FOR ‘COLORED’ READERS ONLY?
Recently, I was at a book signing when a woman walked up to me and told me that I “…don’t write like a black person.” When I asked what she meant, the speaker, who was a black woman, said that she didn’t like “the dark stuff:” horror, crime, science-fiction or even dark fantasy. In her words, “My life is scary enough.” “Besides,” she said. “Black folks don’t really relate to all that horror stuff.” She suggested that writers of color should write about “issues,” ones that affect everyday people of color; that we should write from a more racially identified perspective: I’m black, so my fiction should reflect “blackness” and, presumably, everything it implies. Therefore, in her opinion, writing science-fiction, horror or other speculative fiction was more for “mainstream” authors. By “mainstream” I assumed she meant ‘white’ authors. The speaker expressed her love for titles from what I call the “Sistergirl” literary movement. Some people call it “street-lit;” books written, mostly by African-American authors, and aimed at the “Urban Market.” My newest critic’s bookshelves, she proudly stated, were crowded with titles like God’s Gon’ Git You, Bedelia Watkins, and Mad Mad Maddy and Her First Baby’ Daddy. (Alright, I made those up, but you get the point.)The only reason she had bothered to approach me was because she had read two installments from The Ravenous, my psychic vampire e-book series. The first two installments of the series feature Neema Umayma, an African-American twenty-something who learns that she has inherited dangerous psychic abilities from her dead mother. Neema is soon inducted into the Sisterhood of Shadows, a multi-ethnic clandestine cabal of female ‘hunters’: psychics who possess the ability to derive supernatural strength and sustenance from human suffering. The stories are dark, graphic and not for the squeamish. The woman had “accidentally” read the second installment- it was recommended to her by a friend- and, surprised, thoroughly enjoyed it. She’d even gone back and purchased the first installment. But now, here she stood, yelling at me, exhorting me to write more “uplifting” inspirational stories. To find a wider audience among African-Americans, she insisted, I should try my hand at street-lit. Maybe I could explore the life of a thug/smooth operator/con-man or wickedly handsome dope dealer, one with a six-pack and a bad attitude. Maybe my handsome dope-slinger could meet a hardworking Christian single mother and fall in love with her, ultimately giving up the dope life, going to medical school and winning the lotto, all within a -hundred quickly digestible pages. “You mark my words,” my new advisor swore. “Black women eat that stuff up!” After she had moved on to harangue someone else, the conversation left me feeling deflated and slightly disenfranchised. I’ve always felt like an outsider. Like many of my generation, during my childhood I struggled with racial identification: in a country where a black man is “expected” to speak a certain way, exhibit certain behaviors, love sports, dress and date in a fashion that is familiar and easily relatable, I’ve always fought to maintain my individuality. My wife and I were both raised to speak ‘proper” English, and insist that our children do too. But that dedication comes with a price: Am I American or African-American? Am I a man first, or a black man? Am I a writer, writing my stories to appeal to a wide audience, or a black writer, writing only for black readers? This strange duality is never more obvious than when I’m pitching ideas around television network executives. Usually, the first question they ask is, “Who’s the audience? Mainstream or… that recent catch-all… “Urban?” Some studio and television executives see a black writer and automatically start looking for the “Black Angle”(Some just look for the nearest exit) assuming the story has to be aimed at black and Latino consumers in large cities. Somehow, without my being completely aware of the danger, I’ve blundered into the hazy no-fly zone inhabited by ‘ethnic’ writers who seek “mainstream” or “crossover” appeal. Another friend of mine read my novel, The Revenant Road, and said; “You write like a white man. You do aliens and science-fiction, vampires… stuff I’m not sure black people can relate to.” Strange as it sounds to me, I find myself haunting the edges of a racially- kinetic literary hinterland, a realm where minority writers are expected to produce a certain kind of story for an increasingly specific audience. But I long to create stories that anyone can enjoy. If my personal struggle could be dramatized, it would read something like this:
“It’s the 21st Century, damn it. I want to write stories that reflect the evolving Human Experience, stories everyone can relate to.”
VOICE OF PROTEST
“But you’re black. You should be writing for black people.”
“Wrong. You’re a writer. Write what you love and write it well. Your readers will find you… no matter what they look like.”
“But what about the “URBAN MARKET?” Shouldn’t I be aiming my efforts at…THEM?”
“Screw the Urban Market. Have you read those books? You’d never succeed as a Street-lit author: You haven’t done enough jailtime. You’d be laughed out of their offices before you could put your thumbprint on a contract. Besides, the streetlit scene is dominated by pissed-off celibates. Go find a hooker and get drunk. It worked for Hemingway.”
Feature film producers will tell you that minority faces and stories really only resonate with minority audiences in the United States. They definitely don’t sell DVD’s ‘overseas.’ Does the same thing hold true for books? Do white readers see a minority author and automatically assume that they can’t relate to the story? Can black readers tackle themes that may be unfamiliar to them, themes that may challenge some deeply held beliefs? Can white readers relate to black characters written by black authors? Stephen King did it beautifully in The Stand, The Dark Tower, and again in It. Many accomplished white writers write black major characters and are never criticized for it. The best ones demonstrate that great characters successfully depict the best (and the worst) in all of us. Why can’t minority writers write about characters from their own ethnic groups and be taken seriously by the public, and by publishers? Is the mental separation between ethnic groups too broad? Does anybody really know what time it is?
Personally, I think the tricky part may be getting readers to drop their preconceived notions about Race and open themselves up to the possibilities presented by all fiction. Fiction presents the perfect opportunity to understand, or at least peer into the simmering cauldron of human experience experienced by someone from another culture. As for minority writers, I look forward to a day when writers of color stop limiting themselves to writing only one kind of fiction. Currently, the phenomenon of magical realism in Latin-American fiction has begun to come apart at the edges. More Spanish language writers from the Americas are writing fiction without feeling obliged to imitate the genre that Allende and Castaneda made so ubiquitous. Writers of every stripe are broadening their literary horizons, rather than staying within the narrow confines of a literary ghetto wholly owned, operated and created by marketing strategists, timid publishers and provincially- minded fans at book signings. I want everyone to read my stories. I’ve enjoyed life-changing experiences by reading across a host of diverse cultural and ethnic perspectives. Of course there are still some experiences peculiar to the ethnic realities of the people who live them- I’ll never know what’s it’s like to grow-up up on a Wyoming Indian reservation in the late 1970’s for instance- but all those experiences share a common origin, the Human experience: how we relate to loss, and to love; how we laugh at our hardships or cry at our great fortune when things look bleakest. These experiences link us together regardless of race. The human emotional palette a writer can use to paint his pictures is vast and incredibly complex, but the colors all spring from the same source. I believe that’s why truly great fiction crosses all man-made boundaries: good stories appeal to the heart of humanity within each of us, the collective consciousness which I suspect is slowly spreading across the planet.
I think the 21st Century will continue to provide an ever increasing number of these perspectives: stories from all walks of life. As the world’s ghettos dry up and the planet gets smaller and smaller, I intend to be a part of that movement.