A Case for Diversity in Christian Publishing

Why Are Writers of Color Still Underrepresented in Christian Fiction?

publishing Christian fiction
(Photo: blmurch CC 2.0)

There is an observable gap in Christian fiction. Currently, Christian fiction limits its boundaries to the traditional tropes: historical, romance, speculative and Amish. Long overdue are the contributions of a well of writers who are overlooked under the Christian fiction umbrella.

Publishers, agents and the Christian marketplace should actively seek creative fiction beyond what is traditional to include unique, relatable, impactful stories by the minority-majority, those underrepresented voices. For context, according to a 2015 U.S. Census report, more than half of U.S. children under 18 will be part of a minority ethnic or racial group by the year 2020. As this nation’s population moves steadily toward a “minority-majority,” it is paramount to actively seek what their contributions may be in Christian fiction. Because the minority-majority voice has virtually remained untapped in Christian fiction, its potential impact on the Christian publishing industry is immense. Thus, a trend is taking placewhich I believe will continue to growand the Christian publishing industry would be foolish to ignore those readers who seek work that speaks to them spiritually from underrepresented voices in the Christian market. This alone stretches the current boundaries of the Christian publishing industry into a demographic that reads work the Christian publishing industry isn’t willing to publish.

As we know, Christianity is not exclusive to any ethnicity but rather all-encompassing as God’s Word is meant for all. Yet, how is it conceivable that much of what is current in Christian fiction excludes this muted voice? To complicate matters, a shrinking publishing world has resulted in publishers highlighting a single narrative (one-size-fits-all) to represent an entire ethnic or racial group’s experience, even within the Christian publishing industry. In this video featuring novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Our desire as Christian writers in the 21st century should be to capture wonderful Christian stories by fully representing what God can do in the lives of those we have yet to read about fully. The Christian marketplace is not only isolating a huge demographic of readers and writers, but it’s pushing it away. 

As a reader and writer, I’m constantly looking for sensible stories that represent the widest spectrum of believers which exists in the kingdom of God. I struggle to accept that Christian literature continues to typecast itself in the romance, the horror, the fantasy and sci-fi, the speculative, the historical from another era and the supernatural urban fantasy genres. Christian stories reduced to these thematic devices will experience defeat because there are Christian readers who have a hunger to read work that doesn’t blur the lines between light and darkness and for this reason, they avoid Christian fiction altogether. Let me bring to your attention a few comments on a Facebook thread which speak to the sentiments about Christian fiction:

  • I don’t read Christian romance because, in my younger days, it gave me somewhat unreal expectations for meeting the man God had for me. Now, it simply makes me dissatisfied with how my life is. So I avoid it.
  • No, it tends to be too saccharine for my tastes.
  • Madeleine L’Engle is one of my all-time faves, but she’s an author who happens to be a Christian. She doesn’t write “Christian fiction.” That makes all the difference to me.
  • I usually run the other direction. However, recently, the exception has been historical Christian fiction but ONLY those based on Biblical stories. I’m such a creative that it has helped me expand my understanding of and visualize Biblical stories and I have really enjoyed that.
  • My thought of romance novels, as someone said earlier, it sets expectations most male species cannot attain and the female species gets discouraged. Romance, in general, is not bad but must be realistic. Cinderella? Got it, a pure fairy tale. But when they write stuff that should be obtainable but can’t (I will blame sin) it’s too painful to think of what could be but can’t. Does that make any sense?
  • I’ve been told that Christian women want bathtub fiction. I get that sometimes we need a “beach” read to get away from the heaviness of our lives. But it’s my belief that women want real and raw and vulnerable. Life is messy, and Christian women appreciate when others don’t put on a mask.
  • So… just a thought… maybe Christian fiction isn’t selling well because publication companies are focusing on the bathtub fiction. I’m sure there is a market for that, but maybe there’s an even bigger market for the deep. Maybe those women (and men) that would read the deeper fiction wouldn’t come near Christian fiction with a ten-foot pole because it’s been notorious in the past for its lightness or preachiness. I know there are good Christian fiction authors out there.
  • I’ve also read some Chesterton fiction that I enjoyed, but by and large, I find Christian fiction, like Christian movies, tends to be somewhat poorly written, predictable and heavy-handed with messages. Also, the writers often tend to display doctrine that I am at odds with or worse and I’ve basically learned to avoid the whole situation altogether.

Is it possible, then, that there are some Christian writers who don’t want to write a romance, or a period piece or a horror tale? (And by the way, why horror is even a genre in Christian literature, I cannot explain—it continues to be a topic of consternation that vexes my spirit time and time again). The answer is yes. Many Christian writers don’t want to dabble in the occult or write fantasy or magic or knock-offs of Harry Potter or the like, but would rather write something original and fresh, stories more representative of their experience, narratives the general market is indeed seeking—albeit with a watered-down spiritual message, unfortunately.

Ironically, some Christians with good stories in them may be better off in the general market. Not because their work is rife with the lust of the worldly culture (i.e.: horror, fantasy, sci-fi, speculative, supernatural urban fantasy and teen romance) but because they are rich in values-driven content from a fresh, emergent voice. These writers are developing stories with characters that aren’t swept away in romantic gusts of wind which enable escapism. There are works from writers who desire readers to be transformed by the modern-day story of what God can do in the lives of people who come from countries outside of the United States.

On a personal note, I began my publishing career in the general market and have learned much, observing a rapid growth spurt in the advent of the digital age. I can say with certainty that the general market is making a concerted effort to seek and promote underrepresented voices. Inside that general market, too, exists a readership which is Christian, again, who are seeking writers of underrepresented voices. A bonus is if they are Christian voices.

As an aspiring author whose overall publishing credits are featured in the general market, I’ve come to ask myself the following questions while at Christian writers’ conferences—which are pivotal events for emerging writers to pitch manuscripts and in some cases, acquire an agent:

  • Why is Christian publishing not aggressive in pursuing stories that deal with the human condition and its strongholds, where people make the wrong decisions, where settings are somewhere other than a farm, or a high school romance or a fantasy world?
  • Why does most Christian literature lack cultural themes written by authors of those cultures, depicting their own stories in their own voices? We marvel about what missionaries have accomplished by the grace of God on the foreign field, but why is it that we don’t read it in today’s time? Is God not at work there too?
  • Why does Christian literature struggle with a diverse representation of people, places and things? Do we need to wait for the next Christian movie to see a diverse representation of Christianity today?
  • Shouldn’t conference committees actively pursue faculty who speak to the ever-changing American Christian voice?

To add insult to injury, not only are writers of color underrepresented in the Christian publishing marketplace, but the very nature of where Christian writers are likely to be discovered overlooks a significant caveat: the diverse representation of faculty at Christian writers’ conferences is found wanting.

I believe Christian writers’ conferences should seek faculty who encourage writers to write about what God is doing in the 21st-century experience. For instance, can we read about what God can do in the life story of a single mom in California who comes from another country and is turning the tide of her legacy in the U.S as a born-again believer? Are there stories like this anywhere?

The conversation about racial and ethnic diversity in the general market is abuzz. As an online publication reports about Comic-Con:

The struggle of entering a majority-white industry also takes a psychological toll on people of color because of the lack of cultural connections and the constant sensation of looking and feeling different. Since the leadership at the top tiers are mostly white men, the business decisions that trickle down can be non-inclusive. For instance, there are quotas imposed on how many books featuring mainly people of color can be promoted or picked up at a particular time.

These systemic quotas further isolate writers of color, and homogenize the publishing landscape. And this is in the general market! That considered, it behooves the general market to actively seek underrepresented writers—and indeed they are proving to have an appetite for diverse storytellers. Let me share a list of panel discussion topics from the renowned Association of Writers and Publishers, a general market organization:

  • In a world where cultures transcend borders, what defines U.S. literature? How is a writer’s experience, aesthetic and vision shaped by carrying more than one country in her skin? What challenges and opportunities exist for writers whose work springs from a global, multicultural source? Authors of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction from Iran, Lebanon, Cuba, Ethiopia and Uruguay discuss their experiences as global voices working within the United States.
  • Writers from San Antonio’s academic and community-based literary arts centers, including two San Antonio poet laureates, discuss the concrete steps and strategies they have taken to build cultural diversity among literary offerings in their growing Texas city. What are the barriers to, and opportunities for, creating a dynamic literary ecosystem that reflects and values different perspectives?
  • The visibility of Latinos and Latin Americans is growing in the literary community. However, a discussion surrounding systematic, institutional and aesthetic challenges is needed. Latinos need to address inequalities in access, to meet with writers of varied Latino and Latin American identities, to discuss the obstacles to publishing (e.g., cultural expectations, stereotypes and marginalization), and to discuss event planning to increase participation at AWP.

It does appear the general market is open to writers of color, but Christian writers of color, not so much. It may be, as in my case, conceivable for a Christian writer of color to venture into the general market because at least there, in that realm, exists a hunger for diverse voices.

However, for the Christian writer within the ever-burgeoning secular literary community is a consciousness that remains: to compromise the faith in that secular stratosphere is non-negotiable.

Editor’s note: A version of this essay appears on erortega.com.

Eréndira Ramirez-Ortega’s fiction appears in West Branch, The Puritan, Day One, The Cossack Review, The Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills and other publications. Eréndira’s poetry is featured in The Sunlight Press and Mothers Always Write. Her essays are featured in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, The Tishman Review, Cordella Magazine, Front Porch Commons: A Project of the [CLMP] and elsewhere. She has work forthcoming in The Mudroom blog and is writing a novel.

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Written by E. Ramirez-Ortega

Eréndira Ramirez-Ortega’s work is featured in The Washington Post, Fathom Magazine, Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, Mothers Always Write, The Sunlight Press, Origins Journal, L'Éphémère Review, Faithfully Magazine, The Mudroom, Red Tricycle, The Tishman Review, Cordella Magazine, Stone Soup Magazine, The Review Review, and Front Porch Commons: A Project of the [CLMP]. Her fiction is published in West Branch, The Puritan, Day One, The Cossack Review, The Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, and others. She is writing a novel.

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