Whose Voice? On Identity Politics and Publishing (Sangeetha Thanapal)

Diversity in publishing has come under intense scrutiny these past five years. The yawning difference between the number of white authors and authors of colour — as well as the startling pay disparities between them — has evoked a concerted effort to examine racism within the industry.

Despite this censure, diversity in publishing has not improved in the last four years. The industry remains unbearably white. In Australia, the problem is so dire that even finding statistics to begin a conversation on the lack of diversity is an impossible task.

In response to the complete lack of response, a ground-up movement sprang up. #OwnVoices is a term coined by writer Corinne Duyvis, and refers to an author from a marginalised group writing about said group. Its central aim is simple: improve the diversity of books available by supporting writers of colour (and other underrepresented groups like queer or disabled people), who write about their own world. 

The movement caught on quickly. Authors and ‘bookstagrammers’ immediately saw this as a chance for them to move the needle without waiting for the publishing industry and bring readers some much needed fresh voices.

#Ownvoices as a movement is embedded within the larger umbrella of identity politics. Identity politics is a mode of categorising through ascription to oppressed identities, be it race, gender, sexuality etc. It came about as a response to the failures of existing movements towards women of colour and puts the focus on particularly erased identities. The ‘ownvoices’ movement in publishing takes on this need to elevate these erased identities and voices in publishing.

However, there are times where the movement seems to fold in on itself. In 2019, Kosoko Jackson, a Black, gay man, had to cancel the release of his novel, A Place for Wolves. The novel’s protagonist was himself Black and gay, but that was not enough.

A sole Goodreads review tanked the book. The commentator was not a professional reviewer or editor but her diatribe excoriating the novel’s backdrop in a time and place of genocide was enough for Jackson to ‘self-cancel’ his own book.

Unfortunately, this is where identity politics in publication seems to have led us; to a point where a white woman’s singular review stopped the publication of a Black, gay man’s book. The derisively oft-repeated line about ‘the left eating itself’ springs to mind.

The controversy surrounding American Dirt was another example of this. Jeanine Cummings’ novel about a Mexican woman fleeing to the United States landed to great fanfare. Even other Mexican American writers who were renowned for writing about the Mexican American experience, such as Sandra Cisneros, had lauded it.

But closer to its release date, writer Myriam Gurba wrote a scathing takedown of the novel, pointing to its ‘overly ripe Mexican stereotypes’, and prose ‘taint[ed]’ by the ‘white gaze’. Soon, Roxanne Gay got on board and the backlash began. There were calls to pull the novel and Oprah Winfrey was questioned for picking the book for her book club.

Yasmin Nair’s sublime piece on the debate asks the critics of the novel why only certain Mexicans can be seen as credible in literature. What does it mean to insist that only poor and struggling Mexicans can be depicted in fiction for it to be deemed ‘authentic’? If diversity was the aim, then shouldn’t a variance of Mexican American representation, which should include a middle-class woman, fit the bill?

Identity politics, from which American social justice terminology tends to originate, sometimes lacks the necessary nuance and context to be applied around the world. Conversations around racial dynamics are packaged in a way that is true for America but not for other countries. For example, Singaporean Chinese people are incredibly privileged. Within Singapore, a state with deep racist underpinnings, Chinese writers have access to disproportionate degrees of power, privilege and networks. 

The mobility privilege that many Chinese Singaporeans carry allows them to move to Western counties like Australia and America. When they get there, some of them realise they can now present as oppressed. They go on to appropriate diversity opportunities in publishing, taking them from Black, Indigenous and other people of colour in the West who are actually oppressed. These people are the ‘white people’ of Singapore but have suddenly been deemed marginalised — all because they got on a plane.

There is a particular sort of Americanised identity politics that permits this sort of behaviour because according to the American racial dynamic, all non-white people are ‘minorities’. This type of identity politics, which also exists in Australia, makes no distinction between Chinese people in the West (who are minorities) and Chinese people in China or Singapore (who are racially privileged). The category an identity occupies tends to depend on the where and when. As Nair pointed out in her piece on American Dirt: ‘Identity is, in short, complicated’.

Recently, I read a romance novel written by Ayisha Malik, a South Asian, hijab-wearing Muslim woman who wrote about the romantic experiences of South Asian hijab-wearing Muslim women in the United Kingdom. The book is peak #ownvoices and hits all the diversity checkboxes.

I finished the book, but under duress.

At times, I was forced to stop reading. The protagonist was vitriolic in her hatred towards fat and plus-sized people, and there is even a scene where she states that being called fat is a worse insult than a racial slur. The way identity politics is practiced at the moment, especially the politics around race in publishing, demands that I, a Brown, South Asian woman, should be delighted by this book and that I must spend my money to support it.

But how do I support a writer who derides and mocks the curvy body I live in? A shallow practice of identity politics says I owe allegiance to this writer simply because she is Brown.

Intersectionality, an important concept coming from Critical Race Theory, might be useful here. Malik lacks an intersectional approach to writing about South Asian women, hence a work that is seemingly for South Asian women can end up hurting some among us.

But while I can articulate this theoretically, that does not make me feel any better after reading the book.

I can assuage myself with the thought that the book did not do well and in fact was panned for its numerous grammar and spelling mistakes by those who actually read it instead of oohing about it simply because a Brown woman wrote it.

And so perhaps, a reminder: a book does not have to be cancelled if it’s just not very good. I did not have to do a single thing about Malik’s novel — it did it all by itself. The book might even pave the way for the publishing of much better-written literature by Muslim women in the future, and despite how problematic it is, I would never want it cancelled.

Identity is intricate; identity politics, or the way it is currently practiced, is not. In fact, the very founders of the theory have trouble with its modern iterations, precisely because of the way it has been reduced to simplistic terms.  Within publishing, the movement seems to be doing the opposite of what it intends. It has failed the people it says it is here for. Worse, it is elevating those with ready access to power and privilege under the guise of diversity. The racism of the publishing industry is not going to be fixed this way.


Sangeetha Thanapal is a writer and activist. She is the originator of the term ‘Chinese Privilege,’ which situates institutionalized racism within Singapore. She has spoken and performed at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, the Melbourne Writers Festival and the Emerging Writer’s Festival. Her fiction and political writing have been published by Djed Press, Eureka Street, SBS, Fireside Fiction and many more. She holds an MA from the University of Sussex and is currently working on her first novel. She can be found at her website and everywhere @kaliandkalki.