(Header image taken from NZBC poster.)
This Wednesday just past, I was extremely privileged to see Lani Wendt Young deliver her lecture for the New Zealand Book Council in Wellington. Stories from the Wild: Reading and Writing in the Digital Age discussed the importance of representation in literature, called out the underlying racism and unnecessary gatekeeping in traditional publishing, and explored how digital publishing can revolutionise reading for all.
Lani is a Samoan/Māori writer, editor, publisher and journalist, and is the author of 11 books including the bestselling Young Adult series TELESĀ. Her lecture was, quite simply, amazing. If you want to read it, and I strongly recommend that you do, you can find it online as a free ebook in a number of formats here: https://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/advocacy/nzbc-lecture/
Her words really moved me. I wrote a Twitter thread to discuss some of my thoughts (https://twitter.com/meringutang/status/1166800276390416384?s=21 ) because I quite simply agreed with every single word that she said. I sat and nodded my head for the entire time, and at one point I wanted to copy the famous Meryl Streep ‘Yes!” move.
Her overall message to the publishing industry in New Zealand was quite simple: adapt or die.
Lani is passionate about addressing who is missing from the conversation and ensuring they are invited to the table. She can see and identify the gaps in how books are marketed and made accessible. She speaks from experience as a very successful independent publisher that the real ‘gatekeepers’ are the readers themselves.
“…the digital era is challenging the status quo for what ‘quality’ literature is and who gets to define it. For so long it has been white cis het males’ and then white females’ standards of quality control. They decide who gets admitted to the castle and who is rejected. That paradigm is now threatened because anyone can publish. It terrifies those who, for so long, have been used to defining what GOOD means. Today the real gatekeepers are readers.”
The goalposts have shifted and digital publishing is accessible to a much wider audience than ever before. Much more than that, the content is authentic and genuine because it is written by those who have first-hand experience. It is not sanitised or censored, it is real and raw. It refuses to be silenced, and it is glorious.
Lani is absolutely correct to call out the traditional publishing industry. It is time to build a bigger table, and to invite everyone to take part. Access to literature is not some golden idol which should be protected, it should not require anyone to prove their worthiness.
Lani says: “The digital era means more choice. More power and control in our hands to write whatever we want to, breaking any or all of the literary rules, if that’s what our story requires. It means the power to publish and distribute those stories, to have an impact on the conversation. To critique the structures that systematically smother us.”
Literature is, first and foremost, about stories. A chorus of varied and inspiring voices. Remember John Keating in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion.” And I believe that quote applies to all literature. We NEED diverse voices and stories different to our own.
Put it this way: my favourite desert is lemon meringue pie. I absolutely adore it, but I don’t want to eat it all the time. Sometimes I want ice cream, occasionally I want cake. There are days when I crave mango sorbet. We need to saturate our literary tastebuds on a range of flavours, even if we aren’t sure if we will like them or not. You won’t know unless you try.
And if, like me, you are in the privileged position of not being marginalised or silenced, use that power to make a path so that those who should be speaking get the chance. Remind yourself that often the very best thing you can do is shut up and listen. Lani reminds us that as writers, “We need to support and raise each other up. Whether we are writing literary novels or genre fiction.”
Be the rising tide that lifts the boat, and let us travel together into a fresh, new age of diverse literature and inspiring stories.
If you want to get involved in building a strong and supportive community for writers of colour in Aotearoa and Australasia (and beyond) I encourage you to get in contact with J.C.Hart who is spearheading an exciting new initiative to ensure those voices are heard.