She is keen not to criticize an industry that loved her debut so much it was the subject of a six-party auction in the UK, and is keen to point out that with Wahala she wrote the novel that wanted to write without the interference of her publishers. But she’s far from alone in thinking that diversity can sometimes feel like a hollow slogan in publishing, given the less visible biases surrounding the kind of stories many black writers feel entitled to tell.
We’ve come a long way since 1561, when John Lok sailed to West Africa and described in his journal that the people he encountered were “beasts that had no homes”, like the quoted Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a 2009 Ted Talk, The Danger of One Story, but perhaps not as much as one would like to think.
As recently as 2005, the late Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina published a satirical essay in Granta titled “How to Write About Africa” in which he mockingly advised aspiring black writers to “be sure to show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things that other humans don’t eat,” in a scathing response to a culture clinging, he says, to reductive stories about race.
Today, there remains an unspoken general consensus that black writers should write novels that prioritize racial experience over everything else. “If you’re a black writer and you’re not writing about people overcoming oppression, or your novel isn’t set in Peckham, then the industry doesn’t know where to place you,” May says. “You basically have to write about black trauma or black joy. The lack of nuance is striking.
Brandon Taylor, whose debut novel Real Life was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, admits he constantly tries to get his publisher to “stay clear of words like raw, visceral and brutal” when he is to market his work. “I’ve made it a point to reject anything that even vaguely smacks of a preconceived notion of darkness,” he says. “It’s so annoying on one side and offensive on the other.” Real Life follows a queer black graduate from a Midwestern university, but as far as the US promotional campaign goes, early prints implied the book was about an abusive and violent rural childhood in Alabama.