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Diversity in Literature and Publishing: Q&A with Jabari Asim


Hollihock is pleased to announce and introduce to you our first keynote speaker of the conference weekend: Jabari Asim.


Jabari is an author; associate professor of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College; and the executive editor of The Crisis, the NAACP’s flagship journal. He graciously took some time to talk with us about his work and the state of diversity in literature and publishing.

Tell us a little bit about your writing journey. When did you start writing? What were some major steps that brought you to where you are now?

I never considered writing as a career until I went to college. I discovered that I spent all my study time on my lit courses, despite being a political science major. I switched to English and began to take it seriously. I focused on poetry then. A poem I wrote at 22 became my first publication, in Black African Literature Forum a couple years later. I gradually expanded into fiction, then stumbled into a journalism career that lasted more than 25 years. I always treated journalism as my day job. At night I poured my energy into my own writing projects. I published my first book, a novel for middle schoolers, in 2000. I’ve continued to publish since then.

How important is diversity and representation in literature?

Well, there’s diversity in literature and there’s diversity in publishing. The latter doesn’t really exist, in my view. Way back in 1965, a reading specialist named Nancy Larrick surveyed children’s publishing and found it horribly imbalanced. The industry failed to respond intelligently to her report and continues to fail. Mind you, Larrick was talking about children’s books and mainly addressing the lack of diversity among characters portrayed in them. She didn’t even get into the lack of diversity with regard to editors, authors, and illustrators. Adult publishing fares just as poorly if not more so.

What is your assessment of the state of diversity in literature? Is it improving?

A 2014 survey by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center found, “While all racial/ethnic minorities are underrepresented when compared to the general US population, the numbers show that some groups, such as Black/African Americans, are more severely underrepresented. This mirrors trends among children’s book authors. In 2014, just 2 percent of the books tracked by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center were by Black authors. Latinos were similarly underrepresented in both places.”

Based on these and other surveys, I would say no, things are not improving.

What advice do you have for writers who want to make diversity a priority in their work?

First, interact in a meaningful way with people who are different from yourself. Second, remember that diversity isn’t limited to racial difference. Third, don’t hesitate to ask people who are different from you to look over your material and let you know where you could improve. Finally, don’t be afraid to screw up. You aren’t the only writer struggling to get it right; we all are.

Hear Jabari Asim speak at his keynote presentation, and meet him at the book signing to follow at the Hollihock Writers Conference on Friday, August 25 at 1:00pm. See the full class schedule here.

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