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.