Simran Kaur Sandhu, currently interning at Profile, writes about her experience of being regarded as 'BAME' in the publishing industry.

I didn’t read a book where the protagonist was Indian, like me, until I was fourteen – and I read voraciously. Throughout school growing up we had the odd ‘Rashid’ pop up but the only thing that made him different was his name. It felt sort of lazy. Last week, a cousin of mine from America sent me a cheeky Whatsapp with a link to a book HarperCollins published called Someone You Love is Gone by Gurjinder Basran. Other than the fact that this book was apparently beautiful, the main character was called Simran. Outside of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and the Guru Granth Sahib, this hadn’t happened before. It was such a shock that I told the whole family – everyone was talking about it. Then I told my white friends and they simply shrugged: they had no idea how weird this was. Despite the fact that ‘Simran’ is the ‘Jane Smith’ of Punjabi names thanks to Kajol, I never expect to hear my name in an English language book or film. My friends couldn’t understand how much of a shock this was, because they’ve never had to truly search through different media channels to find someone who is like them either in books or films.

When I try to explain to family what the publishing industry is and why it’s so important for ‘BAME’ people to be a part of it, my mother launches into memories of one year old me, demanding to be read stories over and over again, ignoring the part of my career choice that means I am caught up in a constant struggle with my own race and class. Other than a minor blip when I was sucked into fangirl death over Twilight, I read widely respected books growing up. I found that every now and then, a BAME writer would become a bestseller and the industry would pat itself on the back for being so very forward thinking, and then it would revert right back to the way it was until that author wrote another book. Implicit bias by a mainly white, middle class publishing industry means that people like me, my little sisters, my baby cousins, nieces and nephews, still find it hard to find honest representation of ourselves in the books we read.

It can mean that, like me, BAME readers think there is something wrong with being diverse. I tried bleaching my skin so many times, not just because of Eurocentric beauty standards in TV media, but also because every single protagonist I wanted to be like had beautiful ‘porcelain’ skin which made people like her and sympathetic to her cause. I tried out different accents because most of the people in books I was reading growing up didn’t say things like ‘innit’ or ‘peng’ but then was picked on at school because I was trying to be ‘better’ than my classmates. I felt so out of place because I was idolising characters that were simply unlike me. Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant contains so many brilliant writers who express the same concern and talk about their experiences with BAME representation in media. Darren Chetty’s chapter particularly expresses a concern with the lack of representation in children’s books, stating that children in his classes simply didn’t think they could write about their own experiences, and had to write about that of a white middle class British child instead.

This is why there is such a need for diversity in the publishing industry. This is why I apply for BAME internships and job positions and knowingly let myself become a ‘token’ or ‘fill a quota’: because I need to let myself be defined by my race and my background in order to try to make a difference. In the future, I hope that this won’t be necessary. Something about applying for these schemes makes me feel like if it wasn’t for the fact that I was Indian, I wouldn’t be getting so far. It makes me, and a fair few other people in the industry as well, feel like we will never be good enough on merit alone. A few of my white friends have said that they think the reason I even have this wonderful opportunity at Profile Books is because I can play ‘the brown card’, and not because I put myself forward for every possible event, met as many people as I could, learnt about it and applied because I work hard and am passionate about the industry. It’s a difficult line to tread but it’s being walked by people who are steaming ahead in the industry and making way for people like me to join as well.

Looking at the industry now, things are starting to change. The PA have put quotas in place in the publishing industry to combat implicit bias, PRH have made their staff undergo ‘implicit bias training’ (though how successful some training is in combatting a lifetime of learned white privilege is another matter) and have removed the requirement for a degree from entry-level jobs, combatting class discrimination. There is an honest attempt at championing BAME or LGBTQ+ writers through prizes like the Jhalak Prize or the Fourth Estate and The Guardian BAME Short Story prize. But it’s just not far enough. I still go to launches and find myself being the only BAME person in the room.

A friend of mine is writing a dissertation for her Publishing MA on BAME representation, and in interviews with successful publishers she has found that most white publishers think there is a lot being done, and most BAME publishers think we are nowhere near finished. We must press on. More must be done to champion not just BAME publishers and writers but also LGBTQ+ and publishers/writers with disabilities. Obviously, the way we battle these will probably be different – you can’t always attend an interview and tell if the applicant is LGBTQ+ or disabled, but there is no hiding the colour of your skin. There are different barriers we need to overcome but what we are doing is an important first step and we mustn’t allow ourselves to become complacent. Maybe in ten or twenty years the next generation will be reading more books about Simrans, or Parminders but right now we are not quite there yet. Onwards!

Follow Simran on Twitter @Simmyx1 and Instagram @simksandhu95