“It’s truthful. And if that makes white people uncomfortable, then great!”
The first short story in Bad Form, a London-based literary review by people of colour, is about a boyfriend who is a terrible food-snob. Called ‘The Imitation Oyster’, race isn’t explicitly mentioned in this story, but we feel it in the oily way this boyfriend drip-feeds our protagonist asparagus, and lump crab, and natural wine: “…he loves to introduce; loves to see her ‘little face’ learn figs and asiago, loves to display his fingers on a plate his old girlfriend painted.” This awful boyfriend reminds you, irresistibly, of the historic British author: loquacious, instructive, white by default. Except this time he’s not telling the story.
“Something interesting happens when you remove ‘white’ voices from a narrative collection”, explains editor Amy Baxter. “It totally refocuses your understanding of what a neutral narrator is.” The first issue of Bad Form brings together fiction, interviews and reviews in a small, slim volume. The speakers are funny, and biting, and they say things that put the white reader on edge. Like this, from the story Poet/ Forager, about a trip to South London: “Peckham Rye is gentrifying. I know this because the bar is disgusting but still full of mainly white people”.
Amy talked to us about the problems of representation in the literary world, and why truth-telling tends to make white people uncomfortable.
I was interested to read about the politics of desirability in Timi Soitre’s book review of Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change (2019). Can you tell me a little bit about what ‘desirability’ means politically and personally?
‘The politics of desirability’ is a strange concept. When we think of desirability, it’s usually on the singular, personal level: am I desirable? Do I find this other person desirable? But, when you think about it more, it’s entirely impossible to remove politics from desirability when we exist within a society wherein appearance and status is politicised. If we accept that there has been a specific understanding of what is desirable implemented over centuries in this country, then we must also accept that some are rendered undesirable because of their race.
“Peckham Rye is gentrifying. I know this because the bar is disgusting but still full of mainly white people” — I love this line, from the story Poet/ Forager, by Calah Singleton. I wonder whether I find lines like this one particularly uncomfortable because I am white. Did you set out as an editor to create that kind of creative and brilliant discomfort?
Something interesting happens when you remove ‘white’ voices from a narrative collection. It totally refocuses your understanding of what a neutral narrator is. The purpose of Bad Form was not to say that white voices are somehow less interesting, or less worthy than POC voices, but rather to say that the experience of people of colour is different, and that should be celebrated. According to the 2011 census, only 44.9% of Londoners identify as ‘White British’ — and yet publishing only POC voices still sounds radical. It shouldn’t. Calah’s writing is powerful because it’s truthful. And if that makes white people uncomfortable, then great! Because you can only learn when you are pushed outside of your comfort zone, and I’m so excited that we can offer that to people.
I was struck by a question you asked in your interview with with Daikon, a magazine profiling the Southeast and East Asian diaspora: “Is there an innate problem labelling stories as ‘diverse’ or ‘minority-led’? Should they instead be considered as part of the wider culture?”. Why did you want to ask that question? Do you think there is an innate problem?
There is something innately uncomfortable about diversity schemes, movements, or even institutions in the arts. There is this wider sense that now, in 2020, we’re more diverse than ever because so many ‘diversity’ platforms exist — but actually, that’s not enough. It’s only when diverse voices are found inside traditionally white institutions that true change happens. Bad Form is only part of the solution — we can offer POC voices a platform to be heard, but as a result, those voices are separated from the cultural narrative. Until we have a writing canon in the UK that fully encapsulates what it means to be British, not just white British, we will need diversity initiatives. I think, as a writer, you never want your writing to be platformed because of an accident of birth, you want your writing to be platformed because it is excellent. It would be really upsetting to think your writing was only readable because you fill a diversity quota for a magazine or publisher. I hope that one day, initiatives like Bad Form will no longer be necessary, because writing will be judged on its quality, and not on the cultural heritage of its author.
Bad Form is described as a “platform for BME voices in a way the publishing industry often is not”. Can you talk a little about the problems of representation in the literary world, and why you specifically wanted to make a literary review?
The publishing world is really white. I don’t think that’s a revelation for anyone. You only have to walk into the office of most publishing houses to know that. The problem is, when you have an all-white editorial team, talking to an all-white sales team about what books to buy, you don’t often buy the books of many non-white authors. That’s not a criticism, that’s just a fact. If we want to see new voices in the publishing industry, we’re going to have to push to get them there. Within the industry itself, there are movements towards diversity: Penguin and Hachette run diversity schemes; there are imprints dedicated to diverse voices. But there is nowhere to go if you want to read diverse opinions on the books themselves. So the idea for Bad Form is to do that: rather than just platforming POC authors, we platform POC opinions. Because literature is always a conversation starter, and literary reviews are the place to go to see that conversation evolve.
Finally, could you recommend two must-see/ read pieces for 2020?
1) Raveena’s NPR tiny desk concert I think is a must-see going into the new decade. She has a way of discussing trauma and the importance of moving forward without preaching. Also her voice is excellent.
2) Ibtisam Ahmed’s essay on ‘Why we need Utopia‘. At the end of 2019, it’s difficult to be anything other than pessimistic. Ahmed reminds us, in the most beautiful and succinct of ways, that ‘Utopias are necessary and joy is radical’. It’s a lovely way to start the year.