As a writer and reader based in Southeast Asia, I’ve been pondering the term “diversity” — at least, in the context of it’s use on the Internet.
First, it’s focused on the Western publishing industry. Filipino publishers publish Filipino-authored works for example (although our publishing industry has different issues of diversity). The same goes for publishers in Malaysia, China, South Africa, etc. I do think it’s important to focus on the Western publishing industry, because it’s usually a one-way street: books from the Philippines rarely go out of the Philippines, but books from the US or the UK gets distributed around the world. A novel like Moxyland by Lauren Beukes, published by both Jacana Media in South Africa and Angry Robot Books in the US/UK, is the exception to the norm. And in my case here in the Philippines, there are some Filipino books that might not have been picked up by a local publisher if it weren’t acquired by a US/UK publisher first. And for all the talk about diversity in the US publishing industry, we have conversations like the ones mentioned by Jennifer Pan & Sarah McCarry.
Second, the effects of colonialism and imperialism is thriving. When authors like Mike Resnick or Larry Correia claim that they have a diverse readership, there’s truth to that. For the longest time, I had to like Starship Troopers by Robert Heinelin; it was the only science fiction novel I knew that had a Filipino character in it. It would only be years later that I’d realize what was wrong with it and call bullshit on it. And when you ask Filipinos what books they’ve read recently, there’s a disproportionate amount of US/UK-published books compared to local ones (if any at all) — and I’m guilty of this too (and the first reason plays a part in this as well; the US/UK publishing industry is able to publish more books than local publishers). Sometimes, readers aren’t even conscious of colonialism and imperialism; when books like The Fault In Our Stars by John Green is translated into Filipino, there are some consumers who are aghast that such a popular work is translated into the lingua franca (same goes for Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James).
Third, when US/UK publishers do publish diverse authors, their content isn’t necessarily diverse. This year, US publishers are releasing The Forever Watch by David Ramirez and The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco. As a Filipino (and friend to one of them), I say more power to those authors. However, while I haven’t read those novels, the book descriptions don’t explicitly identify themselves as Filipino, authorship aside. That’s not necessarily bad if publishers actually published diverse content, but this is sadly the same old trend. If you’re going to get published in the US/UK, it’s going to be under their terms.
Fourth, as someone based in Southeast Asia, whenever I see the diversity hashtag on Twitter, it’s usually to promote authors based in America: African-American writers, Asian-American writers, etc. If we want to talk about true diversity, what needs to get mentioned are books by more than just American authors. But on the other hand, I understand their plight. The problem with the publishing industry is that it’s stuck in the past. Just take a look at How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ; it rings true, despite being published in 1983. Or Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, which was published in 2005, and yet we’re still having conversations about privilege. So Americans should have been publishing more African-American and more Asian-American writers decades ago. As it is, African-American writers are often compared to Octavia Butler, as pointed out by Nnedi Okorafor. But with the popularity of the Internet and its effects on globalization, it only seems intuitive that we embrace authors not based in the US; yet that’s not necessarily the case.
Fifth, if you notice, all those reasons are related and tied together. The problem is systemic, and I don’t have comfortable, easy answers. I can only identify the problem. And continue to struggle.