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Delhi and the Diversity of Diversity

At Qutb Minar. Image – iStockphoto: Train Arrival
Because Diversity Is So…Diverse

If you’ve ever flown to New Delhi, you’ll have encountered one of the more peculiar time-zone anomalies in world travel: The mighty capital of India is not just 10 hours ahead of Eastern time, it’s 10 hours and 30 minutes ahead. Like Tehran, New Delhi has a half-hour time change atop the usual whole-zone adjustments.

And when I was in New Delhi this week for the International Publishers Association’s (IPA) biennial world congress [1], an interesting situation developed. As I wrote it up at Publishing Perspectives [2], the stage was busy with many publishing and intellectual property players, most of them rightly energized and newly sensitized by the political realities around us today.

In a nutshell:

As many as 70 national associations’ representatives were at the conference, which was designed as three days of intensive, relentless presentations, debates, and discussions around the key issues impacting the world industry. The event drew close to 400 people–with probably 400 views of what we mean when we say “diversity.”

In my congress-closing article [2], it fell to me to point out that the concept of gender diversity in publishing’s leadership had gotten away from the planners. We watched as waves of talented, intelligent men moved across the stage, but the organization fell short of its goal of gender parity in these presentations. Even some of the most prominent women publishers in India, well known to many of us in the international business, were oddly missing from programming. The local organizers had focused elsewhere and surely felt they were entertaining a fabulously diverse audience with as many as 60 nations’ delegates in place.

The international association has handled this criticism extremely well, without defensiveness. This is very much to the IPA’s credit, how constructive.

And what’s important to recognize, of course, is that an outfit like the IPA has the interesting dilemma of occasionally competing constituencies. In a congress cycle that’s hosted by a market like India still laboring with a major overhang of traditional male domination, the dynamic of the wider, multinational group can end up in conflict with the interests of the local hosting body.

The next IPA congress is set in Norway, and it’s logical to expect a very different reality there; the Nordic and Scandinavian publishing markets have long reflected their societies’ more even-handed gender relations.

Nevertheless, the experience in New Delhi–on the whole, an important congress and filled with collegial grace and collaboration in many other ways–brought to mind a couple of points that we as writers need to think about just as carefully as we’d ask conference planners or employers to do.

What Do You Mean by ‘Diversity’?
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

I had a press release come in about a week ago in which one of our prominent literary-and-humanitarian agencies was announcing the shortlists for a series of awards the group confers in recognition of good and important literature.

The note on the release to me announced that they were especially proud of the “gender diversity” of one particular shortlist: “It’s all women!”

Are you smiling and shaking your head? The organization was perfectly well-intentioned. But this, of course, is an apt example of what can happen. We can become so intent on changing an imbalance of one kind or another to something more “diverse,” that completely flipping the situation and announcing success is the result. An all-women’s shortlist is no more “gender diverse” than an all-male shortlist. And if a panel at a conference is all one gender or all the other gender, then gender diversity simply hasn’t happened on that panel, even if the gender that’s sitting there is the one you or I prefer to see.

What you begin to realize is that diversity and inclusivity lives in the blinkered eye of any beholder. We all can fall so earnestly prey to our understandings of what’s fair and right–and what isn’t–that we can misconstrue what’s in front of us.

And the problem broadens when you realize how important it is to clarify which diversity you may be discussing. Some hear the term “diversity,” itself, as automatically referring to race. Or to sexuality diversity, linguistic diversity, geographic diversity, you name it.

Free-floating “diversity” and desires to achieve it may ultimately be no more helpful than free-floating anxiety. And as writers, we have a role to play in all this. Because we’re generally more aware of words, their meanings and their power, we carry a certain responsibility to be better at this than many of our associates, We should be the bringers of specificity.

When we speak of concepts of social “diversity,” when we look for how they impact our writings, when we place our own concepts on the line and our opinions before the world and our stories in front of readers, are we clarifying what we’re talking about? Or could we unwittingly fall into expectations that our readers will understand what we mean in terms of “diversity”?

I’ve actually seen some book blurbing lately that might be efforts to capitalize on this blur. (Blurry blurbs. We’ll coin that, shall we?) They read like this:

“As electrifying as today’s wrenching struggles for diversity!”

That may be a way to get you to buy a book without telling you that it’s referencing, maybe, national-representation in Non-Governmental Organizations, rather than whichever “diversity” you wanted to read about, right? Too many Labradors at the kennel! Not enough seagulls on among the birds on the beach! To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, one writer’s diversity may be the next writer’s belly laugh.

How diverse is your experience in this? Have you encountered a book that threw you off the scent with a ‘blurry blurb’? In your own writings, how are you being sure to specify what you’re doing in various effects of diversity?  

About Porter Anderson [6]

@Porter_Anderson [7] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [8], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [9] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [10]

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