Award-winning children’s writer Jamila Gavin reflects on CILIP’s efforts to address the widespread criticism of this year’s all-white Carnegie Medal longlist.

With 2015 report ‘Writing the Future’ having identified ‘mixed heritage’ as the UK’s fastest-growing ethnic group, award-winning children’s writer Jamila Gavin, herself of such heritage, reflects on CILIP’s efforts to address the widespread criticism of this year’s all-white Carnegie Medal longlist.

Following the controversy over this year’s Carnegie Medal, CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), bravely organised a seminar to examine the reasons behind the award’s historical lack of representation of Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers: in the 70 years of its history, there has never been a BAME winner. As someone who has devoted much of my writing life to reflecting multiculturalism in Britain, I was pleased to be invited to attend.

The seminar, which took the form of workshops and open discussions, sought to answer such thorny questions as whether it is sufficient to let market forces decide future longlists, on the grounds that real talent will always prevail? Or, whether in this touchy, diffident, politically correct world, there should be some kind of intervention to ensure diversity? Would it demean the Medal and the Medal winner to show any kind of favour to someone for their ethnicity? Would it do justice to the rest? Would we still be supporting the best?

For me, the debate is an old chestnut in which I first got involved in the 1970s. In the face of acute racism at that time, these were new-ish issues, but people did listen. Bookshops set up special areas for ‘multicultural books’, schools across the country introduced multiculturalism in their curriculum. We writers of colour were much in demand in schools, and for a few years, with support from the Gulbenkian Foundation, and the compliance of local authorities, we felt hopeful that real integration was taking place. The Royal Shakespeare Company was already making colour-blind decisions and casting black actors in all kinds of roles and, for a while, there seemed more people of colour on television. But then all these positive developments appeared to go backwards. Why? Was it in the belief that the job was done? Was it money? Cuts? Old prejudices emerging? Or simply lack of interest and awareness?

It was multiculturalism that inspired me. I drew my material from my multicultural mixed-race background. It educated me.

Only a month before the CILIP conference, I had been at a different conference in support of the arts in schools. There was barely a non-white face in the room – apart from the patron herself; and barely a non-white face in any of the literature, or the promotional film which was to be circulated. When I pointed this out, the organisers were mortified; they, who genuinely wanted diversity, had taken their eye off the ball. So it’s not yet embedded in our psyche; we are not yet truly colour blind. Those of us who care have to bat on.

At a time when online trolls are abusing Mary Beard for reminding us that Roman Britain was already a multicultural country, all of us, not just those at CILIP (whose librarian judges, by the way, do so much good work promoting all kinds of books and authors in our schools and libraries) and within publishing, need to ask ourselves tough questions. Is there a sub conscious assumption that writers from BAME are less good? Do we need to widen our criteria; and our perceptions of what is good or bad? How far should any area of society make concessions for those struggling to find their place within it? Is tokenism at best a token, and at worst patronising? Should I myself wonder if I was just a token when I started publishing in the 70s?

It was multiculturalism that inspired me. I drew my material from my multicultural mixed race background. It educated me. It led me into linguistics: the origins of words, the shared roots from so many different cultures, and even finding shared myths and legends from the Norse, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Hindus, and the Jews. I rather mourn the loss of the word ‘multiculturalism’ with its implication that we are a multiplicity of interwoven cultures. Now the word ‘diversity’ commonly takes its place: meaning different; variety; unlikeness; various kinds of. Does that really describe our country as accurately, I ask myself. But whatever the word, the problem remains.

For me, it remains chicken and egg: if you don’t provide the opportunities, you can’t develop the skills. Years ago when certain books of mine were discussed for TV adaptation, a young producer said somewhat sorrowfully, “the trouble is, Asians are no good at acting!” Thirty years on, she has been proved to be oh so wrong. But we all carry these prejudices and assumptions around with us. We agree that everyone needs to see their mirror image reflected back at them. But you only have to look around you: at the advertisements on billboards, the books in libraries, and schools, and bookshops, the characters on television. Anywhere you care to look, the images are still predominantly white.

For me, it remains chicken and egg; if you don’t provide the opportunities, you can’t develop the skills.

I believe the change needs to begin long before we get to publishers and book awards. It starts even before we get into the classroom. I would like to see teachers, at teacher training level, be thoroughly imbued with multicultural and LGBT awareness to take into the classroom, and into every subject – not just for tokenism, or a little wave at Black History – but because it is already threaded into our history, as Mary Beard pointed out. Wasn’t Hadrian a Spaniard? Saint George Turkish? Queen Victoria German? And wasn’t Jesus a Jew? And what about the Normans, the Vikings, and the Celts, and all those Spanish sailors from the Armada, washed up on British coasts? And what about our casual everyday use of Hindi with words such as ‘pyjamas’, ‘bungalow’ and ‘cushion’?

CILIP has started the discussion, and it isn’t an easy one to have. Do we need quotas for example? In some areas they have definitely helped. But we could at the very least ensure we have included and truly evaluated BAME writers. I sense despair among many BAME writers, desperate to get a foot on the ladder. If we are to have a truly harmonious society in which everyone feels they have a chance, then we all need to be invested in it. Book prizes do matter; do give confidence; do feed into the market; and can affect the whole dynamic of how we think and live.

CILIP, and indeed all of us, must ensure that awards have genuine value; that they themselves don’t become tokens of something less than the excellence they seek to reward. But I believe that by throwing the net wider, we will discover some unexpected and fabulous new talent.

JAMILA GAVIN has been publishing stories, novels and plays for children aged six to sixteen for over 30 years. She won the Whitbread Children’s Book Award in 2000 with Coram Boy and has been shortlisted for many other awards. Her most recent publications are Tales from India, School for Princes, and Alexander the Great: Man, Myth or Monster. Blackberry Blue and other Fairytales, published in 2013, was written in the European tradition but reflects the diversity of the new multicultural Europeans of today.