Many Voices Q&A: Nyla Ahmad
As part of her Many Voices project, Arusa Qureshi speaks to industry figures in Scotland to hear their thoughts on diversity and the inclusion of underrepresented voices in their respective fields.
Discussions around diversity in the publishing industry have become commonplace, with new reports every few years often unveiling some of the same conclusions; that the industry needs to work harder and do more to move away from its predominantly white, middle-class demographic. The recent Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing report by Dr Anamik Saha and Dr Sandra van Lente noted: “Publishers recognise that writers of colour in particular have been historically excluded. Yet while publishers would like to publish more diversely, finding writers of colour and publishing them successfully remains a challenge.” The reasons for this are explained in detail in the report but these range from assumptions about audiences to lack of awareness and complacency.
In Scotland, the publishing industry is in many ways booming with a plethora of new and emerging writers working on brilliant projects and small, indie publishers making innovative and exciting work. But as with the wider industry, diversity remains a topic at the forefront of any moves for meaningful change. As someone heavily involved in the Scottish comics scene and currently working as the Reading Communities Manager at Scottish Book Trust, Nyla Ahmad has seen firsthand how eradicating barriers to involvement can make all the difference. In her previous work with BHP Comics, the Glasgow Women’s Library and the Scottish Independent Comic Book Alliance, she has led and been a part of projects that centre around getting more people involved in the arts, with attention given to encouraging new and diverse voices. She was also announced as the inaugural winner of Literature Alliance Scotland’s Next Level Award, which aims to equip mid-career arts professionals on the path to a senior position. In this Q&A, Nyla discusses some of the ways the publishing industry could improve its approach to equality and diversity and her personal hopes for the future.
When you entered the industry in Scotland, did you see anyone like you that you could look to for mentorship or support? If not, did that put you off?
I think at first, it felt a bit jarring to walk into some of these rooms. I think I naively assumed there would be really diverse people and experiences in those spaces. As book lovers, we’re all in love with these forms that make us see things from other people’s perspectives. I read books from a range of amazing authors from a range of places. Then I walked into these rooms and nobody looked like me and nobody had my experiences. It was really sobering and I guess it did put me off in a sense, because I always saw myself as somebody who loves books. But then when I went into those spaces, I was like, wait a minute, am I one of these people? Sometimes I don’t feel like one.
I’ve had a lot of support once I was in positions. Glasgow Women’s Library taught me a lot about equalities and I’ve had a lot of support from my current employers, who put me forward for opportunities. I feel very nurtured. When I was at BHP, it was good to have [Publisher] Sha Nazir there, who’s also a person of colour, navigating the comics industry too. I think sometimes when you’re talking to a person of colour about mentorship, they’re thinking about something from the same angle as you. You don’t have to explain that experience of being the only one in the room.
As a woman of colour, do you currently feel well represented within the publishing industry, both books and comics?
It took me a very long time to see myself as a reader. It took a long time for me to see myself as somebody who could be part of the industry, and it took me a long time to feel comfortable at festivals, or to see that as a place that I could exist. I just loved books, but didn’t see myself as part of an industry until I was in official positions.
I know so many amazing artists, writers and creators. I used to not feel represented as a woman of colour, but then I worked with so many amazing and inspiring women and people of colour when editing Full Colour. I’d like to see more women of colour taken up by larger publishers and would love to see more people of colour present at high profile events. I’d love to see more women and people of colour being highly visible and crushing it in industry. The Scottish BAME Writers Network has also made me feel better about opportunities, networking and representation of people of colour writers. There’s a lot of goodness now, and it grows every year. I think there’s a wealth of people of colour reading and writing. I think there’s not so many in positions of power or being given larger platforms. Often when we talk about representation, it feels like we’re drawing an outline around a supposed absence. We’re not, we’re struggling to see people being given the platforms they deserve.
How important do you find mentorship in terms of development and progression in the industry now?
It’s very important to know people in these industries, and it really helps when someone speaks of you kindly. Having your name in conversations helps people think of you when considering opportunities. I think having mentors or people who have more industry power than you, who want to see you succeed, is a real gift in this industry. I wish there were more mentoring opportunities for people from marginalised backgrounds, so they can have advocates who will vouch for them in rooms they may not have access to. I was so worried about being seen as annoying or doing something that wasn’t normal when I approached people to ask for a chat. It turns out I had nothing to worry about! One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is that it’s ok to tell people you think they are excellent and would love to learn more about what they do. I would aggressively encourage people to seek out other people to make those connections and to have those conversations because you’ll be all the better for them.
I have been mentored both in small and large scale ways by a lot of people. It can be as simple as a nugget of advice to full blown hour long sessions. I’ve found speaking to people really useful for learning the ropes and being mentored by my line managers and other industry professionals incredible for progression. No matter who a person is, you will always be able to learn something from them
How open do you feel the Scottish creative industries are in terms of discussions of diversity, equality and anti-racist work?
I do think there’s a growing awareness that this work needs to be done. I’d really like institutions to interrogate what they consider ‘neutral or ‘standard’ and wonder if that is representative of a range of experiences? I think using the term diversity sometimes allows people to run away from what the issue is because they don’t have to explicitly name the experiences they are leaving behind. Sara Ahmed talks about how diversity has been emptied of meaning. I feel like it’s getting used as a shorthand to say ‘this isn’t what we normally do or who we normally work with’ and that makes it an additional thing to be done. Diverse means different from, right? You’re saying it’s not the default. Instead ask why is that your default? It makes it feel optional, still seen as something that you do, as opposed to something that should be inherent to your initial stance. I don’t believe that this idea of representing a range of experiences is always inherently the jump off point that people have. And I think if people interrogated what they think of as neutral we’d see shifts.
I once heard someone say ‘it’s not a meritocracy, it’s a mirror-tocracy’ and that really stayed with me.
Do you think this pause in activity and the effects of the pandemic on the wider industry, as well as discussions around Black Lives Matter, will lead to some greater change?
The cynic in me wonders if the industry has the stamina to think deeply and critically about issues that were not spoken of loudly and directly until they became inescapable. I really want to believe that there’s going to be meaningful change. These conversations around Black Lives Matter, representation of people of colour and work/content which can be accessed at home have been happening for a very, very long time. As a person of colour, I wasn’t surprised suddenly, when all of these places were saying they could do better. A lot of people who don’t feel considered knew this already. I want to believe that there will be genuine change and I am interested to see what shape it could take. I know a lot of people who are pushing for it.
If we’re going to do diversity schemes, where people are coming in at a low level, and they have no space to move in your organisation and once the contract is finished, that’s it, what organisational or structural change will that actually make? There needs to be a commitment from the industry, ensuring that the environments that they’re bringing these people into are pleasant and good environments, where they’re not going to experience daily microaggressions. I think the work to do with equalities, diversity, inclusion, social justice, equity etc. is never done and it’s going to be a long process. I’m a little skeptical, but I am very hopeful.
One reason individuals don’t pursue such an industry is because they don’t see people of colour in senior/management positions and don’t feel as if they could ever be in those positions as a result. What’s your opinion on this? Is it a concern you share?
Completely! When I applied for the Next Level Award, I was hyper aware of the fact that I didn’t often see people of colour in senior management positions. I remember saying, it’s hard to be what you can’t see. If you want to make lasting structural change in the industry, you need to make sure that those people in those superior positions are not only coming from one perspective. I wanted to get myself up to that level where I was in these rooms, where I was in a senior management position. And if they wanted to say that they just couldn’t do diverse programming, that they just couldn’t find the writers, they had to say it to my brown face. But recently, I’ve realised it’s not my job to fix the whole industry. It’s the industry’s job to fix itself and make itself more welcoming for people like me. We can’t just talk about representation, we need to talk about power, who has power in this industry and who makes the decisions.
You need to have that representation be integral, and internal and embedded. It needs to be right in the core of it, it needs to be the spine of your industry. And I am still an incredibly ambitious person, I still want to go to senior management, I still want to jump up to these positions. But it’s been very interesting to realise that part of the reason why I had so much fire in my belly for it is because there was such an absence.
What steps would you like to see the publishing and comics industry take in getting more diverse voices involved more broadly?
I think actually ensuring that people coming into this industry know what good treatment looks like is important. I’ve seen a lot of stuff recently about young people who have been taken advantage of in the comics industry. We need to, as an industry, take a good, hard look at ourselves and think about how we can protect talent and how we can uplift talent. So it’s about fair pay, support and care. We should not normalise working until you’re sick. We should not normalise working to your own detriment to be seen as taking something seriously, because often if you’re from a marginalised community, you need to work twice as hard to be taken seriously.
I feel quite protective of people coming into the industry, and I think there definitely are places and people that will treat you correctly. But I also think that we should tell people that they should prioritise themselves. Don’t break your back for an industry that isn’t going to support you as much as you need to be supported. Have your demands and hold them close. But I understand that can be so hard to navigate. I am scared of being labeled as difficult, I’m scared of being labeled as hard to work with. And I’m scared of being seen as somebody who makes a big fuss over nothing.
What can be done to get more creatives of colour involved in the arts in Scotland in a way that is genuine and not tokenistic, with attention also given to sustained support?
I think the industry needs to really examine what it prizes, what’s important to it and I think the industry needs to become more welcoming. There needs to be scaffolding, there needs to be a ladder for these people to go up. Literature Alliance Scotland, for example, are supporting me to get to that level of management. The person who has been heavily involved in my mentorship is also a woman of colour (Jenny Kumar) and my mentor (Syima Aslam of the Bradford Literature Festival) is a woman of colour and there is so much that I don’t need to explain in that room, which is excellent. But I think that there needs to be genuine roots to success.
I want people to be happy in this industry. I want people to embed equalities practice but I also want them to embed joy into what they’re offering people. Let people do things that they love. Let people do the things that they care about, and they’ll keep coming back and enjoy it. We need to think about representation as embedded and I think we need to interrogate this understanding. I want people, no matter where they look, to be able to see themselves and to see the possibilities of what they could be.