9 Writing Tips for People of Colour

1.     The universal experience is a lie. It doesn’t exist. The universal experience is for white people. Which means that there is an expectation for you to write the definitive black experience, the definitive Asian experience, the definitive minority ethnic experience. Write your own experience. Tell the story you want to tell. Trying to crowbar an experience into it is a lie. You do not represent everyone in your race. In the same way the universal experience does not represent the universe.

2.     You don’t need to include your race, ethnicity, religion in your biography when you send your stuff out. Just be you. We should only attach these labels to ourselves when we see them as important, not because we think they may sell/unsell us. No one ever hears about ‘White English novelist Nick Hornby’ or ‘Caucasian author Martin Amis’. They’re acclaimed. They’re award-winning. You will be too. I know it’ll happen. Also, aside: don’t call yourself an aspiring writer. If you’ve written a book and you’re submitting it, you’re a goddamn writer. You may be aspiring to be traditionally published, but you are not aspiring to write.

3.     I like Junot Diaz’s attitude to translating and/or italicising words that aren’t in English. He once said,

‘motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third in Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they think we’re taking over’.

I love that. You can make a reader work hard to find out what words that are every day to you mean. That’s okay. I look up English words I don’t understand all the time. I’m happy to do that with words in other language. Italicising those words and sentences – that’s where we other the idea that people talk in different languages. Don’t italicise words that mean as much to you as English ones.

4.     Don’t feel like you have to explain things that feel every day to you or to your characters. This often feels like pandering to white audiences, rather than being true to the universe your characters operate in. I’m happy for my characters to chat about the heist and eat pav bhaji and not explain what pav bhaji is, because it has nothing to do with the heist, but also, because if you don’t know how delicious pav bhaji is, I can’t do anything for you.

5.     No is the easiest word in the publishing industry. Make it really really hard for people to say no. Make them agonise over that no. Make them feel stomach pangs before saying it. You will get 100 no’s for every yes. And that yes will make the no’s fade away. Make the no hard by choosing who you send to the book to carefully, finishing the book to the best of your abilities, having someone read your book who will tell you how great it is (for the confidence-boosting), having someone read your book who will tell you what you need to do to make it better (for the editing), and formatting it correctly. Make it hard for people to say no.

6.     Listen to feedback. An agent/editor who likes your work will give you a nugget of wisdom that you can use. Use it. Ignore the generic rejections. They mean it wasn’t for that person, which is fine as taste is subjective. If someone gives you feedback that you find questionable, e.g. they expected a book about, say, Indians to feature x, y, and z, or they already have a Muslim writer, or what have you… that’s shitty feedback. I’m not saying you should make that stuff public, because that way bridge-burning lies. But if you do get that kinda feedback, get in touch with me. These microaggressions are important to air. Because the microaggression behaviour needs to stop.

7.     No one can tell you what culturally-specific things are missing from your book. No one. You are not representing everyone in your race. I know I said this in the first tip but it really bears repeating.

8.     Look, we need you. Don’t feel disenfranchised or like it’s not going to happen or that the bookshelves of bookshops aren’t places for you: they are. We need a multitude of voices. For the universal experience to be reclaimed for everyone, for white people to realise that the Asian experience and the Black experience and the minority ethnic experience is nuanced, diverse, complex, full of different people with different stories, histories, hopes and dreams, we need to, as writers, write these stories and histories and hopes and dreams. But not for white people. Oh no. We need to write them for teenage Nikesh and teenage you and teenage Zadie and teenage Junot and teenage Maya and teenage Femi and teenage Bolu and teenage Sunny and teenage Nitin and teenage etc etc etc. So they don’t feel other. They feel represented. They feel included. They feel part of society. Not othered from it. They don’t feel diverse. They feel normal.

9.     My last, controversial point is this: diversity is a sham. We’re about normalisation. It feels like a difficult space if you have English/white, and then you have THE REST OF THE WORLD. So, don’t call yourself a diverse writer. Don’t think we need diverse books. Think of it as: we need inclusive representative books.

I believe in you. You got this. Write that book. Change the world. Teenage Nikesh is waiting.