If you spend any time with me, the conversation will probably veer onto books. From there it’ll take me about 2.5 minutes before I start talking about my desire to see more books by Black authors. The slide from ‘more Black books’ into a lament on the lack of joyful Black books then becomes sure and unstoppable.
Because I love joy. I love safety and peace and goals achieved and lives celebrated and love that fills you up until you glow.
Alas, it’s difficult to find joyful themes in Black UK books, to find hero(ines) that win the day and lives were things turn out well. That’s not accidental. The 2015 report, Writing the Future, concluded that the “’best chance of publication’ for a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) writer was to write literary fiction conforming to a stereotypical view of their communities, addressing topics such as ‘racism, colonialism or post-colonialism’.”
Since then, I think the parameters have expanded somewhat, but the focus is still on struggle, dysfunction and pain.
And it’s not just the UK. When American writer, Tia Williams, shopped her romantic comedy, The Perfect Find, to publishers, she was told her tale of a 40-year-old superstar fashion editor who falls for a colleague half her age, didn’t adequately explore her character’s struggles as a Black woman in fashion.
Williams was appalled. “How could these non-black women decide that I, a black woman, hadn’t adequately explored my character’s race? Jenna isn’t struggling with her blackness, in fashion or otherwise. She’s struggling with starting over and her ticking biological clock and hiding from her boss that she’d just had an orgasm in the fashion closet with the guy three cubicles down.”
Too many publishers want their Black authors to write about ‘the struggle’. And so, when you pop into your local bookstore or library, all you see on the bookshelves by Black authors is, ‘the struggle’.
Strangely, readers seem to be okay with this. At a recent book event I got talking to a Black lady, a lovely lawyer. I mentioned the lack of joyful options among Black books and she looked puzzled. “What kind of books would you like to see?” She asked.
I told her I wanted more genre books, romance, crime, mystery, science fiction etc because they turn on resolution.
“Oh,” she said, “like Danielle Steele and Stephen King.”
Yes! I replied. But she was still puzzled. For her literary fiction equaled good writing. Why would anybody want to read trashy fiction?
This takes us into the hierarchy of books. The method of ranking the quality of books based on genre. It’s a grading system I reject. I sidestepped the issue and instead compared the situation to film. Imagine if the only Black films offered by cinemas were 12 Years a Slave, If Beale Street Could Talk, Half of a Yellow Sun, Precious and similar films about conflict and oppression. Think of the richness we gain from having Black Panther, Love Jones, Coming to America, Brown Sugar, Girls Trip, Friday… My new lawyer friend conceded the point.
Our world is unpredictable, often pain-filled and scary. Surely we need art that celebrates the good things.
Yet, I often find that kind of art, art that concerns itself with positivity and happiness, described as ‘escapism’. It’s said in dismissive, condescending tones. As though people who want to immerse themselves in joy are weak, as though they are cowards too feeble to face the realities of life.
I find that odd, because joy is part of life too. Yes, bad things happen, but so do good things. Murders get solved, diseases are cured, people win the lottery, bad neighbourhoods are regenerated, people fall in love, honest politicians win elections. Where are those stories? Our lives aren’t relentlessly terrible, yet we seem to have decided that pain is more authentic than joy, that negative experiences reflect real life while our happy days are just blips. ‘Serious’ art seems to encourage us to burrow into the negative.
We need a variety of stories, dark and light, funny and serious, optimistic and pessimistic. Right now, when it comes to Black books, we are missing the light, funny, optimistic half. And goodness, if there’s a group of people that deserve uplifting, joyful, life-affirming art, surely it’s Black people. Where is it?