On Brotherhood

These last few, what has it been? days? weeks? is it a month yet? I’ve been wide awake, even when I don’t want to be. It’s been hard to relax, hard to lay down and keep my eyes closed. Because someone’s living it, someone’s talking about it, and someone’s denying the world that imposes on me exists.

We think that strength comes from not caring what other people think. I don’t see how that’s true. We were created to be relational beings, even if we don’t all execute that in the same way. I’m not sure what the stoicism that says I’m not upset or I don’t mind what other people say or think would gain me. What kind of person would it make me, if that were true? More than that, why is the expectation that it could be true?

I am a socialized being (albeit an intentionally re-educated one, by the grace of God which I mean quite literally). I’m an American, and I’m Black. I’ve gotten messages all my life as to the value system of the culture into which I was born. I don’t say this to absolve any other country of their scarred history, but to say that because of ours, the answer to our questions and our issues and our homegrown terror must take them into account. If I’ve been told all my life – on every conscious level and whether I agree with it or not – that the White American voice is required for all manner of validation, shall I be held wholly responsible then for dismantling all of the privilege that is therein implied, denying its destructive impact and cultural capital, by simply denying that a single voice does harm when it’s declaring injustice to be a lie,  accusing us of “attacking western civilization”, saying that “white people are being demonized” (because there is no way for someone to be wrong without being undone entirely…) or any of the willfully blind and unapologetic other things being said? On my own, I should just be the bigger person when someone tries to rewrite the definition of racism, which – if I can be – somehow means it won’t feel the least bit deflating? I won’t be discouraged or disappointed or further disillusioned, not ever or least only by admission long after the fact?

But if these are your countrymen, and that means anything, why wouldn’t I be? It *isn’t* enough for *me* to know the truth. People who look like me were the enslaved and then the segregated and then the scorned and mocked and antagonized and still the oppressed, but I should today in 2014 because ostensibly time heals all wounds brush off that so many people still refuse to acknowledge the truth? Why would I want to do that? How would that not grieve me?

I don’t *want* to live in a world where everyone looks like me or sounds like me or only knows the things that I know. I don’t want to go our separate ways, stick to our “own” kind, because where and when did that ever work? And, because it matters to me, how does that please God?

It does bothers me that you don’t get it. It just doesn’t change my mind. It doesn’t make me think maybe I’ve got it wrong. It doesn’t mean I’ll let myself be shut up, even when I don’t want to have this conversation all over again, even when I’m tired of having my heart race waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting to be completely disregarded. I’ll never stop knowing what I know about you, about me, about us, about respectability politics and the fact that anyone would find murder justified whether a boy had stolen cigars or not. I’ll never stop knowing that criminalization and oppression and self-loathing and crime are related, even if you don’t know. I’ll never stop knowing how – before I can show my talents – I must first disprove a prejudice.

I just know it should bother you, too.

What We Lie About When We Talk About Diversity

People don’t buy books with people of color on the cover.

People don’t read books with people of color as narrator or MC.

People can’t relate.

First of all, one of the best things about that collection of quotes explaining racism is that it calls us out for not identifying who is being racist. Because of the way we police our speech, there are no racists, right? Just racist things that are happening all on their own. Just a machine already in motion (which is true) that no one is controlling (which could be true but that doesn’t negate) that someone is benefiting from. So s/he is responsible for shutting it down.

So we’re not talking about “people.” We’re talking about white people. White people is not a dirty word, you guys, unless you insist on just being people while the rest of us have always been identified by our phenotype or ethnicity. Which says something. (I’m convinced that there are at least a slight number of people who – if they had something pointed out – can get the message.)

And while others have already eloquently spoken on the fact that the thing about diversity is that white people shouldn’t have to be able to relate to everything in the marketplace – which I will sum up as follows: Diversity in literature is having something for everyone, not everything for someone – what I wanna talk about is how that’s baloney. That whole can’t-relate dealie. Is baloney.

Because the thing is: none of us fell out of the womb relating. We were *taught* how to relate to the default voice. From the first reading assignment through to the last, by whom we were assigned to read, by the way we were taught to decipher it, we were taught how to relate to literature.

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Frost, Atwood, Wharton, and everyone else we read. We were taught how to read them. We were socialized to identify and identify with the style, the imagery, the pentameter, the allusions, the themes. We were taught.

Which means you can learn. Anyone who wants to. Everyone. Because – instead of trying to edit out the minority voice – the standard response should be, lemme stretch myself so I can hear the things I’m not hearing. Let me learn a new way to read, just like all of the western world was taught to hear the white, (mostly) male voice.

Learn to read, y’all.

And if you need to hear it again, please go read this. Because TRUTH:

White is an ethnicity as well. Which is why you can’t take a white character, slap a skin color on, and say, “Tada, now you’re (insert race)!” Because your character, depending on what race and background they have, isn’t going to look at white things the way a white person would.

#We

#Need

#Diverse

#Authors

And I’m keeping my voice.

 

Morning Glory

Now that I’ve described the mental process of writing as a writer of color (or tried to, anyway), on to what I want to write. Presently, anyway. It evolves and I’m glad for it.

My broseph-in-law, Andy, is actually the person who asked whether I was going to post this somewhere. Having edited gently to remove indicators of to whom this was originally submitted, here is a recent essay about My Story and why it’s being told overwhelmingly in speculative literary form.

*

I’ve long been conscious of what is inaccurately regarded as merely a Black predicament – and that such consciousness isn’t a characteristic of being Black – so, a devourer of gorgeous general fiction, I bared my soul in short stories and novels where the only character more important than language itself was the overwhelming social commentary. Overwhelming because it seemed inherently more aggressive in my present-day settings than the commentary in the work I adored.

My father was born a Black man in the Midwest in 1944 and when Affirmative Action debuted it wasn’t a dig, it was a divine intervention. His isn’t my story.

As much as I love whatever brought us Lupita Nyong’o, the Academy most honors PoC stories sub-titled: When We Were Slaves – but that’s not my story either.

I adore them but I’m not Toni Morrison’s Denver, whose safety and wholeness is most possible in a world necessarily away from white people, or Octavia Butler’s Dana, whose engrossing tale is untellable without reliving the past. I am closer to Elsie in my novella, Keepsake – a clone born of a memory extraction who doesn’t live (and die) as she’s expected, who straddles two worlds, who’s not real but isn’t a Mem, who wants her loved ones to tell her who and what she is until she understands: they don’t know.

It’s not a story I could satisfactorily tell when I was writing purely general fiction. The characters kept getting reduced to their Blackness, to their remarkable ability to express themselves and decode the world. They were all poets and writers and professors, none of which is bad, but it was the “exceptional voice” all over again. It took place in the real world with a decided default class and therefore automatically became an “issue book” from which I shielded loved ones. They wouldn’t understand; they weren’t ready to hear; they’d reveal their own prejudices and I’d be faced with how to respond.

Because my story is having had to choose between the token – a story wherein the Black protagonist is inevitably the only PoC – and the exception – wherein a) the Black character is “not as colored as she seems” and her wavy hair, her green eyes, her lighter-shades-of-coffee skin are incessantly described, or b) every Black character is a genius, a master, a far cry from being average. My story is living in a post-movement world where a “normal” story is what we’re disallowed; we earn a story either because we’re victims still destructively reeling from the world we never made or because we’re noble pantheons of bootstrapping achievement. Society taught me I must be one or the other. But fighting that in black and white sometimes felt reductive, too.

Science fiction lets us hold the truth just far enough away to see it in our world. To speak directly while outfoxing those among us who refuse to acknowledge it or care. Should people need such coddling? Of course not. But if internet comments prove nothing else, privilege cripples. That’s never more obvious than when we call for diversity in the genre, not just on the page but behind the typewriter.

Right now, I write for the colored girls living the normal life we’re not supposed to. Who, like my character Avrilis, are the heroines in their story not because they’re exceptional “for colored girls” – but because they’re exceptional. Because they get to have love and planet-hopping steampunk adventures, too. (And because I know on such a journey, their hair wouldn’t be an after-thought.)

I’ll keep writing it because only after finishing Keepsake did I hear it speak to the way oppression and identity policing aren’t safely in our past, but are woven into a sometimes beautiful world that, yes, can knock the wind out of us when discrimination catches us off-guard.

*

Abrupt finish, I know. The last (omitted) sentence referred, you may have guessed, to the scholarship for which I was applying.

Final thought – which I hope won’t be too big a distraction to my above point: the chasm between genre fiction and the respectability of general fiction is particularly unfair to writers of color. And I say that as someone who didn’t know I’d end up on this side.

While my experience of feeling burdened and caged in cannot be applied to everyone else – because there are clearly too many writers of color writing beautiful and contemporary and yes sometimes historical works of art in general fiction (that give.me.LIFE) – I can’t escape the feeling that by writing anything else, my work is even further from ever being seen as capable of universal truth. I resent the feeling that I’m not writing “important work” anymore. And I disagree. (And heaven forfend, because that steampunky story I keep referring to? It’s YA to boot!) But just in case anyone else is in the same place as me, I wanted to let you know.

Burn. Down. The House.

I’ve been applying for a lot of fellow/scholarships for writers of color or diverse literature. For these, I’ve written a few essays, one of which I’m going to share with you tomorrow. I’m not looking for it to blow your mind. I’m hoping it can do what diverse, or rather realistic, writing can do – speak back to somebody who thought no one else knew.

The essay is about who I’m writing and how writing speculative literary fiction has been expansive for me. But today – before that – I want to tell you what the actual writing is like. Because while I’m making up these other worlds, I’m living in the real one.

I’ve observed that privilege is largely what you don’t have to know. For those of you who don’t, here’s a glimpse into things I think about when presenting a character.

Scratch that. Necessarily first, lemme give you a glimpse into how my brain works when I want to tell you anything.

Disclaimers abound. Know that. Because I have to say, do not try to apply this to every Black writer. If you meet a Black writer and they say something different, do not say, “But I know a Black writer and she said…”

Then I think about how I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that.

And before, during and after having said something, I will wonder if the way I said it will keep you from hearing what I said. Because privilege is precious. It is aggressive and yet easily threatened. I must be calm (rational) and gracious. Passion = rage, if you’re a person of color. Ask …any human. The hardest part about telling people what things are really like is knowing that you’re supposed to care most about what it’s like for them. Even the telling. Discomfort might be a way of life for you but you’ve got to make the telling of it palatable. Or you’ve got to set it so far in the past that it doesn’t threaten them now…but that’s a separate story.

And now, we will actually come to What I Wanted To Tell You In The First Place. (See how we’re already exhausted?)

It is frustrating to:

A) be denied the privilege that doesn’t have to introduce itself (because if I don’t tell you my character is Black, and sometimes even after I do, you’ll misrepresent her)

while B) also keeping said required introduction from becoming part of the story (because my character’s adventure shouldn’t have to be overwhelmed by the un-privileged experience of not being white)

when C) there are so many ways I already *shouldn’t* introduce her. She can’t be brown like anything that is in reality brown because comparison offends. So I must somehow and without politicizing my story tell you she’s a Black girl except she isn’t because this is a story set on a different world so the entire predicament that brought about who I am does not exist.

And then, inevitably, someone will ask why it matters what color she is. And the exhale will feel as long and decisive as a final breath because sometimes you have to know what is just a brick wall. But this is my blog and everybody deserves some corner of sanity, so let me answer: if it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t default her to one specific race of people.

If it didn’t matter, innumerable stories with white protagonists would seem like overkill before two stories featuring people of another race did.

That story about the Asian-kid-at-summer-camp book getting rejected [because one already exists] brings to mind how unpleasantly editors and publishers tend to react to the idea of instituting racial (and/or gender) quotas as a mechanism for diversifying their lists. But, as that incident and so many others reveal, informal quotas are already in place.

- Jennifer Pan, Hatred of Publishing

They got it so right, Sarah and Jennifer.* There is already a quota, it just doesn’t work in my favor.

And newsflash? I don’t want it to matter either! I’m not fighting to keep this system of injustice in place. (Feel like I need to throw in a how-dare-you for that one, y’all.) Talking about a problem and acknowledging that it is a problem is not the same as creating the problem.

I want it not to matter anymore, just not in the “I don’t see color” way, because let’s not even. In the way that my character (like me!) is ready for adventure! She’s ready for a fire-fight in another universe without getting bogged down by the baggage you’re trying to assign her and the lengths we have to go to so you see her in the right skin but not in the wrong light. I am MORE than ready to be done with that. I’m more than ready to be done with having the poetic negro story be the only one that seems marketable and of lasting value for a Black American author to tell – not to mention the only one to be considered “authentic.”

I’m ready to be done with the diversity that means, “Showcasing Marginalized Groups in Order to Provide Colorful, Enriching Cultural Experiences for White People” (Jennifer Pan).

I’m tired of the burden to educate when my character wants to escape. In the first place because it’s a trap. If it’s historically accurate, it’s heavy, it’s issue-driven, it is the story and we’ve already decided who we’re willing to hear the truth from. If we throw historicity to the wind, it’s unbelievable. (More and more that burning down the house bit seems like the right answer. Throw the imperial, euro-centric steampunk restrictions away from the start and I won’t have to worry about the circumstances under which my character would be there in the first place.)

I promise. I want to be past that at least as much as you do.

But we’re not.

So.I.Rise.

maya-angelou-top-quotes-4

Be careful that while we mourn a great orator, poet, activist, VOICE, we don’t send the message to younger women of color to keep quiet.

-

*Read the article, if you haven’t already. And comment if you’ve got something to say – I did! And to see descriptions of my writing, check out my Writing page.

There’s A Choice We’re Makin’

You would think I haven’t had much to say. And you would be wrong. The problem is moreso that there hasn’t been a brain-to-blog plug-in yet that works. Get on that, nerds.

Okay, but I’m not gonna try to remember all the things I thought to tell you over the past month so we’ll just do the most important stuff. Starting here:

1stBBQ

Boom.

First ribs of the season. If we facebook, you’ve already seen this but I mean… can you ever see this picture too much? Montreal does this thing where she waits until you’re pretty sure you cannot handle cold any more and then she keeps it cold for about three months longer and then when it lifts, you have never loved a city so much. She’s a cunning little minx.

And then Mother’s Day happened, which was awesome and I’ll post a picture at the end because there’s this one other thing that got in my craw (assuming that’s how you spell that) and I want to end on a high note.

So, pre-picture honest time: the worst thing you can do during a campaign about needing diversity in literature is be the guy/gal who – blinded by the privilege of having a voice (see Orange Is The New Black for more examples) – is completely ignorant to the fact that a problem which involves an overrepresentation of white writers is not also going to be solved by white writers writing about diverse people.

Like…why would that be your go-to plan A?

Seriously.

Don’t be the person who has to interrupt to say diversity isn’t just what I’m writing about either. (Have you noticed this??) The “what about ___” response? To which I always answer: one story isn’t enough. MY story isn’t enough. Why would it be expected that ALL the diversity need be in one place? The imperialism is staggering. We this way, you that way = stop it. There’s room in here, guys. You just might have to give up some of yours.

And where I could link to the individuals who have tweeted something that made me shake my head, I’m just gonna say: it happens or I wouldn’t be mentioning it. Instead of trying to justify or explain or point out that you don’t do that – as though I’m incapable of appreciating that not all people of a demographic are the same (hold for indignant snort at all the ironies) – maybe go further out of your way to not just tweet the real solution, but to also support diverse authors. Support presses dedicated to supporting diversity. And if you’re in doubt, listen to what #diversityisnot. Ask questions. Just make sure you respect the reality enough to not make your questions about you. Don’t ask immediately whether you should write diversity, don’t ask how you should go about it, don’t interrupt to tell us that you did. You are not being called upon to save the day. The whole point of this is every story isn’t yours. It’s true of everyone else and we survive. You’ll be fine.

Now this is not a link round-up because we all have fingers and search engines and book stores and seriously, feed yourself or you’ll starve. Here instead is a place to start supporting.

And you know what, understand diversity isn’t the same as multiculturalism. I think I may have mentioned this before. My story is not safely segregated from the mainstream and it won’t make you feel enlightened and worldly to read it. It’s not about the past (not the one you’re thinking of anyway) or some far away place of my own developing world. It’s about a black girl, right now, in the same space who has the right to lead the story.

Me and my kin

I Keep Saying I’ll Blog

Three Things Which Are True:

(1) I’ll never stop badmouthing George Orwell. *

(2) Never.**

(3) I’ve got work to do. (Wonderful, wonderful work.)

*I’m not saying my sentiments are new to you or this blog. I’m not even saying that’s the best article on the matter, it’s just the easiest one to find that refers to Orwell having reviewed Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. And I’m still indignant.

**As long as 1984 is on required reading lists and any list of well-received, impacting novels, I will continue to do so.

 

You’re. Of. No. Consequence.

“I’m sick of being Nathaniel and you’re Mr. Lopez.”

I was just watching The Soloist while I did my hair because it’s my routine. It’s my routine because it’s brilliant – the film, the score, the leads – and it’s the soundtrack to that activity. It’s my ritual. I’ve tried other movies but they were too distracting or they were boring because I found I could entirely tune them out. Anyway, this is what I do. And every time this scene ends – if you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand – and the woman who is the primary aural hallucination says those words – You’re. Of. No. Consequence. – the scene ceases to be about one man’s struggle with mental illness and becomes the perfect summation for what it is to be Black American. And through that lens, the entire scene can be seen anew.

Renisha McBride was killed a week ago.

Jonathon Ferrell was killed in September.

Trayvon Martin was killed last year.

Dozens are killed every month, I’m sure, as participants of criminal violence. Maybe because of this some Americans think we shouldn’t be so upset about the three named above. Except these three were unarmed. Two of them were looking for help. One of them was denied justice already. All of them were Black Americans, part of a cultural group whose lives are very much impacted by the way the culture began. Beneath someone’s thumb, behind someone’s line, segregated in ways both explicit and not. Expected to be wrong. So when they walked back from a shop or sought help, their lives were ended. So expectation – is that not evidence of the otherwise supposedly invisible brand of institutionalized prejudice and oppression? Why would people who’ve not gotten the chance to open their mouths and explain themselves be so grossly misinterpreted?

I can’t make this make sense unless I’m preaching to the choir. Even sympathetic parties don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say.

But here comes the message all over again, from both sides – from the side confident and selfish enough to say they don’t see it and from the side who does and carries on with life as it is…otherwise, yes, we’d all be activists all the time. You’re Of No Consequence.

How have I escaped this notion when my own father’s history is too hard to process all at once? Grace. But my identity being elsewhere – in Christ – doesn’t justify that the message is still loud and clear. Be an exception. Make us see you differently or we’ll assume the worst. We’ll forget we stole your dignity and then lambast you for being undignified.

Sometimes it just hurts.

 

An Old, Old Wooden Ship

Diversity

Drink it in, friends.

Because I feel like this needs to be said: there’s a difference between multicultural fiction and fiction representing the diversity of a culture. That doesn’t mean that never the twain shall meet, but the term and the characteristic are not mutually exclusive.

A book with a black mc is not multicultural fiction, if you ask me. I do not exist outside of American culture or even beside it. And yes,  I too without really thinking it through had referred to it as multicultural because, well, that’s what people do. Until I started thinking about it and went, wait. Shuddup. Or something more intellectual and intelligible but you get me.

I suppose I could hear you out if your basis was that the story was specifically about their experience as a person of color but I still wouldn’t agree. Yes, we say “black culture”, but we also say “band culture” and that doesn’t mean a book about the Mighty Matador marching band is multicultural. Having characters from different cultures… that would make a book multicultural. Having a book about an actual African-American – as in a character who was born in an African country and raised either in that country and community until a certain point OR who was raised in America but in a very specific community in which their traditional culture was still a big part of their lives – would be multicultural. Is this clear enough yet?

But just having characters with different skin colors from the same society, nation, whatever? That’s diversity. I hate to break it to you but my childhood did not exist outside of the realm of normalcy. I’m not from some subset of humanity. I don’t need you to partition my experiences on a separate shelf, thanks. You really *should* be able to relate to me even if perchance we don’t look exactly alike. (Do we all feel adequately silly yet?)

So yeeeeah. I write fiction. Sometimes YA, sometimes adult, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, always diverse. I’m really glad we had this talk.

I guess I can close this tab now: Two Awards to Promote Multicultural Children’s Books.

Help me, Helvetica

I’m confused again.

So, the thing is that I’m not boring. As in, when I speak, I make it worth your while. Try to give you that bang for your buck. (No one pays me to speak. Yet.) Storytelling is kind of a thing of mine, to be honest. Here’s something that is markedly easier to do on paper than in polite conversation: past tense. As in, if I’m expressing an outrage or emotional intensity that I experiencED? I’ll express it with vigor. Because flat-lining my tonal presentation is boring and I’m trying to take you on a journey.

Here’s why the confusion: I’m getting the impression that 99% of people mistake this for being REALLYUPSET.

Haiiiii. It’s a retelling, y’all. Calm down with the calming me down. Are emotions really that simplistic that the way you’d know I was harboring deep seeded rage and the like is if I just flat out told you? You don’t think you’d – Idunno – see some sort of social and mental decline or untethering become increasingly visible in my life as I spiraled out of control?! Nope. I’d just tell a story about the past in an intentionally animated and – IF I SAY SO MYSELF – entertaining fashion and bam, you’re my psychiatrist who truly knows my inner workings now.

Yeesh. (See, like how I actually still totally love you.)

And no, this isn’t about something else – like the fact that for one brief, shining moment I had a hooded hounds tooth cape that I wore once and then a mouse came down from the upstairs flat through the used-to-be-a-stairwell-now-is-supposedly-a-closet and touched NONE of the ramshackle older jackets but decided to filet the back of my cape to make its unholy nest of which in a few hours it will have no need because exterminator, breezy, that’s how we do.

It is not about that.

P.S. That new favorite gif of mine? I literally just saw it on another blog and white-knuckled it. And now it is mine. ::kisses the internets::

All These Things That I’ve Done

It was my birthday, y’all!

Boom, baby!

So out of nowhere, Montreal had a day of GORGEOUSITY. And seriously, it was. High sun and cool air, from whence did thou come? Andthankyou.

Went to see The Taming of the Shrew in Westmount Park – smashing good time. Especially the part where Kate tells the other wives what duty they owe their lords and husbands. Because I live in Quebec. And the audience was silent with what I can only assume was rich indignation. I, on the other hand, adored it. But then, I have my husband’s last name. “WHICH WAS THE STYLE AT THE TIME.” – Grandpa Simpson

Okay. In other things, I just got back from Chi-town or Chicagoland as I kept hearing. We went with the youth group from our church and it. was. amazing. It cannot be overstated how wonderful this trip was and how much of a blessing.

In which you can see basically none of the water feature behind us.

Girlfriend. It was good times. I’m always proud of how friendly Americans are. Don’t listen to the overdone cliches, forgetting those Anons of you on the interwebs, you guys are aces.

So while we were there, a song was written for us. Something about sitting in a tree. :) And as we’re preparing for our TEN. YEAR. ANNIVERSARY. … yeah. We’re in love. (And I totally won’t do that thing where I explain that love is actually something you do but that yes, thankfully, feelings come with it.)

And now you know two things I’ve been doing.