It is turning into one of the biggest rows in UK publishing. The author Kate Clanchy has been forced to rewrite parts of her memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me after widespread criticism over the language she used to describe black, Asian and minority ethnic children.
Some of her most outspoken critics on twitter have been the subject of racist abuse prompting an open letter of condemnation by the writer Sabeena Akhtar. It is has nearly 1,000 signatories including authors including Candice Carty Williams and Nikesh Shukla. Meanwhile, the book’s publisher Picador has been accused of not having the right editorial processes in place to spot language that could cause offense.
The book won one of the UK’s top book awards– the Orwell Prize for Political Writing – but a quick look at Amazon reveals a gulf of opinion between the judges and the reading public. One reviewer on Amazon wrote: ‘There’s casual racism about girls who wear the hijab along with high heeled shoes, and boys who have long eyelashes and beautiful eyes ‘like all Syrian children’.
‘There are sweeping generalisations of children from all Asian/Middle Eastern countries – the author starts a poetry club for them based on the fact that they all speak and dress the same.’
Critics have said the author uses “racialized stereotypes” with phrases like “chocolate-coloured skin” and “African Jonathon” to describe Black children.
To make the row even worse, the author Philip Pullman – who is president of the UK’s Society of Authors – at first supported the author, only later to apologise for previous comments.
In a powerful piece in the Bookseller, the behavioural scientist and author Pragya Agarwal wrote: “Words such as ‘chocolate’ and ‘almond’ used to describe skin colour, tired tropes of hair or size of bosoms used to stereotype different ethnicities, the shape of skull and other facial features such as nose used to define them. It was shocking once these snapshots of whole pages from her book were being shared. There has been a sense of disillusionment with how such language passed through the numerous rounds of copyediting, how a publisher could allow such words to get through in the public domain, and how a panel for the UK’s most esteemed political prize could have missed the way autistic and minority ethnic children have been viewed and represented in this book.”
Picador said: “To tackle the wider issues this experience has taught us about, we at Picador and Pan Macmillan are reviewing our editorial processes and considering how we implement more rigour in our assessment of manuscripts, including guidance for commissioning sensitivity reads, and more.”
Clanchy said: “I’ve been given the chance to do some re-writing on Some Kids. I’m grateful: I know I got many things wrong, and welcome the chance to write better, more lovingly. To people saying I shouldn’t centre myself in the kids lives: I agree. I’ve been worrying about this for years….
“I am not a good person. I do try to say that in my book. Not a pure person, not a patient person, no one’s saviour. You are right to blame me, and I blame myself.”
The Orwell Foundation commented: “[We acknowledge] the concerns and hurt expressed about Kate Clanchy’s memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Writing 2020. The foundation understands the importance of language and encourages open and careful debate about all the work which comes through our prizes. Everyone should be able to engage in these discussions, on any platform, without fear of abuse.
“The Orwell Prizes are awarded by a panel of independent judges, appointed each year by the foundation, who make their own decisions as to the awards in each category. The foundation does not comment on individual judging panel decisions.”