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."

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