“Storytelling is survival,” said Nasim Asgari, a poet, performer, and student at York University, while reflecting on her first experiences of storytelling at the “Resistance in Storytelling” panel discussion held at the Hart House debates room on March 2. The event was organized by the Hart House Debates and Dialogue Committee.

The others panelists were Liselle Sambury, a young-adult author based in Toronto whose debut novel is due to come out next year; Farah Heron, the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Chai Factor; and June Hur, who works at the Toronto Public Library and whose debut historical fiction novel will be released in April. The panel discussion started with Asgari’s passionate performance of two of her works.

Are publishing houses truly changing?

According to Heron, racialized authors are still not represented enough in the publishing business. It’s a “misconception” that there are more books by minority authors being published nowadays because of a few “high-profile” releases, she argued. Heron mentioned feeling that publishers see it as a “trend, which is upsetting.” However, while she does feel that publishing works by diverse authors has become a trend, she addresses that, “at the same time, I think it’s not going away either.”

Heron also referenced the recent scandal within the Romance Writers of America (RWA), an influential organization comprising over 9,000 writers of romantic fiction. According to Vox, the outrage was caused by the ousting of one of the members, Courtney Milan, who spoke out against “perceived racism” in the RWA. These comments highlighted systemic equity issues within the organization. Up until the end of February, Heron was president of the Toronto chapter of the RWA, but she resigned in response to the recent events.

Sambury noted that publishing seems to be changing only “on [the] surface.” Asgari mentioned that minoritized writers are asking themselves whether it’s worth entering white-dominated spaces where they might not be wanted, and that those who do not follow this path tend to create their own spaces where their voices can be better heard.

Why we need diversity in publishing

According to a 2019 survey by Lee & Low Books, the publishing business is still overwhelmingly white, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied, which does not do justice to the diversity of the world we live in. The organizers of the survey noted that diversity in publishing businesses is so crucial because “the people behind the books serve as gatekeepers, who can make a huge difference in determining which stories are amplified and which are shut out.”

However, both Hur and Heron noted that there are “gems” in the publishing industry who “see the value in the story” and are willing to publish more than one token minoritized author.

How to avoid tokenization and appropriation

Heron stresses that it is important to recognize that there are differences between marginalized communities and within them. One must not assume the lived experiences of the author reflect the experiences of the entire community or of other communities, added Sambury.

Hur replied that as a minoritized writer of historical fiction, she feels more responsibility to be as thorough and accurate as possible in her writing. One of her biggest fears is letting down her Korean audience by misrepresenting Korean history.

The Varsity asked the panelists how white, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied writers can represent minoritized characters as respectfully as possible while avoiding stereotyping, tokenization, and appropriation. Heron suggested looking into your secondary characters and whether they reflect “the world you want to see.” She also emphasized the importance of creating multi-layered characters and considering intersectionality: “Their racial identities aren’t [all of] who they are.”

Hur recommended finding good beta readers that can help you figure out where you went wrong. Sambury added that sometimes you need to let go of characters or even books that are based on inaccurate representation of minoritized people or negative stereotypes.