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  • Books by Women of Color: Separated, and Not Treated Equally, Either. Speak Up, On This, She Writes!
Books by Women of Color: Separated, and Not Treated Equally, Either. Speak Up, On This, She Writes!
Written by
The Salonniere
June 2010
Written by
The Salonniere
June 2010
Yesterday, Kamy Wicoff spoke with Carleen Brice, creator of the tongue-in-cheek but eye-opening video, "White Readers, Meet Black Authors," and was joined by Virginia De Berry, Bernice McFadden, and Martha Southgate...and not a whole lot of white people. The conversation that took place yesterday on She Writes Radio was an illuminating one -- for me more than for the women who participated, who unfortunately have to talk about these issues all the time. We began by discussing African-American sections in the bookstores, something Carleen expressed decidedly mixed feelings about. "It's separate but not equal," she told me, and as such it smacks of segregation (McFadden has called it "seg-book-gation"), implying that works of literary fiction written by black authors are not mainstream, but books for black readers only. But at the same time Carleen has heard from many black readers that they appreciate being able to find so many of the books they want in one, easy-to-locate place, and worse, she worries that if bookstores eliminated the sections, they would also stop buying 75% of the books shelved there -- books acquired by buyers specifically assigned stock those "ethnic" sections; separate, again, from those who do the acquisitions for everything else. What's needed, of course, is a more conscious and intentional approach to diversity, not for diversity's sake, but for quality's sake. And a good place to start would be increased diversity of voices represented on the front tables of chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble, who could take leadership on this issue. One might assume that independent bookstores would be more conscious than the chains on this issue -- except they aren't. "I've been kind of brokenhearted, actually, with the independent bookstores," Carleen said, "and specifically with the Indie Next picks." A quick survey of June's Indie Next picks? Out of 31 books, one author was black (Nnedi Okorafor, "Who Fears Death") two were written by Latino men, and one was written by an Asian man. Which means that when you, the consumer, browse that list, you will be looking at preselected, presegregated titles, a whopping 87% of which were written by white men. Oh, and Amazon's Best Books of June? Nine by white men, and one by a white woman. Sure, you can attempt to make the weak-ass argument that this is because those books just happened to be the "best", until you imagine the reverse: 87% of July's Indie Next's picks are written by women of color. 90% of Amazon's Best Books of July are written by women (of color, now that would be awesome.) Would anyone argue those were simply the "best" books that month, then? NO! Instead, people would freak out and cry foul. Which is exactly what we should be doing now. This kind of exclusion hurts everybody. It hurts readers -- as Brice put it, "you all are missing out!" -- who never become aware of so many great books, books that publishers pigeon-hole right out of the gate by limiting the scope and reach of their marketing campaigns, and even by the cover images they select, which all too often scream "this book is for black people only!" just in case the fact that it's a) shelved in a special section, and b) only reviewed and visible on blogs and sites with primarily black readerships, wasn't enough to get the point across. (Even more abhorrent, white-washing, which She Writes member LaTonya wrote about earlier this year.) And it hurts writers of color, who get left off of lists like Publisher's Weekly Top Ten Books of 2009 with a consistency that makes a conspiracy seem not-so-far-fetched, until you realize that nobody is thinking about this with one-iota of the attention or awareness a conspiracy would require. And when writers of color don't get the chance to reach wide audiences, it is highly unlikely that their sales numbers will ever be competitive with their white male counterparts, and we all know that without big sales numbers, getting a decent book contract -- or any contract at all -- is enormously difficult. And then these voices, our voices, begin to disappear from our bookstores altogether. So what are we gonna do about it? First things first -- white folks, please, next time we have a She Writes Radio show about how women of color are read, received and reviewed, pick up the phone. (In the meantime, you can listen to it on the SW Radio player.) I know it was short notice, and for that I am sorry (it occurred to me that by giving such short notice about the discussion, I was like the producer of Nat X -- the Chris Rock talk-show spoof on SNL -- who only had five minutes "cause that's all the man would give me!"), but I won't make the same mistake again. For while I thoroughly enjoyed talking with these talented and thoughtful women, I know they felt discouraged (thought not surprised, which discouraged me a lot) that those who tuned in were all people of color. Until we make this a community-wide conversation, which, by the way, needs to extend far beyond the issues faced by African-American authors, though that ended up being a focus of our conversation yesterday, we will fail to do what would be most transformative: get to know one another's work, and start reading, reviewing and championing one another's books across racial lines. Some ideas for actions you can take TODAY. 1) Become a fan, on Facebook and on their websites, of the women who gave so graciously of their time yesterday: Carleen Brice, Bernice McFadden, Virgina DeBerry and Martha Southgate. Read Martha's article, "Writers Like Me" that ran in the New York Times in July 2007, and Bernice McFadden's article, "Black Writers In a Ghetto of the Publishing Industry's Making," from the Washington Post. Sign up for their email lists, follow their blogs, and, oh yes, buy their books. You can also friend them on She Writes and ask them for recommendations, too. 2) Subscribe to the blog of She Writes member Tayari Jones, who all these women recommended as a excellent critic and a reader with great taste. I recommend Black Book Bloggers, too. 3) Check out Thirty-Two Candles, by She Writer Ernessa T. Carter. From Carleen: "If you liked any kind of women's fiction, like Bridget Jones and books that are about funny, witty, quirky characters, you should be reading this book whether you are white or black or Asian or whatever. You should be reading this book because you will like it. It shouldn't be something that just black women are gonna know about. And the issue is, you guys are missing out!" 4) Take a good hard look at your own bookshelves. Are they as white as Amazon's June picks? If the answer is yes (and I think it may be yes for me) -- get online, or go to the bookstore, or the library, and do something about it. And let your sisters at She Writes help you figure out what. (For some great lists, see LaTonya's "Top Ten YA Books Written By Women of Color" and Bernice McFadden's "Writers You Should Know and Read.") And finally, please comment on this post with your own feelings, recommendations, and books you recommend written by women of color, so we can expand this conversation in all the directions it needs to go. I promise you that on She Writes, we will keep on having it.

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  • Very valid points were raised here on the issue of the segregation of black authors in bookstores and how the work of black authors is generally ignored. I feel powerless; there isn't much I can do to about resolving this issue. I stay abreast of the work of black authors through reading the book reviews published in Ebony and Essence magazine. I would suggest that all of you do likewise.

  • Great blog! I am delighted the dialogue has opened. It is going to take all of us to transcend the racial reading divide. Thanks.

  • Carleen

    @Ernessa, I hope you never, ever recover from your "bad case of optimism." The world--all of us, writers, readers, nonwriters, nonreaders, male, female, all the races--needs more optimistic people. I believe you're right that bringing optimism to the problem is much more effective than bringing pessism. That's what I try to do at the blog and in life. As you say, some days it's easier than others though. But after watching The Empire Strikes Back I'm all Yoda-fied and feeling good. Thanks!

  • Ernessa T. Carter

    @Carleen Yeah, I'm a bit up and down with the optimism myself. There are days when I feel overwhelmed by the odds, and I think reading articles like this ... well, you know how black women are always complaining about how reading articles about how low our marriage rates are is a constant source of depression for them? That's how I feel about the recent slate of articles about how black books just don't sell to white people.

    I don't want to get depressed and give up. I have to write. I have to believe that a win is on the other side of that long road. That if 32 CANDLES doesn't sell the way I want it to sell, then the next book will. And so on. And in a bigger sense, I feel like the energy I put into this now will lay some groundwork for other black authors.

    SINS OF MY MOTHER was a ratings success -- seriously a black movie on Lifetime. Whoever thought we'd see that? "White Readers Meet Black Authors" sells books in a positive way. And most importantly, your books touch people. I'm inspired by that. What you've done so far makes me feel optimistic. And you're just at the very beginning of your career. Two books in, Terry McMillian wasn't where you're at today.

    I emphatically have a bad case of optimism. And I choose to focus on the fix, because focusing on the problem will turn me into (even more of a) neurotic mess. But yes, let's have this conversation again in three years. I'm curious to see how I feel about this topic then.

  • Carleen

    I have to say, Ernessa, while I agree with you, I feel a bit sad from your comment. You sound like me three years ago. It's hard to maintain that optimism. I hope your experience is very different though and I hope you're able to keep hope alive!

  • Carleen

    I've read several Jennifer Weiner novels, actually. I think you'll find many black readers read lots of white authors.

  • Judith van Praag

    Thanks for your post and all the connective links that illuminate the argument.
    I was listening and trying to respond, but I had technical problems (more about that below).

    As a multicultural reader I wasn't aware of the segregation in bookstores. I've never even noticed that books are shelved by ethnicity, but that may say more about how I receive books (for review) and where I shop: online and in used book section. Most if not all of the new books I buy are after author presentations at the library or at Elliott Bay Book Company (plug).

    The discussion made me consider my own bookshelves. Years ago, when I deliberately started reading more by women writers, I initially segregated their books from those by male writers. Reason? Easy to find and also a sense of pride: the shelves equal to a place in history I could aspire to.

    As a European artist I never accepted the idea that there was a difference in possibilities for men and women, I refused to be "a woman artist", I was an artist period. This notion made me give up the segregation on my bookshelves as well.

    On my shelves there never was and is no segregation by ethnicity. But I realize that's personal. I'm biased by a multicultural interest. In Europe I worked as an artist/ designer for multicultural theater, and in the U.S. as arts reporter for publications that serve multicultural community. This gives me the (mistaken) idea that everybody has similar interest and access. I am informed by my interest and curiosity.

    Readers are not just informed by statistics or the display in bookstores. Our librarians play a major role in what their patrons see when they enter the library. I realize that in our Seattle Public Libraries eye-catchers are directed at the ethnicity of a neighborhood. Thus South Seattle is known for the largest collection of Spanish literature, Beacon Hill and the International District have an amazing collection of Asian and Asian American lit and librarians at Rainier Beach the neighborhood with the highest ethnic diversity (59 languages) and close to a third of the population African American puts books and movies by African American authors in the foreground. Every time a white reader walks into the library s/he sees the works by authors and filmmakers of color. Nancy Pearl warns that library programs such as "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book" is not an exercise in civics, and not to expect too much, but still, to get all of a city to read work by writers of color is a start.

    What is your library doing for writers of color?

    PS Household problem: Computer connection and phone connection BlogTalkRadio didn't stream in sync, reacting through Skype called for (extra for I have Skype account) sign-up and I finally opted for just listening.
    Advice to myself: read the "Listener Tips" on SW's BlogTalkRadio page before listening or just dial the phone number and push #1 when you want to have your say.

  • I have read Good in Bed, In Her Shoes and The Guy Not Taken. Have also read Helen Fielding, Candace Bushnell, Sophie Kinsella, Melissa A. Bank among many others...

  • And I haven't read any of her books! So what does that tell us? Not much.

  • Ernessa T. Carter

    I read every single one of her books up to GOODNIGHT, NOBODY.

  • Zetta Brown

    I read "Good in Bed," so that's at least 1 to the count :)

  • What a great discussion, and I thank all of you for your insight and your ideas. I think Ernessa has a point about finding constructive ways to simply put a wider variety of books and authors in stores, on panels, at conferences, and in front of the widest possible audience, an audience that will include people of all backgrounds. It is certainly not lost on me, as Evelyn pointed out, that even this freaking comment thread is segregated. But maybe my approach, in this case, was a little too heavy-handed. Here at She Writes, at least, we can and will do all those things -- feature books by women of all colors and backgrounds, make sure that panels and events we do include a range of voices that help expand all of our horizons, and continue this conversation. (I sure as hell ain't gonna drop it.) One random thought, though -- anyone have any idea how many black readers read, say, Jennifer Weiner?

  • Evelyn N. Alfred

    What is the common denominator in (most of) these comments? Hint: Look at the avatars.

  • Ernessa T. Carter

    What an insightful article. Thank you for advocating for 32 CANDLES, and more importantly for inclusion. I agree that it hurts both authors and readers when novels are segregated. Though, I get the argument for having a black section, I wonder if it's true that black readers find it preferable. More convenient, yes, but preferable? Really? I mean it's not like Jewish people have difficulty finding their authors in general fiction. This seems a little bit like those infomercials that tell you that it's really difficult to cut tomatoes, so you just HAVE to have their special InstaCut machine. I think we as a writing community need to decide that we either want or don't want this section and then act accordingly.

    I also think that we should focus on attracting more white readers as opposed to gnashing our teeth about it. Instead of complaining about Woolworth's not allowing blacks to sit at the counter, I think it's time to go in and sit at the counter.

    For example I found out last night that the independent bookstore in an IRL neighborhood that's heavily mentioned in my book (my male lead lives there) isn't in fact carrying 32 CANDLES. So, I'm asking 10 friends to call the store and ask about 32 CANDLES. Within two weeks, this store will be carrying my book. You have my word on that.

    The writer conference that I attended before I got my book deal didn't have any black writers or workshop leaders, so I asked if I could speak and lead a workshop at the next writers conference. Look for me on the schedule.

    Instead of complaining about white readers not reading my book, I go to them and say, "Hey do you like SIXTEEN CANDLES? Yeah? Then read my book, I think you'll like it." So far no one has told me no (to my face). If I wrote street lit, I'd go up to white women and say, "Hey, do you like bad boys? Then read my book. I think you'll like it." There's something in every one of our books that will appeal to a white audience. Flog that something and target your desired audience. I don't think it's enough to say, "I wish white people were more open to reading black literature." Imagine if an Asian writer said over and over again, "Black people aren't reading my stuff. Black people just don't have any desire to read Asian literature. This really angers me." Would you read that author's book? But how about if this author walked into a black church and said, "This is a book about a girl being raised by a poor single mother. Despite coming from nothing the girl manages to make something of herself, succeeding and finding love despite the odds. It's a really inspirational story, and I'm sure you'll enjoy it." Would you agree to read that book? Well, I just sold you GIRL IN TRANSLATION by Jean Kwok.

    I know what you're going to say. But Jean Kwok shouldn't have to sell herself in order to get sales. Readers should just naturally be interested in reading about someone whose not like themselves. Yes, well, focusing on what readers should be as opposed to figuring out how to market to an audience that's not looking to buy black fiction is probably doing yourself a disservice. Nobody wanted a Coke until Coke started telling folks that they wanted a Coke. I think we're looking at this as a moral problem when it actually a huge marketing problem. One that we can do something about.

    I'm not claiming to have all the answers here. And I have no idea if my actions will actually net more sales for 32 CANDLES. But taking specific action helps me sleep at night. If my book flops, it won't be because I didn't try my dangedest.

    As black authors we are already so much further along than we were even twenty years ago. I remember a time when I would read anything written by a black author, because only a handful of books came out every year. Now we're in a new era of black literature, and we have a new set of problems that we have to start actively dealing with. But I tell you what, I'm sick of talking about this issue.

    I say let's all agree to do something about it starting now. Let's brainstorm and come up with some creative solutions.

  • Angela Henry

    I'm so sorry I missed this. As a reader, I read books by authors of every race. I've always felt that readers will read books that appeal to them no matter the race of the author or characters IF they know about them. And that's the problem. For every book I see getting the big promo push, I can usually think of a similar book by an author of color that is getting ignored. My next book will be released by a digital-first publisher. So at least I won't have to worry about shelf placement. But I hate think of all the readers I've missed out on because my previous books were shelved according to my race and not my genre, which is mystery. I also have a site called MystNoir where I've feature AA mystery writers for the past ten years.

  • Kim McLarin

    I would definitely have called in had I known about the conversation .... but then, I am a black woman writer and, like my sisters-in-pens, not the least surprised. If a book gets published but no one reads it, does it make a sound?

    But thanks for leading the charge.

    Kim McLarin

  • Zetta Brown

    Eloquent as usual, Kamy. Sigh! I'm always a day late and a dollar short with these things. I've always said that I want men and women to read my work. I don't care what race they are. My stories have interracial characters and deal with various issues found no matter the race. But if people care to stop by, they can visit my Sistah in Scotland blog, stop by my website: http://www.zettabrown.com or friend me at http://www.goodreads.com/zettab" target="_blank">GoodReads.com

    I love to read and I review for The New York Journal of Books where I did a review for "Who Fears Death" earlier this month.

  • Applauding!!!

  • Shonell Bacon

    Great post and sad I missed the conversation. I've always been a multicultural reader, which has, in a sense, made me a multicultural writer. On my blog, ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING [http://chicklitgurrl.blogspot.com], I interview women writers of YA, mystery, romance, suspense, and more.

  • Carleen

    I'm always recommending books on my blog. I invite readers to check it out. www.welcomewhitefolks.blogspot.com

  • Kamy, this is a thoughtful, on point assessment of the conversation from yesterday, the situation as it stands and a call to action. I am glad I was there and appreciate SheWrites women roaring on this subject. What we all need to consider is whether our reading habits indicate we are more interested in mirrors than windows. I think I'll go and repost our blog on the subject now...