did it in the end, and yes the case is also solved but there are also issues of poverty and corruption to contend with. The story would not be complete without Ganesha the elephant who makes solving the case possible (and survivable). Ganesha goes through a lot in the story. From being depressed and chained up outside an apartment complex, to being mistakenly left to drown during heavy rain and fed chocolate. Despite all of this, Ganesha is often the hero of the hour, so for me the book symbolises the true greatness of animals: We do not deserve them.”   

@haleysread

“I really enjoyed this book. It was great to lose myself in a different country and culture and to meet so many relatable characters there – even (especially?) the chocolate loving elephant! I can’t wait to find out what happens next…”

@saffrongarside

As well as having the joy of reading The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, we also had the very unexpected pleasure of welcoming the author Vaseem Khan to our book club meeting today. To be able to hear about Vaseem’s motivations for creating the colourful world in which Inspector Chopra and Ganesha work and play was fascinating. The opportunity to ask questions was fantastic and we’d like to say a big thank you to Vaseem for allowing us a peak inside his world of writing. It is now easy to see where Inspector Chopra gets his generosity of spirit from. And now we’ll leave the final word to @manosdaskalou….after all he did choose the book 😉

“What does a gang of criminologists do at lockdown?  We read crime books and talk about them.  On this occasion The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra was a welcomed distraction from reality.  The book introduces the retired inspector with a very unusual sidekick!  The retired inspector is a very honourable, incorruptible professional whose investigation will bring him in conflict with the criminal underbelly of Mumbai.  The retired inspector is not fazed, and he is determined to carry on regardless.  The investigation takes inspector Chopra around the city; which gives the reader a unique opportunity to get to know a metropolitan megapolis.”             

@manosdaskalou
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