Muhammad Ali: An American Story

“I am America.  I am the part you won’t recognize.  But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own.  Get used to me.” – Muhammad Ali

I wasn’t going to blog about Muhammad Ali.  I didn’t feel like I was enough of an authority. I hadn’t followed his life closely enough.

But then I read the above quote in the Obamas’ statement on his death and I felt moved to write.

If you’ve followed this blog in the past, then you know how frustrated it makes me when publishers, movie studios, etc. operate under the assumption that while everyone can relate to a white person’s story, a non-white person’s story is niche, trendy, and simply not as universal.  The suggestion being that true humanity can only be portrayed through white characters, while everything else is a unique spin with limited appeal.

Well, I feel the same way about Americanness.  I think too often what is considered as typically or classically “American” is something white and Christian, while everything else is less American, or an “other.”  That notion is completely inaccurate, and I love that Muhammad Ali forced the world to face that truth.

Ali

Andy Warhol via rocor

The reality is that Muhammad Ali was not just an American, but an embodiment of American history, values and ideals.  He was, as he says “America.”

This was not despite being black, but because he was black (and blacks have helped shape every aspect of American history and culture). Because he was Muslim (and this nation was built on the concept of religious freedom).  Because he criticized the country and spoke out about what he believed in (and freedom of speech and assembly are fundamental American principles). Because he was an Olympian and represented America on the podium.  Because he was a father.  A husband.  An icon.

But beyond all that, Muhammad Ali represents America because he was a person and he was born in Kentucky (yes, I know there are other ways to become American, but that’s where his status came from). Equally as simple, is that minorities can tell relatable stories about life because we are people.  With the increase in self publishing and small publishers, minority stories are going to be both told and read, whether the industry recognizes their value or not. World, get used to it.

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Should I Sign With a Small Press?

I got on my soapbox last week (I mean, if you can’t do that on a blog, where can you do it?) and that was fun.  Got a few trolling comments.  This week, I’m ready to give you an update on this book.

What have been doing the past months or so, you ask?  Well, not writing.  More like lawyering, socializing and waiting.

God, there’s a lot of waiting in this game.

But that’s not to say I haven’t made any progress- I have! I’ve found a publisher who is interested in publishing my book! It’s a small press looking to support black writers.  I met the publisher at a writing conference.

The Small Press Option

It should be noted that I had no idea that signing unagented with a small press was an option before I was approached by one of the publishers.  But I think it’s one that more writers should consider.

This is what I know about the small press I am looking at:

First, I don’t need an agent to sign with them, which is great because I don’t have one.

Second, the publisher would provide me with an editor, publish the book and then help me market it.  I get the impression that they can offer more TLC than a big publisher or a busy agent, which is exactly what I need right now.

I need help.  I need support.  I need guidance.  I want my book to sell, but more than anything I want it to be good and to reflect my vision.  Then I want it to sell.

The downside is that signing with small presses can be risky.  There’s a website called Writer Beware that outlines all the risks.  They’ll even let you know if the specific small press you’re looking at has received any complaints, etc. (mine has not, but she said it was still risky move to sign with them because there isn’t much info about them out there- good or bad). The publishers definitely seem to have experience and credentials, but the Writer Beware lady is right- ultimately this is a new venture.  Like any small business, many of them fail within the first year or two.

Other downsides are that I wouldn’t get an advance (big publishers give advances) yet I also wouldn’t get 80-100% of the royalties (like you do when you self publish).

I spoke to one of the small press’ current clients, who is working with them on her third book.  She was helpful.  She said the publisher is sending her on radio shows, pushing her to do appearances and pursue other things completely outside her comfort zone in an effort to get the word out about her book.  The contract she signed seemed fair and standard (she worked with other publishers in the past).

I’ve also met with the actual publisher a couple of times.  There aren’t really any red flags besides the fact that it’s so new.  I’d definitely be taking a leap of faith, but so would they.

My Other Options

The way I see it, I have three options:  I could a) pursue the small press, b) continue my quest for an agent who will then embark on a quest for a publisher or c) self publish.  I’ve already talked about the small press, let’s discuss the other two paths.

  1. Self publish

I really don’t want to self-publish because I just don’t have that expertise or background.  I don’t have connections to bookstores or libraries, I’m not well-versed in marketing, and I just spent the past three years learning how to write a book (while being a full-time lawyer).  Learning how to publish a book as well seems unappealing.  Not to mention the inevitable hustling that would have to accompany that if I have any desire to sell the thing.  I’ve done a lot on my own, I’m ready for someone to just tell me what to do.  And I’ll be happy to do it.

2. Agent > Big Publisher

Going the agent-big publisher route was always my plan.

Obviously trying to find an agent is a ridiculously long process.  It’s taken a long time for me, and I think that even if it does work out, it will take for-ever.  Maybe months to get an agent.  Then maybe a year to find a publisher.  Then a year of editing.  Then Lord knows if it ever gets on the shelf.  I mean I love my book, but if I can avoid this taking another 5 years, I may very well do that.

The agents and large publishers are also faced with various pressures that seem to hurt minority writers, writers of niche genres, writers with unique styles, and anyone else who isn’t a cookie cutter image of today’s  author.

Finally, I get the sense that I may not get too much assistance or attention, which worries me.  While I’m confident in my abilities, I know that right now I’m limited in what I can do.  I really need someone who will help me create my best work- there are agents and others who are willing to invest that kind of time, but it’s not a guarantee. Also, the agent would get 15-20% of whatever I earn, which would be annoying.

Upsides? If I found an agent and signed with a big publisher, that means I’d get an advance and be working with an established institution.  In addition to having a certain degree of prestige, I would benefit from their vast connections and experience.  But would they care about me?

To the extent there any knowledgeable writers reading this, I could really use your insight.

Til next week!

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.