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.