South Asian Spotlight — Gourav Mohanty discusses the Necessity of an Update for the BIPOC Definition

We’ve all read many diverse books, but have we ever thought about how many of those books are written by native or mainland authors? Sons of Darkness is one such book written by Gourav Mohanty, author of India’s first grimdark epic fantasy! What exactly is BIPOC, and is there a line between native and diaspora? Today, I’m so thrilled to be hosting Gourav on my blog as he discusses about how publishing in India is quite different from publishing in the developed countries.

If you haven’t already heard about Gourav’s debut, Sons of Darkness is an epic fantasy that is rich in culture and world, and moreover is inspired by one of India’s greatest epics, the Mahabharata. So what are you waiting for, this is clearly something you’re gonna eat up!

This October, the blog is featuring many voices from the South Asian community, so if you seem to have missed out on the previous posts, check out South Asian Spotlight!

Does the BIPOC Definition Need an Update?

Introduction

In Sons of Darkness, a lowborn warrior Karna enters into an argument with Lord Krishna about equality to which Krishna responds ‘Equality is just a myth’, and demonstrates how even amidst the lower castes of the society, there are some who are far richer, far more fortunate than even the nobles of the highest castes. In doing so he decrees that caste is not the only dividing line across society. Privilege is also responsible for its faultlines.

When I started to write this scene in Sons of Darkness, I did not realise how I would resonate with it in the very near future. I suppose in this I find common cause with all the other fantasy authors from Africa and Asia, authors of colour like me, who do not have agents, who did not know what Netgalley was, and who in the pursuit of representing their region and culture found themselves clubbed as BIPOC authors alongside US and UK citizens of Asian and African origin, and stared up to find, much like Karna, the thorny ladder of privilege.

Before venturing into what might be considered, for lack of a better term, a controversial subject – I want to overemphasize that I love, adore and respect fellow BIPOC authors from the West. Each author has their own quest, their own challenges, their own strife to bear and conquer. But just the way there was a need to differentiate between ‘white authors’ (who have traditionally enjoyed the benefits of bias) and ‘BIPOC authors’ (who have needed all the help they can for representation), I believe there is a need to differentiate between BIPOC authors from Developed Countries (“Diaspora Authors”) and BIPOC authors from the Global South (“Native Authors”).

If I were to trace where my bother (or perhaps, resentment or envy is an apt phrase) began is when I saw my book feature in a List of Books by South Asian Authors. The rank listed wonderful books (I myself had enjoyed reading a few of them thoroughly) but it irked me that 9 out of 10 authors were US citizens. I felt like a humble dwarf who had lost his wealth in Erebor – pitted against the powerful elves of Rivendell.

And this was just a cosy list from a humble bookblogger. Let us take a glance at Goodreads. If you open up the 2022 BIPOC Author Year, you will find 15 books listed on page 1. 14 of those books belong to Diaspora Authors from US and 1 is authored by a Diaspora Author from UK. Not a single book on that list is from a Native Author.

Even in the BIPOC Fantasy Shelf, of the first 15 books, 11 are from US, 3 are from UK and 1 is from Australia. Only 1 BIPOC author on that shelf is a Native Author from Jamaica. Even if we narrow the lens and head on over to Goodreads’ 2022 Book Releases by Asian Authors – Of the first 15 books, only 2 books are written by Native Authors from Asia. The rest 13 are books written by Diaspora Authors from US.

And while I write this, I am not professing in any way that we should not encourage Diaspora Authors. No, not at all. They are in dire need of representation in an industry rife with white bias, and supporting their books will go a long way in diversifying literature. But I hope the reader can appreciate what I am trying to say: that it is important that while supporting a cause, we find a way to discern between the marginally represented (Diaspora Authors) and the unprivileged un-represented (Native Authors).

My Journey as an Author

To paint a picture, I am taking the liberty of sharing the hurdles in my journey as a fantasy author from India:

  • Lack of Audiobooks: The power of audiobooks is undeniable. The market for Audible boomed especially during the pandemic, and now audiobooks are here to stay and prosper. The sheer number of requests for an Audible for my book dishearten me. But did you know, ACX, Amazon’s audiobook developer (the most commonly used platform for making audiobooks and also, the most inexpensive platform) is not available to authors based outside US and UK.
  • Phobia of Word Count: The average length of an epic fantasy book is 150,000 – 200,000 words with popular debuts like A Game of Thrones (284,000 words) and Eye of the World (380,000 words) being chonky classics. Fiction books in India above 100 000 words are considered a no man’s land by publishers. The publishers just do not entertain the appetite for big fiction books which shows how epic fantasy is just not understood as a genre in India. I was asked by three different publishers who enjoyed by book to split it into 3 parts!
  • Availability of Promotional Tools: US and UK have a plethora of review magazines: Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist and many others dedicated to review of fantasy books. Many of these journals do not accept books for review if they aren’t published by a US or UK publisher. India on the other hand has no dedicated magazines/review sites catering to novels. Further, in the West, there are book lists like NY Times Top 10, Sunday Times Top 10 and so on which help a book achieve popularity but are usually closed off to books published outside the West. While we do not enjoy such lists, we can get a feature in a newspaper after paying hefty PR fees.Absence of
  • Fantasy Book Conventions: Then you have the conventions, DragonCon, WorldCon, World Fantasy Convention, Multiverse and Wiscon which offer a great opportunity for indie authors as well as debut authors to feature on panels, meet their readers and promote their work. The cherry on the top are dedicated awards to honour fantasy books where literary agents push for the work of their authors to get highlighted, and ultimately, awarded. None of these are easily available to Native Authors.
  • Lack of Hardbacks: The readers of fantasy love hardbacks. Every and each fantasy book hitting the market this year (Babel to First Binding) came in beautifully crafted hardbacks. Paperbacks are secondary. Back in India, the publishers cannot afford to print hardbacks. They are an exception, and are printed only when a book sells a million copies, and perhaps not even then. As such, the advances offered to authors are pittances compared to the average six figure advance handed out in US and UK to Diaspora Authors, and in fact many Indian authors do not even receive advances.

Don’t get me wrong. I know audiobooks, conventions, awards, review journals, advances and audience are merely tools, and a good book can sometimes find its way to the readers without them. My own book managed to reach readers due to the wholesome and warm community of Book Twitter and supportive Diaspora Authors. I cannot even imagine the plight of BIPOC authors from countries where even Twitter and Instagram is banned, and yes, there are many such countries.

The fact is that Native Authors from the Global South already experience many setbacks when trying to get traditionally published. They can use your help in reaching kind and generous readers who want to support underprivileged Native Authors. But while these days dozens of BIPOC books by US and UK citizens/Diaspora Authors are being published every year, sometimes for their merit and sometimes as diversity tokens to add to their reputation, the authors from the Global South are lost in the mist as there is no separate section/category for them to gain recognition, to be celebrated and most importantly, to be supported. In my short time as an author, I only saw Indie Ink Awards carve a special category for an Asian or Latin book written by an Asian or Latin author as against a Diaspora Author.

But there are countless fantasy books from Native Authors based in the Global South that reflect their experience, their tradition, and uniquely reflect the pain and roots of how they got there because… they still live there. Yet, there are are heavily underrepresented in literature. Reading and writing diverse stories is important, but it is also more important to read those stories when they are written by authors telling them from experience.

Conclusion

If significant experiences and perspectives are missing from the table, they’re not going to be included. If a flock of masons is around a castle designing it and all of them are able-bodied, they’re simply going to design a castle that accommodates the way they move through the world. It’s not an intentional exclusion, but it will result in the exclusion of people who move differently.

You have to have multiple perspectives at those tables, and you can’t just take the additive approach, like, “Oh, well, we included some more diversity by signing an author from San Francisco of Ghanian origin,” if you don’t also address power and privilege. That’s all what I wanted to say. I don’t think any Diaspora Author would say, “My country of citizenship or residence has had no influence or benefit whatsoever in my journey as an author.” See, the bottom line is this: Publishers can take on books that appear to promote diversity, but, because you don’t account for centuries of economic deprivation of developing countries, the impact of those policies will not be neutral on an international scale.

We need to advocate essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honours the lives of all young people from countries in the Global South where they do not enjoy the privilege of their BIPOC diaspora counterparts in developed countries (Global North). Clubbing Diaspora Authors and Native Authors together in one general list as South Asian Authors or Latin American Authors without distinction may be, for lack of a better word, unfair to both communities. I sincerely hope I have not offended my friends who are Diaspora Authors. I repeat that I have nothing but love and respect and admiration for their struggle to get published. I hope they understand that my goal here is to highlight the need of a system that exists to provide all authors with added opportunities in proportion to, and as befitting their under-representation so that they can all have their work discovered and read.

about the author

Gourav Mohanty was born in Bhubaneswar, the City of Temples. A gold medallist from SLS, Pune, he currently practices law in Mumbai. He moonlights as a stand-up comic, a painter, and a blogger. As evident, his life always has many tabs open. A connoisseur of mythologies and momos, he has won numerous scholarships, one of which took him to the castles of Europe. Ever since, he has wanted to play medieval matchmaker by conjuring a world where Vedic India meets Italian Renaissance. Sons of Darkness is his first book. Please buy it for he owes people money.

THANK YOU FOR READING!

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