“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ― Toni Morrison
Recently a group of novelists decided to have a sit-down for a round table discussion. For months they had been discussing some of the challenges that novelists of color face in both the publishing industry as well as the media in general. In addition to race, they also tackled the intersections of gender and orientation. The writers then realized that an honest conversations on these issues was something worth sharing.
Four authors, one powerful discussion.
And here we are.
Introduction: The Players
Ankhesen Mie is an author, publisher, and self-identified “professional lunatic.” Mie is a co-founder and Director of Promotions for Middle Child Press. Her works include Violet Dusk, a poetry collection, The Woman from Cheshire Avenue, and The Velvet Hall. She can be found tending the bar at her official website: http://www.ankhesen-mie.net, and narrating all things Blasian at the Blasian Narrative: http://blasiannarrative.blogspot.com.
Amaya Radjani is an author, editor, publisher and an educational researcher. A novelist by nature, she is a co-founder and the Creative Director of Middle Child Press. Radjani is the editor of MCP’s The Sultry Court and the author of Corruption. She can usually be found musing in the dark on her official blog: http://www.amaya-radjani.com.
Dennis R. Upkins is a writer, digital artist and a hopeless comic book addict. His debut novel, Hollowstone, was released by Parker Publishing this past summer. Novelist by day and nerd seraph by night, he can usually be found plotting to save the world and/or take it over on his website: http://dennisupkins.com.
Hayat Ali is an author who has amassed a loyal following. A full-time attorney, her debut novel, The Alpha Promise, has been gaining much buzz. You can find out more about Ali and her work here:
-Please introduce yourselves to those reading along.
Mie: I’m Ankhesen Mié, an Ambazonian-American author and blogger.
Ali: My name is Hayat Ali. Black woman. I’m a full time attorney struggling to become a full time writer and eventually film maker.
Radjani: My name’s Amaya and I’m a gorgeous black woman and a prolific author. In addition to musing in the dark, I’m an educational researcher and an editor. I am also the Creative Director of Middle Child Press. Some of my duties as CD include constructive and editorial assistance for new and experienced authors.
Upkins: My name is Dennis R. Upkins. I’m a digital artist, blogger and a professional author.
-How did you get into writing?
Ali: I have been writing since I was a kid. I love making up stories in my head when I played and on paper. I don’t get to finish most of them on paper but I do try. I have even written fan fiction.
Radjani: What I am first and foremost is an author. Storytelling is my life. Everything else I’m doing right now is just details. Writing has always been in me; it’s like breathing. I don’t recall a time when I wasn’t scribbling stories once I learned to hold a pencil. I can’t imagine my life without this gift.
Upkins: Even as a child I’ve always been passionate about storytelling. Writing is the outlet that allows me to channel that passion.
Mie: I started writing as a child. My father says I “destroyed” (scribbled in) most of the books in his house by the age of four. As storytelling is a very important component in pretty much every African culture, my scribbling tendencies were strongly encouraged.
-What genre(s) do you write in?
Radjani: Contemporary, sci-fi/fantasy, supernatural, erotica and gothic. I have a love of and an appreciation for dark subject matter, and in certain places, I’m known as The Goddess of Smut because I know how to write exceptional sex scenes. Read my blog and you’ll see that for yourself. Anyway, my work is far more than about sex, and I’m always seeking to test my boundaries and branch out into new genres. Lately, I’ve been fascinated with monsters and demons and I know it’s only a matter of time before you’ll hear about my foray into erotic horror. Don’t worry, I always issue proper warnings beforehand.
Upkins: YA, noir, urban fantasy, paranormal and superhero/comic book.
Mie: I write fiction, or what I call “experimental fiction.” I try very hard to think outside the box. To do so, I look for inspiration in unexpected places. I believe that reading/seeing/listening to one thing and wanting to do something similar is not inspiration; it’s just imitation. True inspiration is experience one thing and think of doing something completely different.
Ali: I write mostly sci-fi, fantasy and supernatural but with a friend I have done contemporary/romance stories. My first book [The Alpha Promise] is a vampire story. I also have a fantasy and sci-fi story I want to start.
-Are your protagonists usually POC?
Radjani: Yes. But back when I was cutting my teeth on the writing stone, I took my infantile inspiration from what I saw on television. Which, of course, were white people. That era didn’t last long because 99% of my world consisted of black people, and writers typically write what they know. I didn’t know a damn thing about white folks.
Mie: Yes, my protagonists are usually POC. I don’t hide the fact that I have a target audience. I don’t believe in “universal narratives” so I don’t bother trying to write them. I write for POC, so my characters are POC.
Upkins: It’s usually 50/50 with me. It really all depends on the story. But even if characters of color aren’t the main protagonists, they definitely have vital key roles.
Ali: Yes they are primarily because in the genre of sci-fi/fantasy it usually isn’t. In fact there aren’t people of color. You only get the diversity from sci-fi by them injecting aliens, trolls whatever in it. It gets frustrating.
-Do you share the same gender/race/orientation as most of your lead characters?
Ali: Yes my main characters reflect my race and gender and that’s deliberate on my part.
Radjani: Sometimes. Most of my protagonists are sistahs, but I have written from a male perspective. But as I mature and develop and branch out, so do my characters. Within the past four years, I’ve seen my characters’ sexual orientation evolve. It’s never deliberate; my characters are real people, as far as I’m concerned, and their lives are what they are. I have yet to write a story where a protagonist happens to have a different orientation than I do, but I know it will be soon.
Mie: I do mostly write women because I feel we’re quite shafted by media. I recently learned that on Netflix that there’s a separate category for shows and films “with a strong female lead,” as though leading female protagonists are just some cute, quaint little novelty belonging on a shelf, preferably out of sight.
Upkins: Not necessarily. And as a rule, generally no. The lead character may be queer and/or a POC but for the most part, you probably won’t find me writing a story about a queer black male character, simply to avoid being falsely accused of author insert.
-Has anyone falsely accused you of author insert simply because you share the same gender/race/orientation as a protagonist? I.E. she’s black, you’re black, OBVIOUSLY that’s supposed to be you.
Radjani: Don’t even get me started. I’ve had to—and still have to—shut down many an ignorant soul. My female characters embody aspects of me and women I know, but they are never me.
Ali: No. Not yet but I’ve argued with white people about the lack of PoC in fiction and was told that I should just change the color in my mind. I find that lame. Race is a conscious choice an author makes, just like time place and setting. I want to read about a POC not just impose it on the story.
Mie: Only with my first book, Purple Jars of Rice, has anyone automatically assumed that a main character was based on me. Because I write experimentally, and often give readers a WTF moment, they don’t usually think author insertion is involved.
Upkins: Most definitely. I’ve seen this happen to too many other writers of color. These bogus accusations are blatant attacks to undercut and discredit them from writing about the POC experience. It stems from this failed mindset that we as POC writers can’t be objective or “universal” in our storytelling. We’re not sophisticated, nuanced, or real writers.
I even had a few (read: racist white) critics make that accusation about my character Noah in Hollowstone and he’s straight and based on three high school buddies. But because he’s a black male and I’m a black male, CLEARLY that’s supposed to be me. Never mind the fact that there are white queer characters and a young black woman in the novel who I personally identify with.
If you don’t accuse Jim Butcher of author insert with Harry Dresden or George Lucas with Luke Skywalker (who Lucas has gone on record of stating that he named Luke after himself), then I don’t want to hear that BS now.
-Have you ever been treated differently because you are a POC author and/or your stories feature POC characters?
Upkins: Absolutely. I’ve had more than a few white colleagues sneer and give me the evil eye because I chose to go with an excellent black publisher and because my novel features a black co-protagonist and tackles racism. I’ve had the snide remarks along the lines of it’s a vanity publisher: Because Negroes don’t read, much less write, much less publish books with powerful stories. And if black people accomplished something that many racist white writing aspirants haven’t, then CLEARLY there’s some chicanery afoot.
Ali: No I haven’t. But people challenge me on why there is a need for POC in fiction and I find that remarkable.
Radjani: Well, that depends on what you mean by differently. I’ve had a hard time getting published in the past, but I can’t say with any certainty that it had to do with my race or the race of my characters. Probably, but I don’t know for sure. I never worried about it. I’ve spent most of my writing life in a complete void. All of this interacting with a community of real writers is still very new to me, but welcome all the same. It’s a beautiful thing, networking with like minds.
Mie: I have been treated differently because I’m POC and I write for POC. I’ve made white people quite uncomfortable because once they learned this about me; they didn’t know what to say. POCs, of course, tend to be more encouraging.
-What are the double standards you feel that POC authors have to contend with?
Mie: I’m not sure “double standard” is the appropriate term. In my experience, there’s just been “the standard” – white, heterosexual, and infallible. I cannot count how many times white people who learned I’m an author were quick to start rattling off what I should write, how the characters should look, etc., and then were shocked when I said, “Yeah, that’s nice…except I won’t make them white.” And thus the uncomfortable silence followed.
Upkins: As I mentioned previously, bogus accusations or being accused of not being a “real” writer. And heaven forbid you decide to showcase any real diversity, you get accused of pushing an agenda. Or if you have a competent character of color that’s anything more than the token sidekick, then they’re a Mary Sue.
Ali: Well in some respects yes. There is an expectation that your books need to be diverse. It is assumed by some that the authors can’t tell a story that anyone can relate and read. Once there is a black character some assume it’s a black story.
Radjani: Never thought about it, honestly. As I said before, I spent most of my writing life in a void, so I can’t speak on this. I will say that I write what I want to write because I write for me. If people expect me to conform to a particular standard just because, then they’re in for a hell of a surprise.
-Being a POC or for that matter a woman and/or an LGBTQ, do you feel obligated to tackle certain issues/themes/topics?
Mie: As an African woman who supports gay and transgendered rights, yes, I feel obligated to tackle certain themes. By I prefer to simply have characters themselves be the message, if I can. If I write a well-adjusted, gainfully employed, educated person who is otherwise often portrayed as dysfunctional, I feel my characterization in itself is the message.
Radjani: Obligated? Not really, unless you consider real sex and food an obligation. My characters eat and they fuck, and this is a common theme in my work. As I said earlier, I will say that I write what I want to write because I write for me. If I tagged myself with obligations, then I’m stifling my muse and I absolutely will not do that. If people decide to read my work and want to come along for the ride and perhaps learn something from it, then I consider it a bonus.
Ali: Yes and no. I’m a very political animal so my stories tend to be that way. I love tackling with issues of race class gender and politics in the story.
Upkins: Because it’s very rare for a person of color to be in the position to represent our people and culture with any sense of accuracy and respect, you definitely feel obligated, I believe, to debunk stereotypes and showcase marginalized people as real organic human beings.
Some themes will naturally manifest in my narratives simply because it’s a part of my experience. Just as elements of racism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice will rarely show up in the works of many white writers because their experience is from a place of privilege where they haven’t had to contend with that in their day-to-day. Or if it is addressed, it’s often done very poorly. But believe it or not POCs and LGBTQs love escapism too. Sometimes we don’t always have to tackle racism or homophobia. Sometimes just presenting a great story that just happens to feature a woman of color or a butt-kicking gay action hero speaks volumes without even having to raise the issue.
-What has the treatment from white readers/white authors/white colleagues in the industry/fandom been like?
Ali: With The Alpha Promise? We’ll see.
Mie: My experience is that white folks want to read works about themselves. They are especially excited if the author is POC because that offers them the role of “guide.” They can’t wait to tell you what to do and how you should do it. Even if you make it clear that POC are the leading characters in your work, they dismissively nod and go, “Yeah, yeah…so back to this random white character in the story. I think they need more lines. And bigger backstory. And a [white] love interest.”
Radjani: I believe that TPTB typically want stories by PoC authors that portray us in a negative light; i.e. “hood lit.” Anything of quality tends to get ignored. You’ll see all kinds of bullshit on the shelves in the “African American” section, and the themes are typically the same. I’ve been fortunate to have sorted through the dreck and found a few good authors, but it’s a rare occurrence. My collection leaves a lot to be desired, and that is one of the reasons Ankh and I formed MCP, to fill this void.
I’m a fanfic writer, and 99% of the time, I have no idea of what the majority race of my fan base is. I assume they’re white; but I don’t know for sure, nor do I care. For the most part, they’ve been decent in terms of supporting my fanfics, but considering most of the fandoms I’ve written in are lily-white, that’s easy for them to do. I’m sure they ignore the blatant (at least I think they are) indicators that the fanfic author is a black woman, because it’s easy to do so.
Upkins: It’s been mixed for me. I’m sure as most POCs know, when you gain any modicum of success (much less publish a book), you find out very quickly who your real friends are. Since Hollowstone’s release, I’ve gotten some rebuke from bitter white peers. On the flipside, I’ve also received a lot of love and support from white readers and industry types who truly are fighting for change and progression. I’m very grateful for them and their support but at the same time, you learn quickly why things haven’t improved.
-Support for POC artists? Are audiences doing enough? Is there room for improvement?
Mie: I think we’ve developed a culture of complaining. We’d rather complain about what’s not being done in Hollywood, rather than support, praise, and analyze what IS being done outside Hollywood. And while we don’t realize it, we’re boycotting the wrong people. If you’re bitching at Jay-Z or Kanye after you’ve bought their albums, and realized you’re tired of rims, hoes, and Cristal, keep in mind you’ve boycotted Asheru, whose albums cost half as much and are one hell of an investment.
When you pay $80-120/month for cable for a bunch of channels you don’t watch, where POC presence has been in decline for the last decade, you’re boycotting perfectly good web series where POC write, cast, and star in stories which relate directly to you.
We have to learn to make that correlation and hold ourselves accountable. POC fans have got to relearn to take the initiative and do things for themselves to get what they want.
Upkins: I think Ankhesen nailed it. I was talking to a friend about this very issue and we both concurred that POCs, and we were discussing blacks specifically, have become too complacent with the status quo. Rather than demanding better, we rarely take any kind of proactive measure to improve our conditions.
For years I’ve purposely sought out media that features women, POCs, LGBTQs, the disabled and other marginalized people as the primary protagonists. I believe in voting with my dollars. And I regularly make posts, lists, and other recommendations on my blogs to provide resources for other people looking to support quality marginalized media. I was disheartened to learn that I was in the minority in doing that much. I have to admit that for so many people I encounter who cry and moan about the lack of diversity in the media, few actually bother to support it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve boosted the signal on POC media and as a result I only receive e-crickets.
I’ve seen this countless times with other POC fandom efforts. Too many POCs will rather spend money on media they despise than to actually support something that they complain about wanting more of. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people complain about an author or an artist (usually white) being racist/sexist/homophobic, but they’ll still put money in their pockets. While queer, female and storytellers of color who are trying to do something positive rarely get any love.
True change requires doing actual work and coming out of comfort zones. It means actually making the effort to be the change we wish to see in the world. But because so many people are slaves to comfort, it’s little wonder why things don’t improve.
-Tell us more about Middle Child Press and its mission statement.
Radjani: A year and a half ago, Ankhesen and I came together and formed Middle Child Press. We needed a publisher for The Sultry Court, but current eBook publishers didn’t meet our standards. So we formed MCP around The Sultry Court and decided to focus it on being an independent publishing house for WoC authors. The time has come for WoC to tell our own stories: stories that run the gamut of human experience, because no one else will do it. We don’t all write hood lit or streamlined interpretations of our culture. We don’t all write romance or stories that paint PoC in a negative light. The problem is that we’re rejected from the mainstream publishing world by the powers that be because we refuse to fall in line with their narrow-minded standards. Ankhesen and I want to give WoC a chance to see their work in print, or in our case, in eBook format. We are dedicated to MCP and we believe in this endeavor, or we would have never fronted the cash to give birth to it.
Mie: When we first got into this venture, we invested literally thousands of dollars and reached out to several female authors of color spanning multiple styles and genres. I understood that such an endeavor takes time (and money) and I was willing to invest the necessary patience. I still am. I believe in what we are doing, most importantly because it’s not something I’m seeing widely done, yet is so very essential for the literary needs of the modern WoC.
Radjani: As of right now, we have three (soon to be four) books in our E-store. We need your help to spread the word about MCP and what it is we do. Support us by promoting us on your blogs and websites. Help get the word out for WoC authors who’ve faced arbitrary hurdles in trying to get published. We believe in reciprocity; if you promote us, we’ll promote you. If you follow us, we’ll follow you, be it through blog, Facebook, or Twitter. It’s the way to get the word out for all PoC authors. We’ve got to get better at supporting each other.
-Any parting shots?
Upkins: It’s obvious that we’re four authors among others who are fighting for change, fighting to have our stories shared. Why is diversity in the media so important? Because there is power in perception. Malcolm X said it best, “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”
If our discussion has proven anything, it’s that POCs have a host of other obstacles and challenges to contend with and there is a reason why there’s so few of us in the industry. It’s bittersweet. The fact that we have to go through so much to get our foot in the door is all the more tragic. The fact that any of us made it also makes our victory that much richer.