By Noemi Arellano-Summer
BU News Service
When looking at a recent Barnes and Noble cover of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s novel The Secret Garden, one expects to see a young English girl wearing a hat and sturdy coat, walking down a path into a lush garden. Instead, there’s a Black girl on the cover, though the main character, Mary Lennox, is English, white and was raised in colonial India.
Barnes and Nobles’ “Diverse Editions” Classics campaign was canceled in February 2020 after massive backlash from the public. This is yet another example of a recent publishing trend, attempting to sell diverse books that weren’t diverse in the first place.
Without altering any of the text, covers were created for 12 classic novels that were meant to embrace minority characters and readers. The only problem was the texts chosen were written by white people and are full of presumed white main characters.
“For me, diversity is a very scary term as a Latina. I’m always excited whenever I see that our community is going to be represented and we are going to have a voice, but the reality for me always is we have to be very careful,” said Gabriela Baeza Ventura, executive editor at Arte Publico Press, a small Latinx publisher.
Baeza spoke about 1990s multiculturalism and how minority communities were represented, then and now, to be used and commercialized.
According to a 2019 study by Lee and Low Books, Latinx people who work in publishing only make up 6% of the industry, whereas white people make up 76%. Black people make up 5%, while those of Asian descent make up 7%.
“The point of having a diverse staff is that they are going to see things that a white staff who is used to seeing white things isn’t going to catch,” said Manuela Velasco, editor and marketing and publicity director for Tessera Editorial, a company that offers editing and sensitivity reading for manuscripts.
Velasco believes that for things to improve, publishers have to seek out editors from diverse communities.
“You can have the best intentions and still get things wrong. We live in a world that is made to affirm a lot of people’s stereotypes and beliefs and we have to work to actively unlearn those things,” Velasco said. “Even sometimes when we’re part of the community that is being targeted.”
Publishers agree that diverse books are helped by diverse editors.
“But real change takes time and I think some of the missteps we’ve seen come from rushing to fill the need,” said Susan Van Metre, editor at Walker Books, in an email. Walker Books is a division of Candlewick Press and is owned by Bertelsmann, a German media conglomerate.
Since writer Corrine Duyvis came up with the term #OwnVoices in 2015, diversity in publishing has grown though progress has been slow. In 2015 when the survey first began, white people made up 79% of those working in the publishing industry.
Diverse publishers have therefore seen a 3% increase from 21% in the past four years. The #OwnVoices movement refers to recommending novels about diverse characters written by authors from those same marginalized communities.
“It’s a little different with indie bookstores, because [of] the same thing: the books we’re passionate about tend to be the ones that we notice more,” said Katherine Nazzaro, Trident Booksellers and Cafe’s marketing manager.
Many of Trident’s booksellers are on the young side, college-aged or slightly older, she said. They stock books that the industry knows will sell well: books for the cisgender, older, white audience.
However, as a Boston-based independent store, Nazzaro said the booksellers can spread out into subjects they also enjoy, which is one of the reasons the science-fiction section has expanded in recent years.
The novel American Dirt by Jeannine Cummins was published by Flatiron Books in January 2020 to mixed reviews. Cummins, a Spanish-born American, tells the story of a Mexican woman and her son’s journey to immigrate to the U.S.
Writer Myriam Gurba wrote an early negative review of the novel for Ms. magazine. The editor passed on publishing it and Gurba published the piece on the blog Tropics of Meta instead.
“In fact, she [the protagonist] perceives her own country through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist,” Gurba wrote. Since Cummins isn’t Mexican, the argument goes, she should not be writing this Mexican story. She isn’t part of the culture so it’s not her story to tell.
On the other hand, renowned Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros wrote a glowing blurb for the book before its publication. Since a white woman is telling the story, Cisneros argued, people will be more likely to believe it.
“More people of color and varying identities need to be in those rooms in order to provide actual support to the writers who are writing in those realms,” said Chantz Erolin, editorial and production assistant at Graywolf Press, a small nonprofit publisher.
This publishing trend would be almost comical if it wasn’t so deeply embedded in ignorance, said Erolin, explaining that the lapses in judgement were large. He specifically noted the barbed wire on the tables during American Dirt’s release party.
“I can’t imagine anything more important than making books for every kid.” said Van Metre. “I think we’re already seeing more diversity and more activism amongst the youngest people in publishing and I think this will naturally extend to the authors young editors recruit and acquire.”
Trisha Tobias is a New York-based freelance sensitivity reader and editor. Sensitivity readers edit novels about marginalized communities that they are part of but the author is not, editing for accuracy and offensive content to make sure the marginalized experience is portrayed correctly.
Tobias is tired of hearing these stories, and tired of having the same conversations about why false diversity is problematic. “I keep saying that this feels like Representation 101, and I am so tired of taking this class again and again and again,” she said.
There are, however, independent publishing houses who solely acquire books by marginalized people. Arte Publico Press began an imprint dedicated to children’s novels that dealt with U.S. Hispanic culture called Piñata Books in 1994.
“As Latinos and minorities, the publishing field always requires that other people tell the story for minorities,” said Ventura, noting what she’d like to change. “And it’s never minorities telling the stories about themselves.”