Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Guest blog post by Trisha R. Thomas

Last week's essay from Margaret Johnson-Hodge sparked this response from Trisha R. Thomas. (Thank you Margaret! That is a first here on the blog!) Thomas is author of the "Nappily" series of books. The first of which, Nappily Ever After, was optioned for a feature film by Halle Berry. The latest Un-Nappily In Love is available for pre-order and will be out in May.

Everything below is from Thomas:

Since we're on the subject...I've become weary. I know this sounds incredibly silly. Who wouldn't want my job? I'm a published author of several novels that have done quite well with a few awards under my belt.

Yet, every year, I go through the melt down of having to market myself. Time to contact the media, magazines, radio shows, news outlets, and booksellers with hopes of being featured so my book will rise to the top of the very large pile of newly released choices for readers. It's time for me to announce who I am, what I've written and why they should be interested in reviewing my latest great work of art, which inevitably boils down to the color of my skin.

In this day and age, one would think we are past color coding, but it's more prevalent than ever. I've thought about displaying my multi-racial plaque. It seems to be popular and a quick area to move ahead of the pile since President Obama became our leader. But I have too much pride for shuffling race cards. Once that's established I quickly get tossed onto the African American pile, skipping the women's fiction, romance-comedy, and long running series pile. I skip the area of live and laugh out loud characters and become the black author whose subject matter doesn't matter at all. I was asked by a white associate if my next book would still be about black characters. When I told her yes, she seemed disappointed, like she would love to support me, "but ummm, sorry, it's out of my hands."

That's when I realized that it was out of my hands too. I've written characters, with a strong vivid plot whose race didn't matter. Something in the style of Barbara Delinsky, Jude Deveraux, or Susan Elizabeth Phillips who get to write without announcing the color of their character's skin. These manuscripts lay in stacks in my closet. In the past, even to mention that my characters were less than a deep shade of beige, I would be struck down by the all mighty publishing manifesto. Black writers must only and always write about black characters. Please leave my sight until you have repeated this one hundred times. And while you're out, write it down so you won't come back with that foolishness again.

Occasionally, one exception will get past the powers that be. Jericho's Fall by Stephen L. Carter would be a fine example. I'm sure he's also proof that it cannot ever, ever, ever, work, no matter how many degrees you have or what Ivy League institution is your employer. This is the proverbial ONE-WAY street.

Hats off to books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Help, Secret Life of Bees, and James Patterson's Alex Cross series. Hats off to their publishers who thought nothing of it to publish these black stories by white writers. My only question:

Why aren't these black character driven books sequestered to the African-American section in the bookstores? Why do they get a pass to freely roam about the cabin skipping the colored-only signs entirely? Why do they get to skip the pile?

Don't get me wrong, I am comfortable in my skin. I find it pleasing to the eye and extremely desirable proven by the constant new tanning products introduced every year. But that's only skin. On the inside, we are the same. We experience hurt, rejection, awareness, hope, faith, and rebirth, all the same. The human experience we write about surpasses skin deep motivation. I don't make a judgment whether to buy a book based on the color of the characters on the cover. Is it a good story? Is it recommended? I'm good as long as the lead character doesn't die in the end. That's where I draw the line. I don't discriminate. I read because I love to read. On my bookshelf it's about fifty-fifty of black and non-black writers. There are few white readers who can say the same. I am a black writer hear me roar, or sigh as the case may be.

Signed Trisha R. Thomas

Aka, Weary in Publishing

March 23, 2010 1:52 PM


DeBerry and Grant said...

I'm so glad to see this conversation continuing--and believe that the more voices that join this chorus the better. This is a song we have been singing to ourselves--coded like Negro Spirituals or slave work songs--for far too long. We need to make sure publishers and readers hear and understand--we want our voices, our stories to be relevant to EVERYONE--not just black folks.

tiah said...

Agreed. It is frustrating that things do not seem to move forward. Amy Tan has had rants of a similiar vein and still...and still.

Stephanie, PQW said...

This is a question I would like anwered by the publishing community. I would think that all writers' character reflect something of who they are or who they would like to be. Writing for the general public requires that some of the characters be of color in order to keep it inclusive for all readers.

Being a writer of color, I strive to create characters that are representative of my grandchildren. Yet, the characteristics of those about whom I write are reflective of all adolescents. It troubles me that my books may be relegated to a particular section in the bookstore regardless of genre. Or that I may be pigeonholed as an AfricanAmerican writer. I'm a writer that happens to be of this ethnic group.

Isn't it most important that I write a good read rather than what the characters look like, let alone what I look like? If I can read and enjoy books with characters that do not look like me, why does the industry believe that I'm the only one who can do this?

Donna said...

I totally agree with Trisha on several levels. The one point that stick out is the clear and blatant disparity between white writers that write about black folk and black writers that write about black folk. There is this irrational wisdom in publishing that continues to insinuate itself on the buying public and that is... the only market for books written by black authors is a black audience. Should that be the case then explain the success of Secret Life of Bees, The Help and the Alex Cross series. As Tricia said black stories are okay for the masses as long as they are written by white folk.

The reference to this point that I always make when I get a platform (LOL) is James Patterson. He made his name and built a mega career writing about Alex Cross a black man who was not only black but lived deep in the hoody hood of Washington D.C. For years James Patterson's picture was not in those books. But just imagine if his books had be relegated to the black section of the store! Patterson would have been in front of every news camera in America protesting.

Yet the reverse is not true when it comes to black writers no matter what we write or who populates our pages. Which raises a deeper issue: books are tagged and shelves according to the skin color of the author. And the publishing houses have aided and abetted this segregationist practice by creating "black imprints" within there houses, giving buyers, sellers, and readers the signal that "this is a black thing."

All and all this is a disservice not only to the black author but to a swath of readers.

So as Trisha said, on top of all the myriad things an author is expected to do, particularly the black author, we also carry the burden of how can I not be marginalized with my next book?

Carleen Brice said...

This is from Margaret Johnson-Hodge who had some trouble posting a comment:

Hi Trisha. I'm so glad that my blog inspired yours. You asked a question that amazingly, I've never asked myself: Why isn't books like "The Help" and the Alex Cross series and others like that aren't regulated to African American Fiction? After all, it's 'fiction' about 'African American's', right?" We all the know answer. I'd love to hear what publishers have to say...

Pamala Knight said...

Echoing Virginia's words. Frustrating for readers too when you can't find a book by an author because the bookstore thinks it wouldn't appeal to their demographic.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Trisha. The comments from everyone here are also very thought-provoking. Obviously the publishing giants have a lot to learn, still. It makes me wonder if the real answer is sidestepping them altogether.

Barbara Albin said...

I use to race (no pun intended) through the Alex Cross books so fast, that I don't think I realized until after I finished the first book that the character was black. I didn't care one way or another, nor did I care whom it was written by. I listend to the #1 LDA on books on tape for the first 5 books, so I had no idea that they were written by a white man. I do not pick a book from the shelf based on the color of the character or the author, I pick the book based on if I am going to be able to get into the story. So far all the wonderful books suggested to me by Carleen, LaTonya and many others are great. The wonderful thing now, is that you have reviewed so many books which has opened a whole new world of reading. I just wonder how many wonderful books I have missed.

Lynn Emery said...

Great conversation. Is "Big Publishing" listening? Hmm. I've written a mystery (wonderful I'm told by an objective source). Recently I had an appointment with a NY agent. She said, "I had read quite a bit before I realized these characters are black." Then she looked at me and waited. I looked back, then said, "Yes, they are." And waited. She went on in a "let's just get this over with" kind of way.


Doret said...

There was a time when I wouldn't suggest Black authors to White readers. Not any more.

Part of the reason I started suggesting more Black authors is because of this blog.

It made me stop worry about the looks I'd get from some customers who weren't openminded enough to read Black authors.

Since I've been doing it more often I've realized there are many White readers who don't care who wrote the book, they just want a good story.

There are alot of great Black mystery protagonist written by White authors. Alex Cross is not one of them. I don't care if he does read Toni Morrison.

White writers are encouraged or at least supported by publishers when they create characters outside of their race.

When other authors be it they Black, Latino, Asian or Indian must stick to characters who look like them.

I've always found this to be ironic, part of writing is learning and observing from your environment.

Authors of color are exposed to White culture every day - with the media, movies, on the train, teachers, co-workers, friends.

With all of that exposure I think authors of color can create three dimensional White characters.

Last year G. Neri a Black author wrote a great YA novel called Surf Mules that features two White protagonist.

Right now I am reading the new Mosley - Known to Evil. I am squeezing this fact in because the book is just that good.

olderwoman said...

I'm a white reader and I like to read books written by and about people of many different backgrounds. I agree that people of color as well as whites can and should write about people from other backgrounds, at the same time one of the things I like about reading a book by a person of color is seeing the world through a different set of eyes, even if the characters are white.

I mostly buy books on line, mostly audio books. There's no reason why electronic catalogs have to be segregated, because books on line can be in multiple categories. Every book that comes up in an "African American" list on line ought to come up in at least one other list (romance, adventure, literary, scifi, etc.). I was looking at the Audible catalog to check this, and this does not seem always to be true, although some AfAm books came up on other lists, too. This seems like something we readers ought to demand.

There are more interesting books written than time to read them. When as a reader I want to branch out and try something new, I need ideas. I've found some new authors from this site and hope to find more.

Nancy said...

I agree with DeBerry and Grant, but how do you get the point across without being seen as obnoxious. It would be awesome if there were other avenues, but prejudices run deep.

Books by AA authors have been set in a mold by preconception and no one takes US serious. I tend to think it is believed we are unable to write to a certain standard. I am sure this holds true for other ethnics.

Too bad there is not a publishing company willing to change the standards. If it weren't for biting the hands that feed, I would suggest a petition for change within the bookstores and publishing arena.

Carleen Brice said...

Doret, It's always so good to hear your point of view as a bookseller! Thanks for letting me know about Mosley's latest.

Olderwoman, Thanks for checking out the blog. Readers like you are why it's here.

Tameka Mullins said...

What a great post Trisha! As a writer trying to break into publishing I've often felt weary and I'm not even in the game quite yet.

I have a drawer filled with rejection letters from agents who say that my project is "not for them" or for those who have read my manuscript I've gotten "I didn't quite take to it, but the writing is very good and you paint with a good brush." I am the last person to play race cards as I believe hard work pays off no matter your race, but at times I wonder if the people in charge of giving me the go ahead just aren't that keen on or familiar enough with the Black experience to believe they can sell it. That in itself is a shame.

How can we change the game if the coach keeps us on the bench?

It's interesting to know that even authors who are in the game are experiencing similar things as ones who are trying to make it.

Perhaps the discussion will spark more awareness and then a solution. Until then, please let's keep telling our stories with as many different characters as we can imagine.

Bernice L. McFadden said...

@Stephanie - publishing will never answer that question - if they did, that would mean acknowledging that the practice of Seg-book-gation - and they will never do that. But what goes around always comes around and thats why publishing is suffering. What did Malcolm X say so many decades ago? Oh yeah, "The chickens have come home to roost."

Ronnica said...

While I have nothing to add at this point, I wanted to at least leave a comment saying that this post has me thinking.

Natalie Dunbar said...

I enjoyed reading this blog and all the comments. They certainly echo my frustrations! I've also had people ask me if the characters in my next book will be African American. I don't limit myself in writing my characters, but getting them published is another issue altogether.

Farrah Rochon said...

Great post and great discussion, as always. Hopefully, one day publishing will listen.

black stories are okay for the masses as long as they are written by white folk

This struck me because it is so true. In the romance world, I always think of Suzanne Brockmann and J.R. Ward. The first Brockmann I read featured African American characters and I was taken aback because she was recommended by my white friends (for a minute, I thought they where recommending a black author). And with J. R. Ward, I don't care what anyone says, her Black Dagger Brotherhood "Brothers" are black. Or at least they want to be.

Keep the discussion going, all. Someone will eventually listen.

Naima said...

Is it really just the publisher, or could it be the consumers too? To use TV as an example, wasn't Friends and Living Single similar shows, but how many Friends fans even bothered to watch Living Single?

Naima said...


I mean did they see the black faces and turn the channel. And after film and film some are still asking who is Tyler Perry, well if you are that interested go check out his movies. Its like some can't fathom actually going and supporting with a black person in the lead

Zoe Winters said...

Hey Trisha,

I think part of the problem is that in our culture we are often raised to believe that "white people act a certain way" and "black people act a certain way." And it's not even that one "acts" better or worse than the other, it's just that we're led to believe the cultural divides are so great we just can't fully "get" each other.

I'm from the south and growing up I was constantly told "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand it." Well MAKE me understand it. Explain it to me. I walked away feeling like they didn't want to be my friend because I was white. And it seems like a larger cultural problem.

We're not sure what to do or how to act or interact. We don't really know whether or not we're welcome as friends.

I was completely unaware of all the problems faced by black authors and came into contact with one of the discussions. I thought it was insane and unfair. I was talking to one of my author friends in instant messenger about it and it was obvious from the way I was talking that I just assumed she was white. Race had never come up as a topic of discussion.

She suddenly says: "Um, Zoe I'm black."

And I'm like "No Way!" (You would have thought I'd met a martian or something. I swear I'm not usually this weird.)

She teased me about it for ages. There is kind of this pervasive thing where if you're white you think "Everybody on the Internet is white." I mean nobody "really" thinks that, but online nobody is able to stereotype anybody or build up weirdness in their heads based on color or gender or anything else you don't tell them.

So we end up finding out we're all more alike than we are different.

I think people should be able to write about what calls to them, and saying someone can ONLY write black characters, and then segregating those books to a special section of the bookstore where nobody's horizons ever get expanded, is just plain unfair.

I "can" understand if black readers want to read black authors. I "get" how it could be very annoying to be black and read about white people all the time, but shelving someone "only" in the AA section seems unfair to them and the wider audience they could reach if things stopped being about color and started being about content.

Layne said...

Most black authors don't have the spine to do what it takes to solve this problem. What is that, you ask? Millenia Black had the right idea: it's called a lawsuit. On what grounds? Categorizing books based on the RACE of a person is an obvious form of segregation.

If black authors don't demand the removal of that section from bookstores then they too are simply part of the problem.

You can't have it both ways. Pick a side and work to change it, or shut up.

Cheryl said...

That was a great guest post. I was introduced to black authors through Goodreads, and now I am really hooked. I have a blog called Books I Read. I want to start a new blog concentrating on black authors. I have found so many who have written such awesome books that beg to be read. I want to make people more aware of these books and get these books into the bookstores!

Demetrius Sherman said...

Ernest Tidyman author of tough Black PI "Shaft" was white
Neil Cross author of Black police "Luther" is white
Author of "In Heat of the Night" about black Virgil Tibbs is white.
All big money makers.
I know I missed others. You can include.

Can a black author write about a white PI?