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Melbourne bookstore controversy is a reminder of why Australia needs to value diversity in literature

The owner of a chain of bookstores has apologised after criticising books with a “woke agenda” and calling for more male-led books with “traditional nuclear white family stories” in a series of tweets posted late last year. 

A chain of bookstores has apologised after its owner criticised books with a “woke agenda” and called for more male-led books with “traditional nuclear white family stories” in a series of tweets posted late last year. 

Susanne Horman, the owner of Victoria’s oldest independent bookstore, Robinsons Bookshop, which currently has seven stores across the state, posted the tweets in December, which included a call for more picture books with “just white kids on the cover, and no wheelchair, rainbow or Indigenous art, non indig [sic] aus history.” 

Horman proceeded to claim that the public do not need these books as they ‘divide’ people and incite “hate against white australians, socialist agenda, equity over equality, diversity and inclusion (READ AS anti-white exclusion), left wing govt propaganda”. Horman also claimed that she would not be continuing to stock these books into 2024. 

The Instagram account @coffeebooksandmagic, run by writer and reviewer Emily Rainsford, drew widespread attention to these statements in a post published on Sunday, with Rainsford stating that while she is not one for “cancelling”, she believes that the comments made by Horman are so “wildly out of pocket that I have no problem suggesting a widespread boycott would be appropriate”. 

The post was also accompanied by allegations, as told by Rainsford, that former employees of Robinsons Bookshop had been forced to sign lifetime non-disparagement agreements and that Horman was “also a dreadful employer by all accounts”. 

The @coffeebooksandmagic post has since received over 800 comments from Instagram users, with many expressing shock and outrage at Horman’s comments. 

Following Rainsford’s post, Robinsons Bookshop has apologised on Facebook and Instagram, stating that they “sincerely apologise to anyone who has been offended by online comments that are being edited by individuals and posted on social media”. Robinsons added that Horman’s comments have been “taken out of context” and are “being misrepresented as the views of Robinsons Bookshop when they are not”. The Bookshop also said that they “fully support and encourage” stories from diverse voices. 

Since Rainsford published Horman’s tweets on Instagram, many Australian authors have spoken out on social media criticising her views. 

Hannah Diviney, disability advocate, author of I’ll Let Myself In and Editor-in-Chief of Missing Perspectives, says that Horman’s comments are a reminder of some prevailing beliefs in the wider community about the inclusion of diverse voices. Diviney says that she has had to fight hard in order to be taken seriously as a writer and advocate. 

“I think the whole reason I’m a writer and particularly a published author is because I’ve had to fight to tell my story. To be heard. To be seen. And even with my name on a book now, I’m still fighting for that. It’s going to take a long time before that gets easier and unfortunately comments like [Horman’s] set us back.” 

However, Diviney also believes that Horman’s comments are typical of an “old guard” that is continuing to struggle to accept change in the literary community. 

Shirley Le, author of Funny Ethnics and creative producer of the Sweatshop Literacy movement, which is one of Australia’s only publishers led by people of colour, told Missing Perspectives that she agrees that Horman’s desire to shut out diverse viewpoints is nothing new, however, they are becoming rarer. 

“While I have encountered views like Horman’s before, those opinions are fast dying out as readers seek out diverse voices for their bookshelves. Diverse authors are not going anywhere, and neither are the growing number of readers who want to see more diverse bookshelves.” 

The authors also point out that Horman’s viewpoint on diverse perspectives is extremely limiting for Australian literature and that marginalised and minority voices are inherently valuable for the craft and readers’ experiences. 

“Diversity does not minus merit,” Le notes. “Take into account the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: the language you speak determines how you see reality. Thus, linguistic diversity in literature broadens our understanding of ‘truth’”. 

Shankari Chandran, author of the Miles Franklin Award-winning novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, tells Missing Perspectives that she was outraged by Horman’s comments and thought that she must have been reading satire when she first came across them. Chandran asserts that diversity in literature is less a tokenistic measure, as implied by Horman and “more an accurate representation of the lived experiences and creative talents that exist across society.” 

“If we’re not seeing that in our literature, then we’re missing out,” Chandran says. 

As for where audiences can look to ensure that they are consuming a rich diversity of voices in literature, Le and Diviney had their own suggestions. 

Diviney says there is a thriving community of diverse authors to choose from, and her favourites include Sara M Saleh, Tobias Madden, Eliza Hull, Carly Findlay, Eddie Betts, Melissa Lucashenko, and Benjamin Law. 

And Le points out that earlier this year the Sweatshop Literacy Movement published an anthology of diverse stories called Povo, which features writing from First Nations and culturally diverse voices, all of which challenge the idea of Australia’s standing as the “lucky country”.