by Daniel Jose Older)
“Cuando el EZLN logre lo que busca, entonces ya no será necesario el EZLN, por eso decimos que luchamos por desaparecer.”
“When the Zapatista Army of National Liberation achieves what it seeks, it will cease to be necessary, and so we say that we fight in order to disappear.” —Subcommandante Marcos, EZLN, February 2001
A young writer that I mentor reached out to me last week. “None of these agents look like me,” she said, “and they don’t represent anyone that looks like me.” She’s wrapping up a final draft of her first novel and I’d told her to research literary agencies to get a feel for what’s out there. “What if they don’t get what I’m doing?”
I thought back over the many interactions I’d had with agents – all but two of them white – before I landed with mine. The ones that said they loved my writing but didn’t connect with the character, the ones that didn’t think my book would be marketable even though it was already accepted at a major publishing house. Thought about the ones that wanted me to delete moments when a character of color gets mean looks from white people because “that doesn’t happen anymore” and the white magazine editor who lectured me on how I’d gotten my own culture wrong. My friends all have the same stories of whitewashed covers and constant sparring with the many micro and mega-aggressions of the publishing industry.
“I don’t know,” I said. Useless words, but it was all I had in that moment. I don’t. There are so many paths to success, so many meanings of the concept, and race and power complicate the equation infinitely. It’s not enough for writers of color to learn craft, we need to navigate the impossible waters of an unwelcoming industry. I flailed for words that would prepare her for all that lay ahead; none came.
In the New York Times last month, children’s book illustrator Christopher Myers wrote about “The apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth.”
Myers’ father, author Walter Dean Myers, wrote about growing up a bibliophile in Harlem, falling out of love with books when they offered up no characters he could relate to, and the revelation of reading Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin: “I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.”
These two essays perfectly frame the emotional and social debacle of publishing and diversity today. They begin with this stat: “Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people,” according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. The wide world of literature in general, and by no coincidence, the publishing industry itself, suffer from similarly disastrous numbers.
When Christopher Myers asked his uncomfortable questions about the apartheid in children’s lit, the industry hid behind The Market. The publishing industry, people often say as if it’s a gigantic revelation, needs to make money and as such, it responds to The Market, and people don’t buy books about characters of color. This is updated marketing code for “you people don’t read,” and it’s used to justify any number of inexcusable problems in literature. “The Market is so comfortably intangible,” Myers writes, “that no one is worried I will go knocking down any doors. The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book… because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.”
By blaming an intangible force, the publishing industry absolves itself of any responsibility, when in fact it is very much in the business of manipulating The Market to its ends. “Those conversations happen without acknowledging that there’s a huge disparity in how books are marketed and publicized,” Sarah McCarry tells me. McCarry worked publishing on and off for a decade, most recently at a New York literary agency. “That money and attention overwhelmingly goes to what the industry has already decided is ‘marketable’—heterosexual narratives featuring white characters. A book has very little chance of doing well if there’s no marketing push behind it.”
Lee and Low Publishers convened a panel last year and asked agents what they could do to help shift the troubling lack of diversity in publishing. “I think the change is going to have to come from within those who are affected,” one agent responded, “just like any underrepresented group in any profession. But since the return on the investment for the author is so low, I don’t know how many people of color are going to have the desire to climb the mountain to publication that every new author faces, or have the luxury of dedicating the time it takes to master the craft.”
Another agent, when asked why less than 1% of her submissions were from people of color, captured what seems to be the publishing industry’s general attitude in just 10 words: “This seems like a question for an author to answer.”
This is the language of privilege – the audacity of standing at the top of a mountain you made on the backs of others and then yelling at people for being at the bottom. If it’s not the intangible Market that’s to blame, it’s the writers of color, who maybe don’t have what it takes and don’t submit enough anyway. Read the subtextual coding here – the agent first places the onus of change on the folks with the least institutional power to effect it, then suggests we probably won’t be able to find the time (i.e., lazy) to master the craft.
Of course, we have climbed many mountains, and mastery of craft is not a luxury for writers of color, it is a necessity. But many of our gifts and challenges won’t be seen or recognized within a white cultural context. Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation – these are all layers of the non-white experience that rarely make it into mainstream literature, even when the characters look like us.
The disproportionally white publishing industry matters because agents and editors stand between writers and readers. Anika Noni Rose put it perfectly in Vanity Fair this month: “There are so many writers of color out there, and often what they get when they bring their books to their editors, they say, ‘We don’t relate to the character.’ Well it’s not for you to relate to! And why can’t you expand yourself so you can relate to the humanity of a character as opposed to the color of what they are?”
So we are wary. The publishing industry looks a lot like one of these best-selling teenage dystopias: white and full of people destroying each other to survive.
But let’s go back to this: “It’s not for you to relate to!” Write that in the sky. And it’s true – often, as writers of color, to portray our stories in all their vibrant authenticity, all their difficult truth means we’re not writing for editors and agents, we’re writing past them. We’re writing for us, for each other. And it’s not just a question of characters of color, it’s not a numbers game. It’s about voice, about narrative flow. Because of who we are and what we’ve lived, our stories often contain implicit critiques of white supremacy, critiques that we know stand little chance of surviving the gauntlet of the majority white publishing industry. We see diverse futures, laden with the tangled past of oppression and we re-envision models of empowerment and survival. But only a few of us make it through. There is a filter and the filter is white culture.
Ultimately, editors and agents hold exactly the same amount of responsibility that writers do in making literature more diverse. The difference is, editors and agents have inordinately more power and access in the industry than writers do. As Arthur A. Levine’s executive editor, Cheryl Klein said: “It’s important to have advocates at every stage, from editing to marketing, from librarians to authors, so it’s an industry-wide effort.” Klein co-founded the Children’s Book Council Diversity Committee, a group of editors “dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children’s and young adult literature.” And that’s what I’m talking about.
The question industry professionals need to ask themselves is: “How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn’t just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception? What concrete actions can I take to make actual change and move beyond the tired conversation we’ve been having for decades?”
“As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world,” Walter Dean Myers writes, “I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the ‘black’ representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.”
And the “shining example” Myers speaks of is exactly what the industry responds with when we raise the question of diversity. No one is demanding more tokens though. We’re talking about systemic upheaval.
Here’s where the critique is met with deafening silence.
CNN recently published an article on diversity in Young Adult literature that asked, “Where is the Mexican Katniss?” In the Hunger Games novels, Katniss isn’t white, so let’s also ask: Where are the publishing industry players who will take a stand to make sure literary characters of color become big screen characters of color? And let’s go back even further. Octavia Butler gave us Lauren Olamina in 1993. Nalo Hopkinson gave us Ti-Jeanne in 1998 and Tan Tan in 2000. Where were the mass-marketing resources, multimillion dollar ad campaigns and spin-machines when Parable of the Sower, Brown Girl in the Ring and (my favorite) Midnight Robber dropped?
Nancy Larrick begins her essay, “The All White World of Children’s Books,” with essentially the same question: “Why are they always white children?” That was written in 1965. The CNN article from this month refuses to make a cohesive statement about race and publishing that isn’t tempered with phrases like “Some writers feel.” It ends with the hope that a nonexistent contest with five winners could be “the beginning of real change in young adult fiction.” The 1965 article, on the other hand, concludes with a reminder to editors that “what is good for the Ku Klux Klan is not necessarily good for America — or for the book business. White supremacy in children’s literature,” Larrick writes, “will be abolished when authors, editors, publishers, and booksellers decide that they need not submit to bigots.”
“What happens,” my student asked me, “if none of them want a book about a black girl and I never find an agent?”
Writing – becoming a writer – is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me, and the only thing comparable is seeing that love of craft blossom in someone else. But navigating the complexities of industry that still hasn’t dealt with its own institutional racism is a struggle I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
I closed my eyes, tossed up a tiny prayer, almost without meaning to – that she’d find good people like I have; people that would cultivate her voice instead of mangling or silencing it. I’d had this conversation before, years ago, when I was starting out and I didn’t know what lay ahead. My mentors shook their heads, and, I imagine, sent up their own tiny prayers. The faces they made probably looked much like mine as I said, “You just have to find the right folks.” I cringed when I said it – tepid words for such a devastating labyrinth.
Diversity is not enough.
We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism. It walks hand in hand with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and classism. To go beyond this same conversation we keep having, again and again, beyond tokens and quick fixes, requires us to look the illness in the face and destroy it. This is work for white people and people of color to do, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It’s work for writers, agents, editors, artists, fans, executives, interns, directors, and publicists. It’s work for reviewers, educators, administrators. It means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submissions guidelines.
Maybe the word hasn’t been invented yet – that thing beyond diversity. We often define movements by what they’re against, but the final goal is greater than the powers it dismantles, deeper than any statistic. It’s something like equity – a commitment to harvesting a narrative language so broad it has no face, no name.
We can love a thing and still critique it. In fact, that’s the only way to really love a thing. Let’s be critical lovers and loving critics and open ourselves to the truth about where we are and where we’ve been. Instead of holding tight to the same old, failed patriarchies, let’s walk a new road, speak new languages. Today, let’s imagine a literature, a literary world, that carries this struggle for equity in its very essence, so that tomorrow it can cease to be necessary, and disappear.
Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which begins in January 2015 with Half-Resurrection Blues from Penguin’s Roc imprint. Publishers Weekly hailed him as a “rising star of the genre” after the publication of his debut ghost noir collection, Salsa Nocturna. He co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History and guest edited the music issue of Crossed Genres. His short stories and essays have appeared in Tor.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, The New Haven Review, PANK, Apex and Strange Horizons and the anthologies Subversion and Mothership: Tales Of Afrofuturism And Beyond. Daniel’s band Ghost Star gigs regularly around New York, and he facilitates workshops on storytelling from an anti-oppressive power analysis. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic, and hear his music at ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on Twitter.
Illustrations by Julie Dillon. Follow her on Twitter @juliedillon and purchase her prints here.