We cannot be together right now. I am with my novel. It’s gotten serious. Forgive me.
^I can’t even.
We cannot be together right now. I am with my novel. It’s gotten serious. Forgive me.
^I can’t even.
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.
And I’m keeping my voice.
Let me tell you about the most frustratingest two days of my June life. (Because, let’s be real. I can’t rightly remember what happened in May. That was May’s problem; none of my business.)
So I have a bucket of projects from novel to flash fiction length out and about, looking for a home. (Does anyone else do this thing where they have several submission lists, in various visual iterations – like each particular project has its own excel workbook and then there’s the linear list of each project and where it’s subbed but then there’s this other thing which is shapes and just a different presentation of the same information because sometimes that’s how my brain needs to ingest information. You do, right? I should mention I am not soliciting diagnoses at this time.)
I tell you about this murder of organizational/administrative/brain-pressure-relieving documents because sometimes dealing with this aspect of the writer life suffices for a day or week while I wait on the next Must Write story/character/scene.
But not this past week. I was/am in the middling stretch with basically all aforementioned projects and I was like, okay, the next step in the thought-it-would-be-a-collection-of-flash-stories story might be transitioning into novellette or novella territory (dude, I wish I could tell you why) and simultaneously wanting to write a new novel for the adult market, but no. Seriously, not a single thought or concept was coming. By which I mean, not a single thought or concept that made sense.
It’s about a killer robot driving instructor, who travels back in time for some reason.
And then as it does, magic happened via the mundanity that is something I experience all the time and BOOM. Scene in my head. So, even though it was a simple scene, I wrote it down. As per yoosh, in the writing, more was revealed, but it was still vague in a way that surprised me. It could be more than one genre, part of more than one story.
So I made a two column list. This is how the story would proceed if it were this genre, this is how the story would proceed if it were this genre. And ho.my.gosh. One of those columns got long and extravagant and the concept turned into a world and ojsdopfjpdogkpdkfophhpodjfg and
It’s not ready to be written but WOW. I can’t. It’s one of those I have no idea how to write this projects and I can.not.wait.
This marvel of marvels, this tastiest of things? Is my new journal. Now, the first observation should rightly be: this is not a Roma Lussa, to which I desired greatly to return after two years of writing in a lined, non-marbelized-edged, decidedly un-handwoven-paged, sans leather not to mention wrap-adverse covered tome. Which I ended up very much enjoying for its delightful thickness.
So the thing is, I am very near the end of a journal and I cannot handle that being the case without knowing where I will write next. Mentally. I can’t handle that mentally. And finding my beloved Roma Lussa has been a challenge (no, the cost of shipping was not acceptable) so I went to Renaud-Bray to see if there was anything I could love. And immediately, no. NO. on all “leather” journals. I put that in quotes because I don’t know what these things are made of but it is not the supple buttery delectability to which I am accustomed, friends. It is not.
But then, I move a journal aside on a top shelf – I feel it’s important for you to accurately picture me on tiptoe here – and there is this. This flabbergasting cover with two glorious hooks, containing larger unlined pages than I have ever journaled on. But it wasn’t what I was looking for so I put it back. And then I came back and picked it up. And I put it down and went about my business. And then, as I was preparing to leave, I came rushing back and picked it up again. And then, darlings, I knew. I could not be without it.
I’ve begun my goodbye to the current journal. The obligatory flipping back to the beginning, seeing where I was, where it began. September 2012.
Le sigh eternal, you guys.
Like many writers treating this like a j-o-b, I have eleventy things out and about right about now. Novels, novellas, short stories. Only one of which I’m stereotypically worried-bananas-obsessed over because DID THEY GET IT, did they forget they said I could do that, Dear Savior please halp. Like, for real, I don’t even know what to do. And I can’t just leave it be and go submit elsewhere because you’re the one, the one I’ve been looking for, what’s your name?!
And then anyway.
I just really wanna see Maleficent again. As much as I had ZERO intention of seeing it in 3-D and resultantly paying a grillion bucks to do so because it was the only showing that didn’t make me late to get to my little boy’s award ceremony (the things we do for kids, eh?) – I loved it.
Speaking of movies (of which this summer has a ton I cannot wait to see):
I remember falling in love with the trailer for the Rise of the PotA movie – being so scared that it’d hurt me just like the trailer for Terminator: Salvation did. But it didn’t. In the words of Homer Simpson, it did rocketh my world. So much so that I endured the original five Planet of the Apes. (Yes, that’s three links in as many sentences.) And of course, I’m about to do it all over again. Because YAS.
Who’s comin’ with me?
This is where I started to write a hilarious (to me) post about how when elected, Diverse Author will make the world a better place in general, a la Homer Simpson’s Sanitation Commissioner campaign.
Like any passionate politician, I was going to promise the moon – or at least a doing away with the new PRH logo.
If one can really call it that. I feel like they were going for clean and minimalist, forgetting that they’d gone with PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE as a name. When we all had already decided on Random Penguin.
When you choose to support Diverse Author, you get my personal guarantee that I will fight for the PRH logo we deserve. The one where the penguin is wild-eyed and wearing one sock, possibly brandishing an umbrella. You know, something you’d be proud to have on the spine of your book.
But it would go well beyond rebranding. Diverse Author promises to increase your daily word count by combining things the internet assumes every writer has to begin with. A cat. And a laptop. Using a cat’s innate desire to sleep on your keyboard, I will help you produce record-breaking and experimental content without ever plotting or world-building.
I was totally gonna write that post. And then I worried that the joke might be lost on many, if a joke is what we could call it. The strange expectation then that seems to constantly accompany diversity hires – POTUS included – which dictates that we must be The Living End. That which shall set right all the things and purify every iniquity.
The expectation that makes such hires and initiatives unsustainable.
Because the thing to realize is that the world is improved precisely by our having a voice, simply by righting the wrong. Not if we exceed sales expectations with a single bound, not if we surpass our cultural icons and heroes. By taking our place.
Can we replace “diversity problem” with “delusion”? Google’s mostly white-male staff underline Tech’s delusion sounds more honest. Let’s call it what it is. It reflects a clear and persistent and almost inspired inability or unwillingness to operate in the real and actual world. Concurrently, it reflects a system so lopsided that there is an overrepresentation of white men in the corporate world which, if scrutinized even slightly, would point to significant problems with the socio-educational-economic-everyinstitutionever complex that makes up our nation.
Click-bait titles for self-aggrandizing, pseudo-radical-social-revolutionary stories that in no way challenge the foundation, you’ve done it again.
How do you get Latino children into classical music, NPR? Really?
Somehow get people out of the ethno-social class that is historically and perpetually marginalized. Give them a break from chaotic and desperate circumstances which perpetuate the comparatively high percentages of academic under-performance and criminalization and thereby allow them a longer scope and vision. Give them access to all the things you have access to while doing away with the institutionalized barriers and negative expectations and baggage that inhibit upward mobility and create self-fulfilling prophecies. Because we know that “classical music” is code for something else entirely.
But we also know that no one was genuinely asking in the first place.
We Are The People That You’ll Never Get The Best Of.
But this is a reminder: any and all campaigns dedicated to increasing diverse representation have to be constantly self-regulating. Sometimes finding a solution isn’t the first order of business. The first order of business is resetting the way we all think.
Yep, #WeNeedDiverseBooks. But that means #WeNeedDiverseAuthors to write books that reflect the actual reality. This is my story.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
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.