This time last year, I took the leap every aspiring Author must take.
I mustered the courage and sent my story to someone with the power to share it with the world. In this case, it was a major publishing subsidiary and the story was a YA mystery romance novel, one I had accidentally written.
Someone may wonder, well, how do you accidentally write a novel? A fiction novel, some odd 70,000 words or more, which many individuals strive for years to complete–which authors travel to mountains and distant lands to seek the solitude and concentration required to accomplish such a feat. Yet I woke up one day and simply found myself having stumbled into one. Let me rewind.
I’ve always been a writer. Possibly one of the first things I ever truly wanted to be was a teller of tales. A streak of stardom was painted into me at a very young age when my name was randomly plucked out of a hat and I was cast as Chicken Little, the star of our Kindergarten play. But the real spell was cast much earlier than then.
I think the magic was woven into me by my mother, a teacher turned nurse, who swore that no one but her would have the privilege of teaching me to read. Television shows on PBS and the WB were nice, but books were my true friends. Thanks to her tutelage, I became an unquenchable reader and as we all know, reading books is the gateway drug to writing them.
I remember cold fall evenings in our one bedroom Brooklyn apartment, which somehow managed to fit three of us at first and eventually six of us when my aunt and cousins immigrated from Jamaica. I remember curling up in bed, under the covers, surrounding myself with books I had already read, trying to stave off the loneliness. Just having them piled in a circle around me made the sadness lessen, if only just a little. Did I know at that time the kind of woman I would grow to be? The kind of writer?
Did a part of me know it would not, like so many things in this life, be enough?
When George Floyd was murdered last summer, a line of gunpowder was set aflame. No one could have predicted where this trail of powder would lead, or how magnificent the explosion would be.
Riots, marches, sweat, tears. Amidst the 2020 pandemic that would change the face of the Earth, people of color and White allies were marching, yet again, in the name of racial justice. Another one of my people had been murdered in cold blood by the people meant to serve and protect and I was starting to get real tired. My personal life was filled with all kinds of mayhem and the cruel death of Mr. Floyd and the uproar following proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Scratch tired, I was exhausted. My classmates and I who in the final summer of our nursing program found creative ways to protest, but the energy I saw in others somehow eluded me. It took me a while to realize this fatigue was coming from someplace much deeper. All I knew at the time was I couldn’t find the stamina to go outside and march. I felt useless, with my asthma and my fear of a premature death from COVID-19.
Then a friend plunged their hand into the smoky darkness and reached out to me. This is a friend who knows of my writerly origins, who is always encouraging me to submit my work to this place or another. Writers need friends like this–though they are rarely appreciative of them. If you are this friend, don’t be fooled. Your writer is lucky to have you. My blessed friend told me about a unique opportunity–one specifically for authors like me. Read: Black authors.
This was not just an opportunity, but really a movement, I would come to learn, and one ripple effect of the explosion. Capitalistic companies were scrambling to prove that they were on the right side of history and, luckily or unluckily for underrepresented minorities, this included publishing houses.
Having first gone to film school for five years and dipping my toe into the world of Hollywood, then switching gears and diving into the world of Psychiatric-Mental Health nursing, being published by one of the Big Five trade houses was truly the furthest thing from my mind.
I took a look anyway and swiftly dismissed my friend–the opportunity was for un-agented adult romance novels. My book was a YA novel, with hints of romance, a fact they knew. I quickly tucked the whole idea away, but not so deftly enough that it entirely disappeared. Shortly after the initial encounter, I found myself poking around the website again.
That’s the issue with dreams–if you aren’t careful, they quickly take root and grow, even with minimal care and attention. This was a dream I had not watered for years, yet here it was in the back of my mind, growing somehow out of dust and rust. Unbeknownst to the dream or myself, the flood rains were coming.
One afternoon, when I casually checked the publishing company’s site, there was suddenly a new section with a call for YA novels from Black authors. Now I no longer had an excuse. The dream had grown large enough to burst through the door of my mind’s eye and spill out into the rest of my life, upsetting my quiet, cultivated morning routine of matcha and meditation. The novel I had accidentally written while riding trains all over NYC was no longer an accident. It was a godsend.
I summoned my friends and began the editing process. After all, just like planned ones, accidental novels rarely come out perfect on the first try. That August, amidst the riots, I wrote and rewrote my story. I picked at dialogue, I trimmed bloated scenes and nourished skeletal ones. I wrote new chapters after tearing old ones to shreds. I listened to others read my words out loud and tried to not cringe. I woke up sweating with the sparks of inspiration in the middle of the night. I stayed up way later than I should have, frantic to rid myself of this sickness called Story. And, in the end, I finished just in time for the late August deadline.
Final word count: just shy of 100,000. I was too overwhelmed to feel proud. I just knew I had done it. I had finally broken through that glass barrier so many authors must find a way to shatter. It’s a christening of sorts, when an idea finally reaches maturation and completion. I had actually done the thing. Like so many authors, I was still sitting on a mountain of unfinished stories and half-written dreams, but not this one. This one I had seen through to the end.
Believe it or not, that was the fun part. After manuscript submission comes the waiting. It was my very first time submitting my work in any real capacity, so I didn’t know what to expect. When November rolled around and I didn’t hear back, I couldn’t help but fret.
Of course, my friends and I had considered all outcomes. Rejection meant beginning the slog of querying agents. Selection would definitely include libations and potentially a rooftop celebration. Being published on the first try is such a rare occurrence, it almost felt silly to imagine it at all, much more wish for it. Yet, the tiny dream thrived.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise when they rejected me. But somehow, I still managed to be floored. Because their response was the one scenario I hadn’t anticipated.
Amidst vague feedback even my MFA friends struggled to decipher, one line rang clear. “We are trying to feature stories that center and uplift Black voices. If you have any such stories, please feel free to submit again in March.”
And that’s when it hit me.
I had misinterpreted the call and, in doing so, made a grave mistake. For some reason, I thought when they wanted to give a platform to Black authors they meant just that–regardless of topical content.
But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. The truth was they, like so many publishing companies doing similar campaigns, weren’t just looking for Black authors, but a very specific kind of Black Story.
A category my novel would never fit considering that the protagonist is, and always will be, a White boy.
I was crushed. Their words thrust me into turmoil–calling my authorship, and even my identity, into question in a way I don’t think they could have if they had simply said “It’s an okay story, but it could be better.” I remember crying on the phone to a close friend who had worked on the second draft with me. White people write about people of color all the time and they are totally unqualified–why do they get to but I can’t? What is a Black story, anyway?
In a strange way, being told my story wasn’t Black enough felt like I was being told somehow that I wasn’t Black enough. This is not the first time I’ve been told this.
I grew up in public and private schools being told explicitly and implicitly that I was an Oreo (Black on the outside, white on the inside). My Jamaican heritage didn’t score me much points back home or even with my Black friends in public school. Somehow it was cancelled out by my White American accent and tendency to start most of my sentences with the phrase “Well, technically”.
Private school was a whole other whirlwind of rejection, one that proved to be much more insidious and sinister to my mental and physical well-being. Regardless of circumstance, I have always had the distinct impression that I did not belong. And here was this upstanding publishing company, driving the final nail into the coffin with their poorly-worded rejection letter. I didn’t even bother to reply.
Some time later, I did deign to write about the experience, after some encouragement by my therapist. I suppose I needed the time to process what had taken place. I needed the riots to die down, and my energy to return. I need to pass my nursing boards and return to some semblance of normalcy. When I finally sat down in front of the blank page, a litany of words poured out. Words I know are likely echoed among the many Black authors out there like me who just don’t fit the mold. Words I will share with you now.
When I was 7 years old my mother says I looked up at her after finishing yet another Ramona Quimby book and said “I’m gonna publish a book, Mom. If Beverly Cleary can do it, why can’t I?”
I don’t remember saying those words, but I do remember loving the heck out of those books as a young girl. And The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew, and Narnia, and Harry Potter. I remember the day I obtained Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix there was a blackout in all of NYC (and the Greater Northeast, for that matter). It was a hot Thursday in August 2003, two months after the book had been released, and I was more than stoked to devour it.
My then eighty-year-old grandmother and I had to scramble down to sticky Flatbush Avenue where I saw chaos unfolding its true form for the first time. Stores were being looted so savagely, people hollering and shoving as they did it, that the Middle Eastern man who ran the 99-cent store nearby was just giving his candles away for free. We took a handful of white prayer candles and trundled home where I would ardently finish reading the book by candlelight. I was ten years old at the time. Such was my love for reading and it fueled my love for writing.
Despite being exposed to classic literature of all shapes and forms in my private school education, I did not and do not consider myself a literary writer in any way. My style is funky, maudlin at times, others comical. I struggle with tone. I was most moved in High School by the works of Hemingway and F. Scott, plays by Mamet, Williams, Miller and O’Neill, to continue putting pen to page, to allow my ideas to consume me.
For me, writing has always been an emotion, a mood, a fire that could suddenly burst ablaze, sparked by the shortest tune, the funniest poem, just the right phrase uttered by a friend or line in a TV show. It is the only talent that I have and continue to spontaneously engender—regardless of age, time, or place. To put it bluntly: I have never been in control of my writing, nor have I really felt compelled to become so.
This proved to be a challenge when I got accepted to the number one film school in the US for my undergraduate education. Attending USC: School of Cinematic Arts made me feel simultaneously special and insignificant, and the constant confusion of those emotions threw me into a deep depression.
I was a poor, Black kid from Brooklyn—I had not seen half the films these whiz kids from California, Florida, Texas, Washington, Colorado had seen. I did not have daddys in the business or cousins who were actresses on x-amount of tv shows or aunts who were staff writers. I didn’t even have a car. I did not understand the rules—that first you need an agent, but to get one you need a portfolio. That you need to write mostly every day to get one of those, regardless of your mood or emotion.
I flunked on everything but paper. I was lucky to leave that town with my life—no exaggeration. Friends and family tried to cheer me up, to tell me that I had “the rest of my life to be a writer” and to a certain extent I agreed. If there was anything my time in sunny LA showed me, it was that money in fact did not grow on trees but did leak out of my virtual wallet in the form of uber rides to friend’s houses, cheap Korean bbq, and impulse purchases to soothe the emptiness at night.
I needed cash—I needed stability, I needed a profession, particularly one that allowed me to feel like I mattered in this ever-changing, increasingly morally bankrupt society. At the time, changing careers seemed like the right move to everyone who mattered in my life. I just wasn’t sure what to say to that seven-year-old girl grinning up at her mother, clutching a book that was, at the time, her only necessary lifeline.
So, I said nothing.
You may be wondering why I’m telling you all this—why I’m sharing this background, which is utterly meaningless to someone like you, who has never seen my face, my grimaces when learning to network amongst White people for the first time, my shame-filled tears when I was confronted by the then VP of Diversity at NBCUniversal for not “wanting it enough”.
I am telling you, who gave me my first real rejection ever when it comes to writing, because I need you to know. You have joined the now growing list of people of all races who have informed me, indirectly or directly, that I am not doing enough for my people. And for that, I thank you.
I really am thankful, so thankful in fact, that I feel compelled to let you into my inner world so you can begin to wrap your mind around the reason why the request you are making of me and many other Black authors is so astonishing. When you ask for stories from Black authors why is that automatically equivalent to stories “about Black lives”? And what kind of a story is a “Black story” anyway?
The Black experience, despite what media would like you to believe, is as nuanced as the human experience. Regardless of my Jamaican heritage, my blackness has been challenged by Black and Non-Black folk alike—simply because I do not present a certain way when I speak, walk, dress, express myself creatively. This has happened to me ever since I was a little girl.
As a Black woman in the US, who has been systematically disenfranchised at best and historically raped and pillaged at worst, clearly my opportunities to share my creative voice have been limited (probably in ways I do not even comprehend). This is a fact you agree with—otherwise you would not be running this opportunistic enterprise in the first place. Where we seem to differ is just exactly what that voice should be talking about it seems, and perhaps even how it should sound.
When you ask for stories from Black authors, you may be looking for stories about race and racism in America, about growing up in a poor, urban, neighborhood, about drugs, violence, about struggle and strife. Or maybe you are just looking for any story, about anything, so long as it has a Black person front and center. Despite you saying you want to feature them, none of these stories must be written by Black authors to fit your bill (in fact, in the past they usually were not), a fact I find depressingly amusing.
I will be clear: nothing is wrong with these types of stories. We have them now, thank goodness, and could certainly do with more of them, but that has never been my voice. The truth is race has always been one of the last things I want to write fiction about. I think that we have plenty of writers doing the Lord’s work of analyzing the topic, that life itself gives me enough opportunities to engage with it, to upend it, to rise up against white hegemony, that when I retreat to my world of fiction I don’t feel the obligation to further wrestle with what is arguably one of the worst travesties humanity has had to endure.
Nobody asked for this, but Black people especially did not ask for this. I did not ask for this. Don’t tell me I have to eat, breathe and live it even in my imagination.
And what burns me, more than anything else, is that you would never ask a White author to even consider this. A White author, who has probably written stories considered “classics” specifically about Black people with little to no input from said people, would never be implored to consider “what they could be doing to uplift the voices of their people.” For the majority of White authors, the only real stipulation is: tell a good story.
We as a people did not ask for this—why is it that a problem of your creation is now suddenly our responsibility to fix? Why do I owe it to anyone to uplift the people that you deliberately, ruthlessly, painfully denigrate on a daily basis? Because I am one of those people? Is this the best way, the only way, to leave my mark on this world? I may agree with you about that on most fronts—except my writing. And here is why:
That seven-year-old frankly did not give a damn. She was not concerned about profit, about political messages, about making a name for herself and her people. She paid no mind to winning awards for changing the face of writing for Black authors everywhere or any other accolade you could think of (accolades I have already acquired in the other fields I work in.)
She wanted to tell the stories that came into her pretty little head, with no repercussions and no expectations, and she wanted others to enjoy those stories as much as any other story they might enjoy. That was it. Nothing else.
Now I understand, as an adult who has been formally trained in creative writing, that there must be compromises. And that nobody is telling me, per se, what to write for myself and my loved ones, but that if I want folx (White ones, usually) to put their names and money on the line for my work, then I need to be able to give and take. I am aware of this; I understand this and am willing to be flexible. But not when it comes to the truth of my creativity, not when it comes to that little girl’s truth.
The characters in this first novel were created many, many years ago. And, for better or worse, they are immortalized in my heart as they are. While I could easily slap a new coat of paint on them (race is irrelevant to the plot of this story), it feels vitally untrue to their initial incarnations.
More than that, it feels like some twisted form of tokenism—hollow through and through. This should not surprise me, given that most efforts at being anti-racist undertaken by White folks, turn out to be racist in some shape or form. In truth, I have gladly and skillfully changed many things about these characters to improve them over the years, make them more compelling, three-dimensional, true to the human experience. Any good writer must be willing to do this to become better. But this is where I draw the line.
I accept that probably means I will lose out on brilliant opportunities like this—to get my foot in the door simply by writing a stereotypical story about people that look like me. That by choosing to query agents instead of whipping up a new story to submit to you about “Black folks and what they be doin’”, I am decidedly not taking advantage of this open door.
But I also must believe that there are many other doors that may not be open to me yet but will become opened by virtue of my work—not my race. That I will be able to find a home for this beautiful story (and I do believe parts of it truly are beautiful to read—even Beverly might be impressed!) and that the people in that home will love me, take me under their wing, help me improve, and enable me to share my work with the world.
I must believe that for these future creative partners, I will be Black enough—beautifully, uniquely, sincerely.
Just as I am.