ABA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee on Who Gets to Write a Story [4]

Here from Michelle Malonzo of Changing Hands is the fourth column in a new series from the American Booksellers Association’s Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion [5]


Welcome to our first column of 2020! We hope everyone had a successful Winter Institute [6], and for those who stopped by the DEI table at the Consultation Station, we appreciated your questions and feedback.

It’s only February, but already the book industry has had a variety of complicated issues crop up — most recently, the question of who gets to write a story. As a committee, we urge booksellers and readers to instead reframe that question as: How do you write someone else’s story? And how are we, as an industry, elevating writers of color?

Writers should be allowed to write outside of themselves and their experiences. However, as an industry and a community, we should also keep in mind that many experiences from marginalized peoples are heavily politicized, oppressed, and disbelieved and have been for centuries.

With that history and trauma of generational oppression, it is reasonable to ask writers (and readers) to reimagine those stories and lived experiences not only with empathy, but also with responsibility and complexity.

Here are some resources for better understanding the complexities around the issue that can help booksellers think more deeply when buying, curating displays, and inviting authors to our stores.

  • One of the ways we as booksellers can act responsibly is through #OwnVoices. Originally created by Corinne Duyvis, an editor at Disability in Kidlit, Kayla Whaley described the hashtag in Read Brightly [7] as “a useful shorthand for books with diverse characters that are written by people who share those identities.”
  • We encourage elevating #OwnVoices novels because writers of color have a history of limited access to literacy and education, and have also not received the same marketing and publicity. The wage gap extends across marginalized communities in publishing as well. A great tool to familiarize yourself with how to learn about and engage with these issues is Lee & Low’s 2019 Diversity in Publishing survey [8], which found that 76 percent of the industry identifies as white.
  • Ask: Who are the gatekeepers in publishing and bookselling? What resources and opportunities are being awarded to white authors vs. authors of color who are telling the same story? Two great resources that address these questions for writers, and are useful for booksellers, are Alexander Chee’s essay “How To Unlearn Everything” [9] and Colson Whitehead’s speech at 2019’s AWP [10].
  • In light of the conversations being had within the Latinx community and the publishing/bookselling industry as a whole, we created an Edelweiss+ collection of #OwnVoices works by Latinx authors [11] about immigration, migration, and the border.
  • The committee has also actively engaged in working with publishers to tag novels that are #OwnVoices to make it easier for buyers and booksellers to find these books. Likewise, we urge booksellers and publishers to familiarize themselves with the #DignidadLiteraria [12] movement.
  • We also encourage you to visit WeNeedDiverseBooks.org [13], a vital tool for booksellers in unearthing stories and books that may have been overlooked or overshadowed.