“Is there a reason this character is Black?”
The white man leading the fiction workshop doesn’t make eye contact or wait for my answer to his question because I’m under a gag rule and unable to respond. Thus far, my peers’ critique of my story — about a manipulative woman’s romance with a married man — has focused on pacing. Now the conversation shifts to race, the one topic in these workshops that makes my body seize as if someone has stepped into the room with a rifle.
If I’m going to identify a character as Black, the facilitator informs me, then race must be integral to the plot. Otherwise, it’s a distraction.
If asked, I would’ve said I want my stories to look like the diverse world I see around me. As a Black woman, I want to center people of color. If a dialogue needs to be had about how to do so without diminishing the integrity of a plot, let’s have it.
The facilitator moves on without realizing, or perhaps caring, that he’s telling the only Black woman at the table that the presence of a Black person in a work of fiction must be justified or explained. If asked, he would likely (hopefully) object to this interpretation. But he, someone being paid to teach, doesn’t bother to take a few minutes to elaborate, to let his students contemplate how to respectfully and skillfully introduce characters of color or handle racially charged moments. Yet, seven years later, he’ll receive accolades for penning a book about reparative writing and inclusion.
In a previous draft of the story, I signaled the character’s race on page three. When I share the draft with a white peer, he says, “I must admit it was jarring when I discovered she was Black.”
My friend has imagined the character as white, a frequent default among readers that happens, as Carlin Borsheim-Black and Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides explain in Letting Go of Literary Whiteness, “because literature has been dominated by whiteness.”
My friend also wonders if it “means something” that the character is Black, as if the presence of Black characters tags a story as an exploration of what Zora Neale Hurston called “the race problem” in her essay “What White Publishers Won’t Print.” My friend’s suspicion that the story is “about race” speaks more to his limitations as a reader than my intentions as an author. It assumes the only force acting upon Black lives is social injustice, that we rarely experience, or as Hurston said, “think about,” other things.
This time, my story is about a woman riding her bicycle past a “No Trespassing” sign into a rich Boston neighborhood where she forms a friendship with a recluse living there. To me, the story is about misfits finding connection in an increasingly alienated society.
A woman in this all-white fiction workshop says, “I assume this is a treatise on race and class in America.” When I ask how she came to this conclusion, she points to the exchange (comprised of only 63 of the story’s 9,075 words) during which the white male character reprimands the Black female character for trespassing and she responds by suggesting that wealth shouldn’t allow anyone to warden off parts of a city for themselves. My classmate then points out an earlier line where the woman feels nervous riding through the neighborhood because she “isn’t supposed to be there” and knows she “stands out.”
The “treatise” comment opens the floodgates. My peers tell me I’ve presented an inaccurate portrait of American society, particularly its racial tensions.
“Where in America can a Black person go anymore and not feel comfortable?” one asks.
“Have you ever been to Boston?” asks another.
“Maybe you should go and see what it’s really like,” says a third.
Perhaps the characters’ racial differences divert focus. Perhaps the lines about wealth are heavy-handed. Perhaps I’ve written a bad story. But these readers are angry. For 30 minutes, I’m decimated. Not my story, nor my plot or prose. Me. These white readers cannot move on from what they think I’m saying about race in America and they cannot, will not, move on from the “supposed to be there” line.
When I express surprise, the first woman cries, “But you say it right here,” pounding her finger against the line as if it’s a murder confession. This isn’t a constructive critique of my work; this is a personal attack rooted in my peers’ anxieties about race.
I’m a Black woman who, at the time, had lived in Boston for years. I’ve taken that bike ride and felt those nerves because as a Black person in predominantly white spaces, particularly those you’re explicitly told not to enter — like those indicated by “No Trespassing” signs — you sense your own conspicuity and worry about the consequences.
But according to my white classmates, my experience in my own body and my understanding of my life experiences are wrong. My experience of Boston (where none of them live), this country, and race — wrong. They are the authority.
To make sure I haven’t imagined things, I ask our white facilitator how he viewed the discussion. He was surprised how “politically heated and hostile” it became and wonders if he should’ve spoken up, though he admires my dignity in handling it.
Today, one of those outspoken workshoppers is judging a short fiction contest.
At an Italian restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay, I’m having dinner with fellow writers attending the annual AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference: a Black woman, a white lesbian, a gay Jewish man, a woman from Hong Kong, and a white Englishman. Though we have different backgrounds, we quickly discover a shared frustration with what we see as a requirement to represent our demographic “types” in our work.
We’ve been told our work isn’t gay/Jewish/Asian/Black enough, or that it’s too gay/Jewish/Asian/Black. We feel pressure to represent our types authentically but worry readers only associate these types with struggle and hardship. Sometimes we don’t want to write about hardship. Sometimes we want to write about people falling in love or pondering the meaning of existence. Sometimes we want to write about the struggle but know, in order to reach an audience, we have to appeal to gatekeepers who likely know little about what that struggle really feels like.
“Wow,” says the white Englishman. “I never had to think about that.” He writes what he wants, he tells us. The only concern is whether it’s good.
The social hierarchy at this East Coast writing center operates like many others: a central clique comprised mostly of staffers and their closest friends encircled by satellite groups who enjoy varying degrees of intimacy with the core crew. This is one of the country’s premier literary organizations, and it’s profoundly white.
I spend four years trying to endear myself to this community. I take their classes and attend their conference; go to their holiday parties; volunteer for fundraisers; come up with an idea to create an online journal where their students can publish; offer to run it for free and do for almost a year; travel all over the city to hear their staffers and members read, even journeying through an ice storm to see “John,” a leader of the organization, launch his book. He and I speak briefly until one of the core crew comes up to ask if John is ready for drinks across the street. They leave me standing there and go to the bar. I step back into the ice storm, wondering like a sap why, after all my efforts, they don’t think to include me.
At every event, I try to start or join conversations. People offer light banter but don’t fully engage. They don’t ask about my job, my life, or even my writing, and the conversations are short. I wonder what they talk about with each other that they feel they can’t talk about with me, why they can’t help me the way they help each other.
My friends ask why I try so hard. Other Black artists remind me this is an organization for white writers.
Like its members, I’d like access to its network of powerful industry professionals and authors. I’d like friends. Community. A place I can be a weird writer and feel understood. Lifelong friendships are made here. Careers are made. I don’t understand why Black writers like me can’t be part of it.
When the new, white director decides the organization needs to diversify after surveying membership and discovering it’s overwhelmingly female and white, I ask to help. I tell her about my experiences and how the organization has a reputation among Black writers as being unwelcoming. Her desire to diversify, she admits, has met with pushback from members and staff concerned the quality of the writing will suffer and they’ll lose their sense of community, as if writing by people of color is inherently inferior and affinity can’t be found with them. When I tell her about my thwarted attempt to connect at John’s reading, she says that John once admitted to being so afraid to say the wrong thing to Black people that he chooses not to say anything at all.
I try. I stay on the committee. When organizations keep certain people out and the same people in, I explain, they lock gifted, hardworking writers out of opportunities. They kill dreams. I work closely with the director, a true ally who will eventually make great progress. But ultimately, I’m too exhausted. I withdraw.
Several years later, a top industry magazine profiles the writers group made up of the core crew, including “John,” celebrating the remarkable fact that they’ve all published extensively and prominently. They’ve helped each other by sharing advice and contacts. Some of them share agents. Not one of those profiled writers is Black.
To write as a Black person in America is to sustain a barrage of gut punches from a community and industry that don’t do a great job transcending the larger inequities of the culture surrounding them. Writing is difficult and publishing hellish, but the path for Black writers is laden with unique indignities.
These are only some of the challenges I’ve faced trying to build a writing life. For 25 years I’ve been trying to put a book into the world. Many unpublished novels and stories later, I’m struggling through my fourth year of an agent search for a novel that’s garnered praise from fellow writers, MFA mentors, faculty at the nation’s most prestigious writers residencies, and even the rejecting agents themselves. Still, I can’t get a “yes.” Certainly, such rejection comes with the territory, but most of the writers, especially white writers, I know who’ve tried to publish a book have succeeded. Why has it been so challenging for me? I fear a writer friend was onto something when she asked, “Do you think it’s race?”
I never considered those workshopped stories “about race,” though race figured into their plots. The landscape of an American story changes when seen through a person of color’s eyes. The fleeting moments when my characters become aware of the racial dynamics of their circumstances reflect the moments people of color experience every day. Nowadays, it’s inevitable that writers of color will produce work, as the scholar Patricia E. Chu writes in an analysis of the “ethnic novel,” which “departs from making racial identity or racialized humanity its central plot, yet is ever alert to the ways that race and ethnicity work beneath the surface.”
Borsheim-Black and Sarigianides suggest that white readers find comfort in stories that help them “look — and feel — good about [their] racial selves.” Clearly, I hadn’t done this for my fellow workshoppers and the punishment was severe.
Questionable work by white writers, however, all too often gets a pass. A Latinx friend attending a writers’ residency challenged racially insensitive passages in a white workshopper’s story, got shut down by the white facilitator, then had to watch the facilitator offer to connect the writer with an agent.
I once wrote a novel about a Black woman’s sexual awakening and worried about referencing the exoticization she experienced. I worried more after the white agent who briefly represented me suggested I dial up those references, concerned she was emphasizing identity over everything else. The book didn’t sell. When I write now, I consider downplaying identity issues or eliminating racial identifiers completely, if even a National Book Award finalist like Monica Youn finds herself deliberating between the “double bind” of “writing white” or being labeled an “identity writer.”
In 2011, I read an essay by poet Jaswinder Bolina wherein a white poet advised him to write about “the first-generation, minority stuff.” In 2012, I read in an essay by Krys Lee about an African-American writer whose instructor suggested she “write more Black stories… it’s very in right now.” Nearly a decade later, I still get similar advice. I am losing control over my narrative — is it Black in the “right” way?
All these headaches have come before I’ve even had to deal with publishing houses, which Ijeoma Oluo reminds us are run by “white, cis, [and] abled” people who “may not yet understand due to lived experience why your work is necessary.” Publishing is 79 percent white and 78 percent female. How can I impress those readers when even a titan like Marlon James once wondered whether appealing to white women might have helped him publish more, and recognized that the white female judges and writers of a contest he didn’t win “followed exactly the same aesthetic. And looked the same as well?’”
A few agents have told me that the voice in my manuscripts didn’t work for them, and I’ve wondered whether they’re responding to an unconscious understanding of how that voice is supposed to sound, considering that what makes “good” writing often rests upon what Larry Neal, a Black Arts Movement leader, called a white “Euro-American sensibility.” I think again of “John,” who acknowledged that maybe his organization should stop teaching everyone to write like Hemingway and Carver. To him, this seemed a revelation.
I’m not alone with these questions. In the recent #PublishingPaidMe Twitter hashtag, writers of color tweeted about agents who “couldn’t connect with” or “didn’t love” their submissions because the manuscripts “didn’t speak to” them. As one writer posted, maybe agents “pick books that reflect [their] own experiences, corroborate [their] belief/value systems.”
The hashtag also had me concerned about other decisions in publishing that block Black writers: that houses don’t devote enough resources to books by Black people because, as one agent suggested, gatekeepers think “the P&L doesn’t justify it”; that mediocre white authors succeed more often than exceptional Black authors; that Black writers, like Jesmyn Ward, can win the National Book Award yet still have to fight for an advance significantly lower than what an unknown white writer makes on his debut; that, as another agent tweets, publishers might turn down a “diverse” book because they “already have” a [Black/Latinx/queer/#MeToo/your “diverse” descriptor here] book on their list.”
Am I, along with all Black writers, competing to be the one diverse book at a publishing house?
I’m afraid to write this. Afraid to come off as embittered, to burn bridges. Afraid to seem ungrateful to the many white allies — mentors, published authors, editors — who’ve supported me and tried to help get out my work, and the white readers in workshops who admired my writing and became my friends.
But I’m in pain. The agony that comes from seeing your dreams die again and again — no matter how hard you work, how diligently you pay your dues and learn, how talented you are — can be debilitating. I don’t get to spend time doing what defines me and offers my life meaning. I don’t get to share these things.
I can accept that poorly written or unmarketable books won’t be published. I can’t accept that some books are unmarketable because their authors are Black.
Nobody owes me or anyone else a literary career, and I’m not suggesting race is the only reason I don’t quite have one. But I write this because the issue of representation in art and literature is bigger than me. Writers from marginalized communities deserve a fair shot at success. Our infinitely vast array of voices, styles, and stories should help shape our nation’s literature, not serve as an exotic “other” to it.
Until Black and other marginalized creatives wield influence and power at the highest levels of cultural production, this country will continue to operate from the disparities that contribute to its greater, more dangerous injustices. As W.E.B. Du Bois warned, “Until the art of the Black folk compels recognition, they will not be rated as human.”