There has been a lot of talk about “privilege” lately. White privilege, male privilege, etc. I don’t know what that weird guy from Princeton was talking about, but what I mean by the term is the freedom not to worry that your race has put you at a disadvantage.
Wikipedia’s definition of privilege will do as well: “the right to assume the universality of one’s own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.”
I bring this up because this process of pitching my story to agents has made me feel very “unprivileged.”
I like subtlety. I like restraint. I like things that feel like real life. So as I sit here waiting to be judged by (mostly white) strangers, I can’t help but wonder—will they get me? Will they see what I’m trying to do? My manuscript is first and foremost the story of a relationship—about people of color. It’s neither a traditional love story, nor does it constantly make political commentary. A lot of people will get it, but will the people with the power? Will they believe that readers (white and nonwhite, male and female) will get it?
I came across several articles today that discuss this very issue. They linked from an NPR article about a #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign that emerged following a major book convention that had an all-white line up. My faves were one published on BuzzFeed that gets into the institutional problems in the publishing industry and another amazing piece written in The New Yorker by Junot Diaz. I’d love to share some snippets with you…
The BuzzFeed article on the privilege issue:
“…Many of [the gifts and challenges of writers of color] won’t be seen or recognized within a white cultural context. Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation – these are all layers of the non-white experience that rarely make it into mainstream literature, even when the characters look like us.”
BuzzFeed on why diversity isn’t enough and what we need to do:
“We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism. It walks hand in hand with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and classism. To go beyond this same conversation we keep having, again and again, beyond tokens and quick fixes, requires us to look the illness in the face and destroy it. This is work for white people and people of color to do, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It’s work for writers, agents, editors, artists, fans, executives, interns, directors, and publicists. It’s work for reviewers, educators, administrators. It means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submissions guidelines.”
In The New Yorker, Diaz talks about how he struggled in his MFA program because stories that reflected non-white life were not considered to be literature:
“In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.”
Diaz also says his MFA program was simply “too white”:
“Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of color—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem…Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all. Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that ‘race discussions’ were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.”
I think it’s a good sign that we are having this discussion. Personally, I think the book industry is scared to go outside the norm because it’s so fragile at the moment. Sales are down are what not. But I actually feel like the changing industry presents an opportunity, not a problem. It’s like, why not publish something different? Expand your audience! Take a risk and bet that people will enjoying consuming stories about a diverse world. I know I do!