Representation matters. It’s a mantra that has become part of the mainstream literary landscape, as readers demand more stories depicting a diversity of contemporary voices, written by authors who represent those cultures.
But what does representation mean to the authors of colour writing and publishing fiction today?
"I wouldn't say it's an active choice that my first and second book are about Arab voices, and Arab protagonists," Iraqi-Welsh author Ruqaya Izzidien tells The National.
"It's more that this is what I feel like I have to say at this point in my life, and in a conversation with what exists already in the literary world and the kind of writing that's already been put out.”
Izzidien's debut novel, The Watermelon Boys, won the Betty Trask Award in 2018, a £10,000 prize for first-time authors under 35. Set in Iraq in 1915 during the First World War, the book looks at the history of British intervention in Iraq from two unlikely characters — Ahmed, an Iraqi who joins the British-led revolt, and Carwyn, a Welsh teenager sent to fight in the war. Izzidien also served as the London Book Fair's writer-in-residence in Sharjah in 2020.
Izzidien believes that representation isn't just about how many books are being published about certain communities, and by writers from those communities, but how they are packaged and who from the publishing industry is making these decisions.
"True representation would be that the gatekeepers in the publishing world, so editors, agents, and even 'higher-ups' in publishing houses, would also be more diverse," she says.
"The goal is to break stereotypes and not feed into a narrative that already exists. This is why you need representation higher up. Otherwise, you end up with novels that don't actually represent the community."
And while these are important issues that need addressing, as a writer, Izzidien's process isn't solely consumed by issues surrounding representation. “I don't feel like I only write Arab stories or only write with my diaspora glasses on," she adds.
"But I will say that I'm always considering how I'm representing the communities that I write about, whether I'm part of them or not.”
For Filipino author Miguel Syjuco, who is also an NYU Abu Dhabi professor, the issue of representation is a multi-faceted one.
“The reason I write is not so much for representation, it's for participation,” he said in a session at Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in February.
“I write to participate in this conversation about the issues of our time. I also write to protest. To me, it's not about representation because who am I to represent the Filipino experience? I'm just one voice among so many.
“I write because our history as Filipinos has taught us that writing books and stories have the potential to change the world."
Syjuco's debut novel, Ilustrado, won both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Grand Prize at the Palanca Awards, the Philippines' top literary honour.
Syjuco's latest book, I Was The President's Mistress!!, is a satire on contemporary politics in the Philippines. The novel is based on the transcriptions of Vita Nova, the Filipina movie star, where she speaks without a filter, alongside other voices, about the country's political landscape.
“I believe in the potential of writing. I believe that to have a voice is to have a vote in the future of the community of your country,” he said.
“The stronger you are, the more confident you are to write about our problems, to tell our leaders what needs to be fixed. There are injustices here in our community and in our country. That is powerful. That's why I write.”
In the West, representation is often understood as creating a space for underrepresented voices, including authors of colour, in a literary landscape filled with books written by white authors for a white audience.
In other parts of the world, whether it’s the Middle East or South Asia, representation in fiction is often less about overcoming the insular white focus and more about speaking directly to people about the issues and histories pertaining to their own cultural experiences.
Also speaking at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Mohsin Hamid the best-selling author of Exit West and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, presented other facets of representation not often discussed in the mainstream. While on stage with novelists Avni Doshi and Jamil Jan Kochai for a panel session discussing South Asian fiction, Hamid elaborated on the different layers of representation within writing fiction.
“It's very important to assert the essential transgressive nature of literature,” he said.
“There's one strategy, which we could call the representative strata which is 'let me tell you my story, or my people’s story,' and that's important. Another strand is 'let me be a dinosaur, let me be a woman, let me be old, let me live in the 17th century, let me live in the 25th century'. A big part of our imagination is not representative in a direct sense, it's becoming something else.”
Mohsin elaborated that imagination is an important, essential tool that can be used to represent real-life experiences.
“We make a huge mistake if we say that only the representative aspect of fiction is open to us. It is to deny a fundamental aspect of what fiction can do.”
Part of the challenge for many unpublished writers of colour is finding representation by agents and publishers in the West. While the publishing industry seems to be interested in having a wider range of diverse voices, the reality of what’s in bookshops doesn’t reflect that yet.
For example, in December 2020, The New York Times reported that just 11 per cent of books in 2018 were written by people of colour.
Hamid presented the idea that writers of colour need to recalibrate their approach to the publishing industry, and how to make their work visible in the public sphere.
“Why is it that New York and London are the publishing hubs of English language fiction? And why do we have to go to those places?” he asked.
Mohsin shared that he has been working over the years to obtain the rights back to all his books in English to then publish and distribute them in Pakistan at a lower cost, making them more readily available. Along with building up a creative writing programme at the University of Lahore with other writers in Pakistan, the long-term vision for Mohsin is to create a publishing ecosystem in his home country.
“How do we create an entirely new set of portals that we can step through that are in Lahore, in Dubai, in Cairo, where people can publish their books, where they can be reviewed, where they can establish communities of writers and activity that is vibrant and alive?”
It's a mistake, Mohsin believes, to imagine that the only way writers of colour can feel represented is to focus on the traditional publishing hubs such as London and New York whose gates open for “a few Muslims or South Asians to pass through".
“There's a whole set of other developments that are happening [elsewhere],” he said.
“And I think in many ways, those other developments are more important.”