Five authors. Five questions.
As Black History Month draws to a close this week, we are back with a very special installment of 5×5. I got to speak with some amazing authors of color across all different kinds of genres, to hear their thoughts on publishing, inspiration, and how best to commemorate February’s BHM.
We have some incredible insight from Megan Giddings and Maisy Card, both of whom have highly-anticipated novels (Lakewood and These Ghosts Are Family) set for release next month. Joining them we have Sean XLG Mitchell, author of Make America Hate Again and hip-hop activist, Tenesha L. Curtis, author of The 12-Month Manuscript, and Randi B., author of Neversays and diversity and inclusion strategist. These incredible writers are all exemplary of the widely varied spheres and spaces occupied by people of color. Let’s hear what they had to say!
How have you found your experience in literature as a black author in particular?
Megan Giddings: To paraphrase one of the whitest people I can think of: it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. I’m lucky enough to be well published as a short story writer, whether I’m writing directly or indirectly about race. It’s always thrilling when someone tells me how much they connected with my work. But it’s also frustrating because it feels like an industry where even when I’m doing well or getting some of the things I’ve worked very hard to get, there’s always going to be someone diminishing my work simply on the basis of being black, of being a woman, of being a black woman. Every time I’ve gotten something big, there’s almost always been someone trying to couch it in terms of well, diversity is trendy, better ride the train while you still can.
Maisy Card: I’ve had a pretty smooth ride, but I know my experience isn’t typical. I have a black agent and the editors who have worked on my book are black. I’m also publishing at a particular moment when authors like Marlon James, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Sara Collins, Kei Miller, and Alexia Arthurs have had books with Jamaican characters come out and gain mainstream attention. I think if I had tried to publish this book when I graduated my MFA program in 2009, my experience would have been very different.
Randi B.: Selling is about making a connection. People must hear your story and relate to it in some way. When you are a Black woman, your story may not be as immediately relatable to a White, male publisher (and most executives in the publishing world are White males). When I was trying to sell Neversays, a book that gives people practical skills about how to communicate in a diverse workplace, I had a publisher tell me that the book wasn’t needed; and that he didn’t see the purpose. I almost laughed aloud as daily there are claims filed involving harassment and people are oftentimes complaining of microaggressions and microassaults.
Sean XLG Mitchell: As a black author, I would have to say that my experience has been troubling to say the least when it comes to publishing. I’m a hip hop activist because that’s my background and, in general, my books are African-centered, and they’re designed to inform and uplift the black community. That being said, a number of African American publishing companies didn’t want to take a chance with publishing my type of messages but they’re willing to release “the gangsta” type of fiction work and the “married but happily cheating” books that reinforce negative stereotypes about us. We’re constantly fighting a 400 year old beast called racism but we refuse to support books that celebrate our intellectual prowess? It’s been a struggle, even with promotions as well. The major African American media outlets won’t touch an African-centered book with a 10 foot pole but as long as we’re talking about sports and entertainment then its whole different story. As long as we stay in that lane then it’s all good but as soon as Drs. Molefi Asante, Runoko Radshadi, Karenga and Akbar or myself release a book its almost as if we’re being shut down. Its okay to complain about racism but its not okay for us to figure out a solution to overcome racism. But this is the support we need from black media outlets.
Tenesha L. Curtis: I love publishing! I am especially fond of helping other people start their literary careers. It’s a challenging industry and the technology and strategies to be successful are constantly changing. But I have fallen in love with everything from organizing book parties to tracking purchase orders. As an author and a publisher, not just one of the other, I have a special perspective of the book creation, revision, and publication process that’s priceless to me and my clients.
Who or what inspires you?
Megan Giddings: Toni Morrison, Kelly Link, Prince, the people who wrote the “Little Caesars” episode of Detroiters (an episode of TV that every time I watch it puts me in a significantly better mood), Harryette Mullens’ poetry, Angela Carter, Lolly Willowes, almost every comic book put out by Shortbox, Barry Jenkins, Donna Summers’ radio hits, currently, Sarah Broom’s book The Yellow House.
Maisy Card: When I went to get my Master of Library Science degree, I originally trained to be an archivist. History always inspires me. I love going through records or historical newspapers. A lot of the stories my mother tells me from her childhood also inspire me too.
Randi B.: As corny as it sounds, I have this annoying need to make a difference. I earnestly believe that we can all work and live better together if we’d only learn to talk to each other in a way that leaves each person feeling seen and respected.
Sean XLG Mitchell: I’m inspired by my passion to help uplift our people and raise our collective consciousness to improve our conditions around the world.
Tenesha L. Curtis: I’m inspired by the idea that I can share my vision with someone I’ve never met and leave them with changed thoughts and emotions (maybe even changed behavior) using something as low-tech as ink on paper. With all the advanced software we have available to us on a daily basis, to know that something as simple as a book can wield so much power thrills me and makes me want to publish more books and be part of that raw bond with other people.
What is the best way, in your opinion, to commemorate Black History Month?
Megan Giddings: To ask yourself why the United States has settled on an education system that necessitates heritage months rather than engaging in comprehensive reform. Public education should teach in a nuanced way about US history and the many kinds of Americans that have been in this country for hundreds of years whose contributions to our culture, to our society, to our well-being have been erased over and over. And from there, consider all the ways–large and small–you can advocate for public education reform. You could spend all year buying books by black writers (and books by writers of color) if you’re someone who doesn’t usually do this. If you’re a black person commemorating black history month in 2020, you should get yourself a treat because here’s to another year where each month feels like a decade.
Maisy Card: I’m a librarian so I’m biased here. We always have great Black History Month programs, so I think going to the library or a museum is the best way.
Randi B.: Each person should take the time to learn more about Black history. Our history has been largely ignored and rewritten because it makes people uncomfortable. When we learn our history, we gain a better understanding of who we are, why we are, and of what we are capable. When others learn our history – our true history — they also gain an empathy that allows them to feel capable of connecting with us in ways that made them uncomfortable previously.
Sean XLG Mitchell: The best way to commemorate Black history month is to start with our ancient civilizations in Africa because we were not always slaves. The worst thing for us is to watch our children being taught about the great historical accomplishments of other races of people and then teach our children about the folding chair, hot comb, and a peanut. In the proper context, our post slavery history is admirable but we need to teach our children about ancient Nubia and Kemet so they’ll know that our accomplishments are just as vast and incredible as the accomplishments of other people.
Tenesha L. Curtis: Self-care. Historically, Black people have been habitually victimized by other races. Even within our own race, we tend to try to carry our children, siblings, co-workers, students, and other groups we come in contact with on our shoulders. To take time out for oneself, to step away from the challenge of caring for others to the point that we hurt ourselves, to spend time doing what we want and need to do for ourselves is a form of self-love that is freeing and refreshing. It’s something we deserve. The best part, of course, is that you don’t have to wait for someone else to give self-care to you or do it for you. Self-care puts you in control of your own wellbeing. If more people regularly engaged in self-care, we’d likely see better mental and physical health outcomes from Black people all around, which can lead to better legal and economic outcomes over the course of years and decades. Any progress for our people starts with progress for ourselves.
What’s your favorite book?
Megan Giddings: It changes. Currently, it’s Lolly Willowes. For a while it was What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky.
Maisy Card: A Mercy by Toni Morrison.
Randi B.: Come on, you can’t ask me that. I can’t even pick a favorite color or band. There are too many amazing books, those that I have read and those that I will read.
Sean XLG Mitchell: My favorite book is the Autobiography of Malcolm X and next would be my own book Make America Hate Again.
Tenesha L. Curtis: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
If you could rewrite a novel with characters of color, what would it be and what would you do differently?
Megan Giddings: There are a lot of novels out there–many that I have enjoyed–that have re-imagined novels from past times where the characters were all explicitly or implicitly white to make them white. I am at this moment, deeply uninterested in doing that. I think it’s because to me, there’s still an element of you need what’s familiar to a white audience to sell that book in those instances that frustrates me. I’m not saying these books are bad or not worth doing or aren’t even in the deep tradition of ekphrastic art that ranges god, thousands of years, it’s just much more urgent to me to try to write stories and books that can’t be construed as reinforcing a particular status quo.
Maisy Card: I was drawn to the plot of A High Wind in Jamaica—a group of kids captured by pirates–but it’s horribly racist. It’s not a book I’ve thought about in a long time, but when I read this, that’s the first book that popped into my mind.
Randi B.: The Great Gatsby would be fascinating if the characters were Black. How amazing it would be to experience the roaring 20s during the Harlem Renaissance when music, fashion and literature were exploding for African Americans.
Sean XLG Mitchell: The Lord of the Rings and I would change it to ancient Egypt with an all black cast. That could be special.
Tenesha L. Curtis: Probably the entire Harry Potter series, so I’d start with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling. Of course, there were people of various races included in the books, but none were part of the central characters. It would have been interesting to see, for example, a Black Harry Potter, Asian Ron Weasley, and Native American Hermione Granger. I wouldn’t change the plot since it resonated with so many children and adults all over the world. But I’d be fascinated to see how the change in race (not their character, not their personalities, not the way they speak or behave) would influence the popularity of the books. How much would it matter to people?
Featured image via Bookstr, twitter, blacknews, salihah sadiq, audible.
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