Vol. 8: Agent Reiko Davis Reckons With Who She Reads — and Why
Recently, the New York Times published an article called “What It’s Really Like to Work in Hollywood (If you’re not a straight white man),” a collection of stories from actors, directors, producers, and other film professionals who are consistently marginalized and underrepresented in a white male-dominated industry. To draw attention to similar issues in publishing, an industry with a dramatic disparity in racial demographics, we're collecting stories from writers, agents, and editors of color about what it's like to work and publish in an industry historically dominated by white people.
In advance of the Writers of Color Roundtable event at GrubStreet's Muse and the Marketplace conference on Friday, April 29, we’re kicking off the conversation with #Muse16 presenters. In this installment is agent Reiko Davis, who will be meeting with attendees to review their manuscripts during the Manuscript Mart.
When I first started working as an assistant at an agency, I was in awe of the children’s authors my boss represented: Walter Dean Myers, Alex Sanchez, Charles R. Smith, to name a few. I never read authors like these growing up in a predominantly white, affluent neighborhood in Kansas City. I was never really exposed to them. But I never thought to seek out their voices either.
In 2014, a short time before he passed away, Walter Dean Myers wrote a powerful piece in the New York Times: “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” In it, he talks about the need for children of color to be able to identify with the characters in books, “to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic” they see around them.
He also recounts working in a personnel office that needed to hire a chemist. Two candidates, a black chemist and a white chemist, equally qualified, were in the running.
When Walter suggested to the department head that they send both candidates to the lab in order to evaluate their work, the head responded, “You’re kidding me … that black guy’s no chemist.”
I’ve thought a lot about this story, especially the questions Walter poses: Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?
As an agent (a “PubAsian,” as I joke with some of my friends), I’ve actively supported diversity in publishing. I gravitate towards authors whose works derail and then reconfigure my understanding of the world; authors who bring to the table experiences that should — that must — be heard. People of color and in the LGBT community need to see themselves in the books they read, and just as urgently, others need to read these books. I have two roles in the world of publishing, at opposite ends of the pipeline: I’m an agent and a book buyer. This seems simple. If I’m an agent championing and selling books to publishers, I better be buying and reading lots of books as well. And I do.
Nevertheless, I’ve learned that the decisions I make on each end of this business do not always align. As both agent and consumer, my decisions are not always guided by the same instincts; they do not join hands. Sometimes I feel as if my carefully weighed choices, the books I pursue and work on with passion as an agent, aren’t the books I choose to take home from the bookstore.
Standing in line at Rainy Day Books in my hometown not long ago, waiting to purchase a novel by a white male writer I love (who writes about white male things), this realization struck me. I’ve worried over it at certain points. I’ve quietly tried to accept it at others.
Why should I read the same kinds of books for pleasure that I work on at my job? At the same time: Shouldn’t I hold myself accountable for this lapse?
I’ve realized that the books I buy most naturally as a consumer mirror the world I grew up in, even though I’m Asian. I find that the act of picking out books is an unconscious phenomenon when, more often than not, it should be intentional.
Whenever I’ve made the choice to buy a book that opens me up to stories and characters I’m unfamiliar with, I haven’t been disappointed. And for me it’s been a conscious choice, and an important one.
I think this is where it all starts, as a reader browsing the shelves. Our initiative matters. If I’m to fully embrace and support diversity, as Walter says, “There is work to be done.”
Reiko Davis is an agent at DeFiore and Company. Before joining DeFiore in early 2016, she was at Miriam Altshuler Literary Agency for four years. She grew up in Kansas City, received her BA in Comparative Literature and Art History from Brown University, and is a graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course. Above all, she wants to discover books that surprise her and make her feel something. She’s looking for well written, voice-driven books, in the adult, young adult, middle grade, and narrative nonfiction categories.