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The Guardian view on new stories: helping others tell tales | Editorial | Opinion


Toni Morrison knew a thing or two about stories. In 1994 she saw the “political correctness debate” as being about “the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.” The actor John Boyega is the latest to empower the previously mute. Last week his production company said it had signed a deal with streaming giant Netflix to develop non-English language films from parts of Africa, initially focused on Nigerian and Sudanese work. “It’s important that we take charge of telling our stories, and with this deal, we will do just that,” wrote the actor, of British-Nigerian heritage.

His mission chimes with the brilliant Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich’s recent announcement that she will launch a publishing house specifically for other female authors this year (“Men, they are everywhere, and women’s works are rarely published,” she told the Nasha Niva website). Stormzy, having already founded a record label, joined Penguin Random House to launch the #Merky imprint: the only prerequisite for the titles it publishes are that the authors are “from under-represented communities”. Similarly, the novelist Nikesh Shukla co-founded the Good Literary Agency for talent that otherwise might be excluded.

The shift from creating content to encouraging and amplifying the voice of others is not a new one. It isn’t surprising that those who love films, books or music enough to devote their lives to making them would want to ensure that the world has more of the best. The Beatles used their Apple label to release the likes of Mary Hopkin.

What’s striking about the recent initiatives is that they are not only sharing work they appreciate, but are explicitly promoting the work of people who have been marginalised or ignored by industry gatekeepers. They are not only fostering talent, but recognising it, even when it comes in forms that might seem unfamiliar to others. Cultural production is still dominated by a very narrow sector of society, whose dominance has arguably increased in recent years. A 2018 report concluded that people with working-class origins are still underrepresented in the arts, and that the people at the top (mostly middle-class white men) were the most attached to the idea that the creative industries are a meritocracy.

The question is not only who we get to see or hear, but what stories we are told. Research commissioned by BookTrust found that only 2% of British children’s book creators published in the UK were from a BAME background – helping to explain why only 1% of books surveyed in 2017 had a black or Asian lead character. Projects like Boyega’s or Alexievich’s are, obviously, good news for the writers or actors who reach an audience previously denied them. But their generosity stretches beyond that which they extend to their colleagues. By bringing us insight and joy that we would otherwise have missed, they may offer an even bigger gift to audiences.

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