I’ve had more than one publisher ask me what they can do to get more Indigenous authors/illustrators in their lists (non-Indigenous publishers, that is, because Indigenous publishers already do an outstanding job of publishing an incredibly diverse range of Indigenous voices).
It’s important that publishing houses are culturally safe spaces where the voices of Aboriginal peoples are valued and welcomed – in fact, that they are spaces where all culturally diverse voices are valued and welcomed. I think a lot of people who work in Australian publishing want that too, and I know that from talking to publishers. But it might not be obvious from looking at a publisher’s website, their policies and/or their processes. And so the question becomes – what can publishers do to manifest their commitment to publishing the many voices of this world?
Here’s some thoughts on a few things publishers can do in relation to Indigenous voices:
1. Know what you don’t know
Many publishers don’t have a great deal of knowledge of Indigenous worldviews, knowledge, and cultures – and that’s okay as long as the publisher is aware of the limits of their knowledge. The problems for Indigenous writers (in fact, for all culturally diverse writers) are usually created not by those who don’t understand, but by those who are ignorant of their own ignorance. Because these are the people that either don’t ask or don’t accept the advice they are given. It means they are vulnerable to enacting stereotypes and producing promotional material that looks like it was assembled sometime in 1952. It means they will continually insist on using terms like ‘animism’, ‘anthropomorphism’, ‘didactic’ or ‘repetitive’ to describe elements of Indigenous works without understanding that these are crude labels invented by the West for ways of storytelling that are very different to Western cultural forms. And it means they will sometimes tell Indigenous writers that we are not writing of the ‘Indigenous experience’ - as if there is only one experience that is shared between the 370 million-plus Indigenous peoples of the earth.
2. Create opportunities
There have been some terrific projects over the years which have included the Waarda series (Fremantle Press), the Little Big Book Club Emerging Indigenous Writer and Illustrator Project (with the books published by A&U), the production of Indigenous anthologies that give space to so many voices (for example the Indigenous editions of Westerly and Southerly), and of course the David Unaipon (winners published by UQP) and black&write awards (winners published by Magabala Books). But given the extreme disadvantage of Indigenous peoples, we need more – a lot more – before there is anything resembling an equality of opportunity with non-Indigenous writers/illustrators. We need internships. Skills workshops. And we need those opportunities for Indigenous editors too, because there’s a critical lack of Indigenous editorial expertise in Australia.
3. Have a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP)
A RAP is a business plan that documents how an organisation will contribute to reconciliation. RAPs are everywhere – my football team has one (go the Dockers!), as does my bank, my local council and my supermarket. Schools have RAPS; also mining companies, law firms, universities, government departments and professional associations. There are detailed instructions on how to create a RAP on the Reconciliation Australia website, as well as a list of people who have one. But there don’t seem to be any publishers on that list.
4. End the whitewashing of covers
If the story is about a brown kid, put a brown kid on the cover. And don’t show that character in shadowed silhouette (while all the covers with the blue-eyed blondes have them standing in the sunshine of the eternal spotlight). This is a global issue and I know that many Australian publishers would never whitewash a cover. But this is an issue of such sensitivity and importance that it would be terrific to see more publishers joining the voices of authors, teachers, bloggers and readers to speak out against it. And if you want to hear some of those other voices – Google ‘whitewashing covers’, and read the first ten or twenty results.
5. Acquire editorial expertise
First, we need more Indigenous editors. This has a two fold benefit for publishers, because an Indigenous editor will not only be of assistance in editing Indigenous stories but in recognising issues with stories told by non-Indigenous people that another editor might miss. Second, non-Indigenous editors need to start acquiring appropriate expertise if they’re going to edit Indigenous texts. How much do you know abut Indigenous peoples? Do you have any understanding of the contexts that shape the stories? Because you’ll have this understanding already of stories written in the Western literary tradition. You’ll rely on it, probably unconsciously, to comprehend and appreciate a narrative. But you may well have to work a bit harder to understand narratives based in a different worldview.
6. Adopt the AIATSIS Guidelines for the ethical publishing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and research from those communities, and start developing an understanding of the issues that those guidelines exist to address.
7. Reach out to Indigenous authors
If you already publish Indigenous authors, reach out to them – or make contact with an author not on your list, if you don’t have any. In fact, why not reach out to all your culturally diverse authors and see if they’re interested in having a conversation about how culturally aware they’ve found your publishing house to be. Have any of your authors ever experienced something that made them uncomfortable or distressed? Or are you doing a great job of something – if so, what and how can you do more of it?
8. Know yourself
Understand how any preconceived notions of what it is to be Indigenous might be affecting your judgment as to what books you publish and how you promote and edit those books. Because the differences between Indigenous and Western worldviews and experiences might make it harder for you to read an insider narrative than one written from outside the culture. But insider stories are exactly the ones we need more of – because isn’t opening windows onto other worlds what books are for?
Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and academic who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She works at the Law School at the University of Western Australia and is the author of a number of picture books as well as the YA speculative fiction series, The Tribe.