The Dangers of Writing Through a Strictly White Lens

After a brief vacation from blogging, I had planned to give you an update on the trying to get published process- and I do actually have an update.  BUT I’ll have to tell you next time (next week, I promise!) because, as happens sometimes, I read something yesterday that I feel compelled to discuss.

NYT Article Renders Suicides of Asian American Students Invisible

A couple of days ago the NYT wrote a story about mental health issues and suicides among college students.  Yesterday a writer at Reapproppriate, a site dedicated to Asian American activism, noted the glaring omission of any discussion of the Asian-American students.  She writes:

“Asian American students are more likely than their non-Asian peers to report experiencing [depression or anxiety]. Asian American women have the highest suicide rate of women of any race. Asian Americans are also among the least likely of patients to seek and receive medical help for depression or related symptoms… [the NYT] had ample opportunity to mention this Asian American disparity — and the impact of racial identity in general — with regard to on-campus mental illness and its treatment; but she repeatedly and disconcertingly fails to do so.”

She asks, why did the NYT make Asian-Americans invisible in a story about an issue that deeply affects that community?

The NYT Article Shows the Dangers of Writing with a Strictly White Lens

I talk often about how most movies or books about life or humanity (i.e., not about race or difference) by default feature white characters, as if white people are the only ones who feel love or loneliness or have issues with their parents or a blinding ambition.

The consequence is that the world sees and internalizes a very limited portrayal of people of color.  Even Obama said that, growing up, his understanding of what it meant to be black in America was primarily based on what he saw on TV.  In other words, the way minorities are depicted in the media not only affect how others see us, but also how we see ourselves.

This is what makes the NYT’s omission of Asian-American students particularly troubling.  She’s writing about an extremely sensitive topic and people who feel marginalized and invisible, but she’s doing so through a completely white lens.  As a result, not only does she contribute to the limited portrayal of people of color, she contributes to the very problem she’s trying to address by suggesting that the death of students of color (and therefore the lives of student of color) aren’t as meaningful as those of white students.

On Twitter, the writer acknowledges there is an issue in the Asian-American community but that “one story can only do so much.”  She then points out that she didn’t discuss men either. I understand the impulse to defend herself, but I think she’s missing the point.  The racial component isn’t a separate story.  It’s a crucial part of any discussion of suicide on campuses.

I don’t think her omissions were malicious.  I don’t think the writer is racist.  But her perspective was limited, and therefore so was her ability to write the story.  Writers, publishers and newspapers- especially the NYT – should hold themselves to a higher standard.

DC Writers Conference: Pitching Agents; Getting A Peek Into the Publishing World

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Washington Writers Conference. Usually I’m excited about the panels and workshops, etc., but the purpose of this visit was strictly business—meeting agents. By signing up for the conference you got 5 minutes to pitch 4 agents of your choosing. It was a solid selection. I decided to only meet with people I hadn’t already sent queries to.

The pitches

The conference came after my last post, in which I wrote that the idea of networking for this book was an annoying concept. Given that that’s how I was feeling at the time, I didn’t go to the cocktail party in Bethesda the Friday before the conference to mingle with agents and publishers—including a few I pitched. I should have gone, but I didn’t.

Saturday, I attended a few panels, during which the pitch sessions were scheduled. Two of the agents I sat with made me feel stupid for even being there (was it me, or was it the fact that they had been sitting in a 90 degree room all day?) One asked me for 75 pages (yes!) and the last asked me if my book was “like a Nicholas Sparks novel but with black characters.”

Blink.

If you follow this blog, then you have an idea of how my face reacted, outside of my control, to that question. I recovered though, and she asked for three chapters.

Nevertheless, I was feeling a little deflated at the end, like I hadn’t really made the most of the day. But then this guy who works at a tiny publisher approached me. I think his company has an interest in minority authors. Anyway, he said they do everything traditional publishers do- edit, market, etc. and you don’t need an agent to pitch them.

I did some investigating, and I learned that there are other ways to getting published besides querying millions of agents and then hoping to find a publisher. Apparently there is a whole army of tiny presses like his (e.g., university presses) that target niche audiences that you can pitch without an agent. Once I look into it further, I will probably blog about it in greater depth. For now, I’ll just let you know that I sent him my full manuscript.

The conference: a reminder that I’m a black woman

This is the first writing conference I attended that wasn’t 90% women. I hadn’t really thought about that when I signed up, but the differences were apparent immediately.

While most of the agents were women, all of the panelists on the publisher panel were men. The keynote speaker was a sportswriter for a major newspaper who mentioned at least dozen of writers and athletes who influenced him—all of them were men.  Meanwhile, the lady sitting next to me was there to pitch a biography about a woman and trees. One of the few male agents expressed some interest and she was surprised that a man was interested in that topic.  His response was “my sister is a women’s studies professor” (or something along those lines).

What I learned from that story is that if a man doesn’t have a sister who is a women’s studies professor, he won’t read a biography about a woman. For real though- is that what the agent was saying?

One of the panels was about gender and biography, which I enjoyed. The panelists included famous unauthorized biographer Kitty Kelley and James McGrath Morris– a white man who just published a biography about a black, female civil rights reporter named Edith L. Payne.

I really respected James’ comments about his position being a white man writing about Edith.  He seemed like he got a lot of what I talk about on this blog.  He mentioned that during his time in the industry he observed that when black women write about black women, for example, they are generally perceived as more biased or sympathetic to the subject (he used a different word—I wish I could remember—but that was jist).  Juxtapose those comments with Kitty Kelley’s discussion of her experience writing about Frank Sinatra, for which she got a lot of backlash. (Sinatra even tried to sue her before she had written a word! Thankfully that’s illegal.) She said that because Sinatra is perceived as the pinnacle of manliness, it was in fact men who had trouble writing about him objectively. They had too much reverence for him, while she could write about him (and his flaws) more honestly.

So basically, everyone’s biased. That actually is what I think—there’s always going to be some subjectivity. But what this panel demonstrated was that, while the idea that black women can’t write about other black women objectively is the majority view, Kitty’s perspective that white men can’t write about a white man objectively is the minority view. In other words, when white men write a biography that is the standard/baseline. When anyone else writes, however, they inevitably insert their biased female/minority perspectives into the page…right?

To be fair, I’ll leave you with this…

To wrap up this post about networking and gender/race issues in the publishing industry, I leave with this: at the conference I ran into numerous friends that I met in classes I took at the Writer’s Center (where this journey all began).  One, a white woman, told me she had pitched her story (elsewhere, not at this conference) to a black agent who she really connected with. She could tell the agent was interested in her work, but she couldn’t represent her- because she only represents black authors.

I think that’s a bad business move for the agent (and not just because I believe in my friend). I understand the thinking- it is historically more difficult for minority authors to find representation. Still, it’s never a good idea to turn down a good opportunity. If this agent believed in my friend’s book, she should have pursued it. Not only is that her job, but if the book became successful, then she would have more leverage when representing her other, mostly African American, clients. That’s my view, but I can see others disagreeing. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Tis all.  Have a great weekend!

Sad Truth: Getting Published is Like Trying to Find a Legal Job

Blah.

I considered making that my entire blog post and then leaving it up to interpretation. I thought maybe it would make my blog more literary cuz it forced you to think, you know?   Dig deep.

Jk.

The truth is, “blah” describes my current feelings toward the finding-an-agent process.

I expected to endure rejection, of course.  If I learned anything from blogging it’s that this industry is tough. Tougher if you’re a woman. Still tougher if you’re a black woman. I was told not to quit until I was rejected by 100 agents. I’ve been rejected, but not by 100- yet. So yeah, I anticipated the ego-bruising part.

What I didn’t expect was for the process to be so much like finding a legal job.

I know. Exactly.

I went to this legal panel a few weeks ago called “Broadening Your Legal Exposure.” It was all about how, in order to make it in this town, you need to join organizations, publish articles, and take on speaking engagements. My reaction was “useful stuff.”

The next day, I, unrelatedly, started browsing through writing blogs about how to get an agent, and gleaned this advice: join organizations, publish articles and take on speaking engagements. And attend writing conferences. My reaction was “are you f-ing kidding me.”

It’s not that I ever expected the process of writing a book to be pure. For better or for worse, I never had the delusion that it was all about the art, creativity, etc.

In fact, if I’m being honest, I was probably counting on that fact to some degree. You know, trying to give myself a leg up by blogging, staying on top of the industry, etc. I tried to turn this law firm background into advantage (beyond the freedom to not write in poverty, I mean). Like, I should know something about business or whatever. I figured that would help.

The problem is that some point along the way, I grew to appreciate the art form more and more and to raise the standards for myself creatively. I put in some serious time, effort and cash to make manuscript the best it could possibly be at this moment. So I’ve done that and now I’m faced with this hustling, networking, get your name out there stuff, and it’s just so annoying.

So annoying.

It’s like Blah.