As publishing continues efforts to diversify, Farhana Shaikh of The Asian Writer reflects on exposure for Asian authors
I had entirely selfish reasons for setting up The Asian Writer
in 2007. I had just started writing seriously and was desperate to read about the experiences of becoming a writer and getting published from people who looked like me. I knew these authors existed but I couldn’t find them in the pages of the newspapers and magazines I read. I also wanted to provide a safe haven for those who were going against the grain and pursuing a career in the arts. There had to be more people like me, who had ignored their mum’s advice to get a job at the bank and decided to write.
The Asian Writer grew rather quickly and unexpectedly—from an email sent to just 13 people to an online magazine capturing the experiences of writers from across the South Asia diaspora. I worked hard to establish The Asian Writer, discovering and meeting new and emerging writers. I travelled to Newcastle’s SAMA festival to conduct interviews with authors, hosted workshops to engage early-career writers, and put on events featuring South Asian writers including Roopa Farooki and Bali Rai. In truth, I didn’t have a strategy, other than to grow the site organically and engage writers in any way I could, both on and offline.
Back then, it seemed to me that the industry welcomed diverse voices with open arms and published a lot of debuts by Asian writers. Some of this buoyancy came from Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss winning the Man Booker Prize in 2006, and Nikita Lalwani, Mohsin Hamid, Indra Sinha and Tan Twan Eng all making the longlist the following year. A new wave of writers that I was so keen to inspire and connect with followed, and membership of The Asian Writer grew. I received letters and emails from writers all over the world, telling me how glad they were to have found the site, how important it was, and how good it was to connect with other Asian people who wrote.
But some of the people who wrote told me a different story. It was one of disappointment with an industry that didn’t seem to wish Asian writers to write what they wanted, but which sought only to promote a certain type of fiction and story. They felt invisible and spoke of struggling to get published and being told that their work wasn’t commercially viable, or somehow wasn't authentic. I went on to set up a small press, Dahlia Publishing, to specifically publish regional and diverse fiction and work closely with early-career writers to help them develop their craft.
Recent efforts by publishers to tackle the lack of diversity are welcome and much needed. But what worries me is how long it is taking to champion new writing. In the past year we have seen books by Mohsin Hamid, Arundhati Roy and Kamila Shamsie all longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but all these writers are literary heavyweights and thus safe bets. It’s time for publishers to be brave and take on new voices. The talent is out there—it’s just waiting for a publisher to come along and take notice. Ignoring their talents any longer would be an injustice.
Farhana Shaikh is editor of The Asian Writer. Visit its website. The Asian Writer Festival, celebrating 10 years of the publication, takes place at the Royal Asiatic Society on 21 October. For more information or to get involved email Farhana.