'Unapologetically Black': Why Authors Of Colour Shouldn't Write For White Audiences

·7-min read
(Photo: Oliver Helbig via Getty Images)
(Photo: Oliver Helbig via Getty Images)

(Photo: Oliver Helbig via Getty Images)

I am a bookish babe, a term that was made popular by the original Bookish Babe herself, Hena Bryan. When I’m not reading books, I’m thinking about the next story I’ll dive into. And when I’m not thinking about them, I’m buying them. My life revolves around reading.

Which isn’t bizarre, considering I was raised by bookish parents. Both my parents studied literature at university, so the love of reading came naturally to my sister and I, specifically the love for Black books.

As I write this in my living room, I can see my bookcase filled with titles like I Know Why The Caged Birds Sings by Maya Angelou, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Nelson Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom and countless others. Unlike the literature we were taught at school, my indoor library has always been packed with books by Black authors.

The books I read growing up were unapologetically Black. But as I started getting older, I noticed a shift in the way stories were told when penned by Black authors and other writers of colour. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, until I watched this Tik Tok.

@vivafalastinleen

kind of rambling but i hope this makes sense and would love to hear other bipoc readers’ thoughts #booktok

♬ original sound - leen

User vivafalastinleen says that when she’s reading romance books written by non-white authors she notices how they fall into two categories: stories that are written for a white audience, or a books written with “the community in mind”.

“The biggest distinctions between those things, is on one hand it’s teaching rather than storytelling and trying to convince this white audience to care and like your culture,” she says.

“And on the other hand, the author is writing from your perspective, without justification or expectation, without any hint of shame, just telling the story with the people that you’re writing for in mind being kind of the main target audience.”

She’s absolutely right and the distinction she describes is something I’ve noticed with Black books in particular. Novels written by the Black diaspora I’ve found tend to over-explain the lives and culture of the protagonist, whereas African and Caribbean authors rarely do this. 

As a reader, it’s frustrating seeing Black authors excessively explain their culture when white authors aren’t expected to do the same. When you read a book by a white author, there’s an assumption that you’re already familiar with their culture or should go out of your way to learn about it. So why can’t white audiences do the same for authors of colour?

Hena Bryan, who is a 25-year old book content creator from Birmingham (and aforementioned Bookish Babe), also shares the view. “You can tell when an author of colour wants to appeal to a white audience because they try their best to make white readers feel included, which is annoying because white writers don’t do this for non-white readers,” she says. 

“The main difference between authors of colour writing for a white audience rather than a non-white audience is the relationship between the main character and his/her/they love interest.

I’ve found that books written by authors of colour that pander to a white audience, interest or entertainment usually have a biracial love story, and it’s usually one where the Black character is desperate to be accepted by the other race or has a very weird backstory as to why they are in an interracial relationship.”

She’s also thinks that the character descriptions authors of colour provide in these instances are very stereotypical. “It feels like it’s less about the romance itself and more about writing a story that has as many trigger words that white people will be able to identify,” she says.

My culture is the default, my people are the default.Bolu Babalola

You won’t find things like this in Bolu Babalola’s stories. Babalola is an author of books such as Love In Colour and Honey and Spice. She says the only way she knows how to tell a story is to be authentic about it: “True to me, my voice, the world I know and my people.”

Babalola refuses to explainherself as she doesn’t think that “contorting your voice and your story to pander or translate your experiences is not good storytelling and in my opinion for me won’t attract the audience I value.”

“For me writing stories another way doesn’t compute and there is no point of me telling a story if I have to diminish it or smooth it out to make it more palatable,” she tells HuffPost UK. 

“My culture is the default, my people are the default, we are not othered in my world. And so Yoruba words won’t be italicised, and while translations may be made apparent within context, it has to be natural. For me, fiction still has to be my truth and I should be able to be as full as I am within it.” 

Honey and Spice recently got picked as the July read for Reese Witherspoon’s books club. It’s also doing the rounds on Booktok, which shows that Black books that are written with the community in mind can be loved by everyone.

But the world of publishing is complex and it doesn’t start and end with the author. Despite efforts to diversify, the publishing world is still very white. Could it be a case that authors are being pushed to write stories for white audiences?

I think publishers want to make money, as publishing is still a business with bottom lines and profits to maintain at the end of the day,” Sile Edwards, who is a literary agent from London, says. 

They want to hit as wide an audience as possible, and in their minds that still is a predominantly white audience.”

Edwards shares that the whole model of how people in the publishing world spot, acquire and publish books as an industry has not changed. “This means that a lot of the books which are piqued to be successful are very similar in who they appeal to and who they are written by,” he says.

The lack of mixed perspectives in the industry affects the way books are published, says Edwards. “The books which aren’t seen as commercially viable are based on what has always been published by a predominantly white middle class industry, for a white middle class readership.”

If the work is authentic and good, it will find its readers.Valerie Brandes

Valerie Brandes, who is publisher and founder of Jacaranda Books, a Black-owned independent publishing firm, says she doesn’t know the motivation behind white publishing houses but explains that “having a quick review of some of these books being published reveals some stereotypical, negative typecasting, of Black characters and situations that would not have passed muster with me for publication at Jacaranda.”

She wouldn’t advise anyone to write for a particular audience. “If the work is authentic and good, it will find its readers,” she says.

“Tell me the story in a way that makes me feel something, good, bad (not indifferent!) and you will have a book that people will want to read. I can’t imagine that Thomas Hardy wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge for a working class Black girl from Hackney and yet here I am, a fan.”

I read books by all races and ethnicities but of course for me, there’s something special about books written by Black people. I’ve read so many brilliants books written by African authors – like Abi Dare, Yaa Gyasi and Chinelo Okparanta – to the point where it feels like I’ve been to Lagos countless of times, that’s the beauty of fiction. Authors of colour shouldn’t water themselves down to make a story seem more appealing.

I want to see more books by authors of colour told authentically. I want to take a deep dive into someone else’s culture and traditions. But overall, I just want more brilliant stories written by us, for us.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.

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