Congratulations to Sariah Emmanuel for winning Indigo’s 2021 student scholarship.
We hope you find Sariah’s essay as inspiring as we did:
I have always loved reading and literature. A trip to Borders or Barnes and Noble was, and still is, my ideal way to spend a Saturday. I was never without a book in hand or one at the ready nearby. However, growing up as a young, Black woman I hardly ever saw myself reflected in these books that I loved so dearly. Not in wildly popular books such as Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, or The Hunger Games. Most certainly not in school assigned readings such as The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird. This lack of diversity was so prevalent and so constant, that I didn’t realize the full extent until my teenage years. It was just something that I had considered to be the norm within literature. Although I deeply enjoyed each of the aforementioned books, The Great Gatsby is still a favorite, I longed for a character I could personally relate to.
I can vividly recall the first time that I saw a main character in a novel who resembled myself. I was twenty years old and was reading Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. Not only was Maddy Whittier the first character I could see myself reflected in, she was also the first Black character I’d read whose entire storyline did not revolve around her ethnicity. I thought, here is a half-Black, half-Japanese character who is…falling in love? Being a teenager? Experiencing life like every other central character in the books that I’ve read? Yet, she looks like me! It was such a validating moment that opened my eyes to what I had been craving for so long. I did not realize how much I needed it, until I had it.
After this moment, I began to pay more attention to the books I was reading and realized that there simply aren’t enough novels with characters of color. Many of the books that are centered around Black characters deal with trauma such as slavery, racism, injustice, police brutality, or overcoming adversity. It often puts these characters in the position of having to teach others how to be activists or an ally. While these are important stories that need to be told, they most certainly aren’t the only stories. We need more authors of color to have a publishing space that reflects the diversity of the world around us. In addition to these novels about adversity, we need stories that showcase Black lives full of joy, love, friendship, family, and belonging. This feeling is ultimately what sparked my desire to pursue a career in publishing. This is an elusive industry, and as I was growing up, I did not realize that I could be in this space. As a publishing professional, I will advocate for authors of color and work to create opportunities for us to tell our stories, whichever type of story that may be. I also want to make the industry more accessible for young students and professionals of color through paid internships and training programs within different publishing departments. In the past few years there have been huge strides towards diversification and it’s incredible to see books like Love is a Revolution, Grown, and Queenie on shelves. I plan to use this momentum to make this a lasting movement, not a temporary moment.
As excited as I am to begin my career, I do not want to wait until I am in the industry to make a change. I want to do what I can, now, to bring awareness to this rampant problem. Last summer, I created Booked Solid podcast, a virtual book club and book review. My co-host and I discuss a different book each episode and highlight a wide range of stories from diverse authors. We discuss how representation in literature, or the lack thereof, has played a role in our lives and influenced our sense of self. This is yet another detrimental effect that the lack of diversity has on the Black community. When you don’t see people who look like you, your family, or your loved ones, it makes you feel as if your life and experiences are less than. It makes you feel unimportant and wreaks havoc on your self-esteem and sense of identity. There is an increased pressure to conform to what is considered the norm so you can fit in and feel like you belong. Even as an adult, these are ideas that I am unpacking and unlearning. Having the platform to discuss this topic has been incredibly useful and cathartic as we continue to push forward and highlight the importance of diversity and representation.
I am eager to start my publishing journey at Portland State University and get one step closer towards making this an equal and inclusive space for all. Everyone deserves that feeling of validation and joy that I experienced when I first cracked open the pages of Everything, Everything. As a professional in this industry, I will work tirelessly to make sure they feel it much sooner than I did.