In 2016, less than 100 books by British BAME authors were published. In an industry that often considers itself to be a liberal, even radical, environment – the facts and figures tell a very different story.
"I came across this statistic back in 2019, when I was applying for my first publishing role," says Amy Baxter, the creator of London-based literary review Bad Form.
The quarterly magazine by and about Black, Asian and racialised community writers gives a platform to British writers from backgrounds underrepresented by the publishing industry.
"I was looking for a magazine or reading list, but there was nowhere to go if you wanted to read diverse opinions on books by people of colour. So Bad Form was essentially born out of necessity."
Two years later, and Bad Form is on its sixth issue: Food. The beautiful, hand-illustrated journal features mouth-watering essays, short stories, glossy poems – and, most importantly, recipes.
Food is one of our most important cultural touch points, so it's no surprise that Bad Form has chosen to focus on the subject for its latest issue.
"Cooking your way through this issue is not just an excuse to make some really tasty food, it also feels like a beautiful tribute to some amazing family recipes passed down from one generation to another," says Baxter. "They're so often transmitted orally rather than ever written down."
Visit the Bad Form website and the Food issue is so popular it's almost constantly sold out (although you can read the digital version online). So until you get your hands on a copy, Baxter gives us a taste of what to expect...
What exactly is Bad Form and how did it come about?
Bad Form is a literary review magazine by and about Black, Asian and racialised community writers. We say Black, Asian and racialised as we don't really like the terms BAME or BIPOC. I myself am half Indian (but super white parting) so it's always been an area that's close to my heart.
When I was applying for my first publishing role, I was looking for a magazine or reading list of great titles I could work my way through. But there was nothing! There was nowhere to go if you wanted to read diverse opinions on books by people of colour. So Bad Form was essentially born out of necessity. In fact, I was quite surprised that it didn't already exist on some sort of well-funded level.
If authors of colour were published and reviewed at a proportional rate to the content they produce, then there would be no need for Bad Form to exist
I got some friends together in the summer of 2019 and we created the first issue, which launched in winter that year.
We also posted a lot on our website but publishers weren't getting back to us. Then, the BLM movement happened in spring 2020 and suddenly everyone wanted to work with us. We literally went from having zero proof copies to having 30 coming in a week. I couldn't keep all the deliveries in my bedroom, it was nuts!
We grew exponentially. It's hard in some respects as we grew out of tragedy, but at the end of the day we're not trying to capitalise off anything – we're just trying to offer a platform to these authors to be reviewed fairly in a space that's catered towards them.
How has the site been received so far?
Generally, very positively. It's interesting though, I do get asked a lot of questions as obviously I look very white – a lot of people think I'm just this incredibly keen white person – which I find quite funny.
The concern is always "Why do you need this separate platform? If you're pushing for more representation, wouldn't you want an equal platform rather than a separate but equal platform?" My response is always this: I would actually like Bad Form to become redundant.
If authors of colour were treated equally everywhere and were published and reviewed at a proportional rate to the content they produce, then there would be no need for Bad Form to exist! I do hope this happens within my lifetime.
What we do is not an attack on white authors – they write incredible books – we're just trying to help and elevate those who are not given the same opportunities
I can understand our platform may upset some people as it seems like a restricted or separate entity, but equally, I hope they can understand what we do is not an attack on white authors – they write incredible books – we're just trying to help and elevate those who are not given the same opportunities. I think mostly, when you explain that to people, they very rarely say anything negative.
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Do you think our cultural identity informs our cultural intake?
I would assume so. Unless specified that a character has caramel skin, the assumption is that they are white.
This was ages ago, but I remember when The Hunger Games was cast and there was outrage that the character of Roo was mixed race. If you read the text, it clearly specifies that she has dark brown skin and tight curly hair but, even then, readers assumed it meant 'white with a tan' or 'white with a tan and curly hair'.
There is definitely this innate bias when we read books. It's fascinating yet incredibly sad, but I guess that's where we're at as an industry.
So why the name Bad Form?
It was intended as a joke! I thought it would be really funny that an author would have to say "Ah yes, I've been published with Bad Form" as if it was bad writing! No one else seems to find it as hilarious as I do, but we've stuck with it.
How did the Food issue come together?
We were inundated with pitches and submissions. We really weren't expecting to be because the topic of food (although a great one) can be quite difficult to discuss, especially in immigrant families.
We were also really worried that, being a literature magazine that takes short stories, poetry, essays, and book reviews etc, that there wasn't going to be enough for people to write about. For example, I can't name any books that feature the north Indian food which I grew up eating.
Thankfully however, we were really lucky to have such great feedback and responses from every corner of the globe. Every article (bar one which is about famine) has a recipe to go with it.
There's everything from Asian to Caribbean to African: we've got Wonton Soup from scratch, Chinese Clay Pot Rice recipes, Indian Chapattis and Mauritian Chicken LaDaube
I honestly think, in some respects, this new issue is the greatest cookbook in the world because all these recipes are family recipes. There's a "pinch of this" and a "pinch of that". In some cases we've put exact measurements on, and in other cases it's like "just keep mixing until it turns this colour!" The issue has a real homely, family feel.
I should also emphasise that for a lot of the writers, it's their first time being published. That always excites me when people get to see their writing in print for the first time.
What cuisines can we expect to see covered?
There's everything from Asian to Caribbean to African: we've got Wonton Soup from scratch, Chinese Clay Pot Rice recipes, Indian Chapattis and Mauritian Chicken LaDaube – which is called "Poulet La Daube" in French and is a delicious chicken stew.
There's even a Jewish Potato Latkes recipe in there from a woman who's half black, half Ashkenazi Jewish. She shares how she found her roots through her mum's cookbook that was passed down to her.
What do you think we can do to address the lack of diversity in hospitality?
Obviously I don't work in hospitality myself, so this is coming entirely as an 'eater' and not a 'maker'! But personally, I think the ability to support local restaurants that serve diverse and regional cuisines is so important.
There's a piece in the issue actually that really opened my eyes: it's written by a lovely Vietnamese woman called Lisa Nguyen, who speaks about her family's emigration to the States. Despite being Vietnamese, they had to open up a Chinese restaurant – therefore the food they'd cook for themselves was very different to what they'd consume in public and everyone just assumed they were Chinese.
What are Bad Form's editorial workshops?
As I work in publishing, I get a lot of messages asking how to get into the industry and requests to read over cover letters. I try to read as many as I can, and I even put up a few YouTube videos – but there were still so many questions! So I just thought right, what can I do to help? Could I run a workshop?
Our workshops aim to cover everything from copy editing and proof reading, to the more fun stuff like copy writing and how to stand out, as job applications in publishing are ridiculous. I noticed a job went up in Fig Tree in Penguin Random House that had more than 1200 applications, for an entry level role! So our aim is to offer people some practical advice, plus all the money we raise goes straight into Bad Form.
What about future issues?
After the Food issue, we've got such an exciting one coming up – the Caribbean Issue. It's being guest edited by Mireille Cassandra Harper. She's an editor at Vintage, but she's also really well known for a lot of work she did around the BLM movement last year. We're working together to promote Caribbean authors who don't necessarily have a huge platform yet, so stay tuned!
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