Michiel Kolman (MK): What prompted you to start Every Story Matters?
Yannick Geens (YG): I work for Flanders Literature, a Flemish government organisation that supports the literary sector on behalf of the Ministry of Culture. Our organisation subsidises the book sector from author to reader: we give grants to literary organisations, publishers, readers, translators, authors and illustrators and also promote their work abroad.
In recent years, however, it became clear to us that Flanders was harbouring more and more diversity, but the literature we supported was still lagging behind. The dominant order in the literary sector (in short, dominated by a white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class and highly educated profile) lacked many perspectives that colour and characterise our contemporary society. Both the content of books and those who work in the sector that makes them, are still very different from the society and readership we make those books for. That’s a missed opportunity. Apart from the missed commercial potential of a larger readership, there is also a great social interest: we believe that everyone has the right to be able to identify with a book and literature should challenge our ideas and broaden our horizons. Precisely because we, as a homogeneous sector, had never been confronted with a shortage of books in which we saw ourselves, we had until then been quite blind to the lack of inclusion in our sector.
That was something we wanted to change, first and foremost through a number of adjustments in our own organisation (the composition of our advisory committees, of our team, the focus in our programmes or promotion), but also in the literary sector we supported. Many publishers, organisers and other actors in the field faced the same challenge as we did. And not only in Flanders. Through our partner organisations in Europe, we saw that the debate on diversity in the book trade was just as relevant in other countries. Because we believed we could learn a lot from each other, we submitted an application to the Creative Europe programme together with five other partners (Rose Stories from the Netherlands, Bluedar from Germany, Mediart International from Croatia, Acesso Cultura from Portugal and the Slovenian Book Agency for Literature). Nine months later, Every Story Matters – making books more inclusive was launched.
MK: What is Every Story Matters today?
YG: The project we set up together, Every Story Matters, focuses on increasing diversity in the European literary sector. We want to raise awareness about the importance of inclusion and do our best to turn these intentions into action and impact. We strongly believe in a collective approach: the lack of diversity in the book sector does not only concern publishers, but also all other actors that play a role in bringing a story to the reader. Diversity & inclusion are very often mentioned in many different places: in policy plans, debates or conferences and business plans of many different organisations. We clearly all want to become more diverse, but we are still walking that path very much alone. With more intensive cooperation and exchange, we could kickstart faster change.
Today, many of us still lack the specific skills or strategies to engage in inclusion. We often don’t know where to start, make the same mistakes, hesitate or fail to share our recipes for success. Every Story Matters tries to provide book professionals (via workshops, B2B meetings, a conference…) with tools and to connect them with each other. An important tool we developed for this is the Every Effort Matters platform (www.everyeffortmatters.eu) on which we want to promote knowledge & experience in various articles and interviews.
MK: To what extent is ESM focused on Europe?. What does ESM mean for the international members of the IPA outside of Europe?
YG: Every Story Matters is a project run by partners from 6 European countries: Belgium (Flanders), the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Croatia and Slovenia. But diversity & inclusion are also central subjects in the debate in other European countries. More than that: it is interesting to bring together the different existing discourses on this topic in different parts of the continent (which has often not been done before because of linguistic or other constraints). The different ways in which different European countries look at the subject is itself a product of the rich cultural diversity within the EU and provides interesting food for thought for this discussion.
Apart from that, Europe is not isolated from the rest of the world. As the Black Lives Matter movement recently proved, quickly becoming of major importance around the globe. Next to that, the ties of communities in Europe such as those of the African or Arab diaspora reach beyond the borders of the EU and are closer to other continents than we sometimes think. In a project in which we want to broaden our own horizons, we therefore want to look not only at the exchange of knowledge between European countries, but also at what is happening outside our Western, European frameworks. That knowledge and experience, too, is sometimes undervalued and remains out of sight for European players. Nevertheless, it is all the more valuable within the scope of the theme of diversity & inclusion and can be a valuable inspiration for them.
MK: What are your future plans?
YG: To gain more experience in what it means to work with diversity & inclusion in literature (after all, this is still a learning process for the partner organisations as well), Every Story Matters organised a talent development programme. We offered 6 authors and illustrators from our partner countries the opportunity to create their first inclusive children’s book under the guidance of a mentor and inspired by masterclasses given by experts in the field of inclusive storytelling. We will now fully promote these stories to publishers and hope they can reach as wide an audience as possible. We also hope that these authors and illustrators can be role models for young readers and show them that their story too deserves to be told. That they too can become an author or illustrator if they wish.
In addition, we want to continue to expand and feed the Every Effort Matters platform. On the one hand, we want to keep pleading the importance of diversity for, and in, literature. In order not to just preach to our own choir, we need to try to get this subject on the agenda of as many players as possible: whether they have a lot or limited resources at their disposal. If everyone contributes, we can bring about change much more efficiently. On the other hand, we want to include more and more information on how exactly this can be done: sharing toolkits and practical experiences, making visible which valuable initiatives already exist through interviews, and so on. Our dream is to create a community that wants to (continue to) work on diversity in a sustainable and structural way. After all, we cannot make the European book sector more inclusive on our own.
MK: How can the IPA help you?
YG: Publishers are a crucial link in the book industry and an indispensable actor if we want to make literature on the shelf more inclusive. With Every Effort Matters, we hope to be able to respond to their specific needs and questions, and to offer the best possible answer, or at least inspiration. On the other hand, there are undoubtedly many interesting initiatives and experiences that we can help spread, to other publishers or to other parts of the book sector. Why wouldn’t it be interesting for a library, author or literary event organiser to hear more about which publisher is actively working on in terms of D&I and in what way? In that sense, Every Effort Matters can help give visibility to much of the good work that is already being done in the sector and open it up to other players. Finally, the IPA’s own work on this theme also deserves more visibility: projects and policy work on accessibility, literacy and freedom of expression and SDGs. It would be great if we could be an ally to the IPA and their members in their movement towards more inclusion in the book sector, and strengthen each other’s work.