A matter of black and white

Why should any book be segregated as 'Black Writing'? It is characters that matter, not skin colour, writes Yvvette Edwards

Over a glass of wine on the day I met her, my agent said, "Do you know there isn't a single white character in your book?"

I was mortified to realise that she was absolutely right. Moreover, she had picked up on something to which I had been oblivious. Even as she added, "I loved that because it made no difference. Your characters are real people with fascinating stories to tell," I wondered to what extent this factor might become an issue for me.

Would the fact that there were no white characters in my novel A Cupboard Full of Coats disqualify it from the General Fiction shelves? Might it now be relegated, under the current literary apartheid system, to those shelves entitled Black Writing? Do white writers ever hear to their surprise that their novels contain only white characters? And finally, when it comes to fiction, to what extent does colour matter anyway?

When I talked to other writers, it began to seem that I had been lucky. Helen Walsh, for instance, is refusing to take part in any publicity for the French edition of her novel, Once Upon a Time in England, because she finds its cover "wilfully disingenuous". The novel is about a mixed-raced family in Warrington; its cover image has two blonde, white women, fighting. She tells me: "After the publication of my first novel, Brass, I received many letters from outraged black and Asian readers who couldn't understand why I'd written a female character that was white, middle-class and Catholic. Come to think of it, all my first-person female narrators are white. My English father raised my brother and me as English, and on some level [maybe] my Englishness rather than my mother's Malay Tamil lineage informs my natural writer's voice. Or maybe it is simply because when it comes to crafting characters, race is not as important to me as gender, class and sexuality."

This seems to make sense. I have never chosen a novel solely on the basis of the colour or race of the author or the characters inside it. Maybe, as some publishers would have us believe, there truly are readers for whom the capacity to enjoy a book is in direct proportion to their ability to identify with the colour and culture of the characters. If this is true, it is a phenomenon that personally has never affected me.

Chinua Achebe, last year's recipient of the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction, said that the writer's duty "is to explore the human condition". Though Nigeria is not part of my heritage, all of his books, his characters and their culture, have been accessible to me because he is a gifted writer, one who has practised what he has preached.

It's the same for the Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison, or for Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes), Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), or Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things). When I read their works, I am awed by the depth of their capacity for exploring the human condition, by their talent; not the colour of their characters or skin. Their novels are enriched by characters hewn from their personal cultural backgrounds, who have done what the award-winning author Malorie Blackman describes as "presenting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances".

I'm not clear, then, what the criteria are for a book to be deemed Black Writing. I was perplexed to discover the works of the Scotsman, Alexander McCall Smith, the hugely empathetic writer of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, on the Black Writing shelves. So, is the only criterion that the characters themselves are of an Afro-Caribbean background, and the colour or race of the author is immaterial? In that case, booksellers take heed: Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English is currently misfiled under General Fiction!

I'd love to say that all this matters not a jot. But if that were true, why would Bloomsbury have used an image of a white woman on the cover of Justine Larbalestier's novel, Liar, whose protagonist is a "nappy"-haired black woman? Why, even after the accusations of "whitewashing", would they have gone on, last year, to do the same with Jaclyn Dolamore's novel, Magic Under Glass? The thinking, surely, is that people would have been unlikely to purchase these books with black characters shown on their covers. Larbalestier has said that notions of "'what sells' and 'what doesn't sell' can be a self-fulfilling prophecy". Therein, methinks, lies some truth.

I have been brought up in London by my mother, who was born in Montserrat, a small Caribbean island just across the water from Antigua. Few people have holidayed there in the past decade because of the active volcano that constitutes a large part of the island. Moreover, because of its size, (39 square miles), till now, no one I know of has written a novel whose main characters are Montserratian descendants. My family has always been British (Montserrat is still a British Overseas Territory), and by virtue of my upbringing, I am a true East Ender.

When writing A Cupboard Full of Coats, I stuck to the creative writing mantra "write what you know". My characters are like me and my family: black British. It was so natural to craft characters I identified with when writing, that, until I met my agent, I never gave the matter even the first thought. I strove to write the type of book I enjoy reading, one that transcends colour, culture and the Black Writing shelf, a novel which explores the kind of contemporary human issues that will not be constrained by sweeping categorisation of race or class.

The novelist Amanda Craig agrees. "Perhaps the best character I've written so far is Job, a Zimbabwean refugee in Hearts and Minds. But I could only write Job because I knew about many other things that made him," she explains. "In the end, that's the secret I think – it doesn't matter what colour someone is, it's whether you get to their inner core and make it credible and interesting."

And on the subject of literature and does colour matter, my answer is this: I have spent my whole life in London, in what is perhaps the most diverse and tolerant city in the world. This is the year 2011. I truly, madly, deeply hope that the majority of us sincerely couldn't give a damn.

A Cupboard Full of Coats, By Yvvette Edwards (Oneworld Publications £12.99)

"The radio played soca in the background. Different parts of Lemon's body danced at different times...Even when he was grating fresh ginger into the mixture, he kept perfect time with the beat."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone