Last week I wrote a piece about YA book twitter, how it works and how I feel it’s not hearing from enough POC in the community. I wrote it mainly to remind everyone that thousands of mediocre books by white authors continue to sneak through the cracks and debut with amazing sales while better books by POC are dismissed every day for…well, reasons.
It wasn’t a criticism of YA itself, nor organizations that have catapulted diversity discourse into the mainstream sphere, nor prominent authors of color who are busting boundaries, writing and debuting at levels unprecedented in YA. Check the NYT Young Adult Bestseller list this week and you’ll find Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Nic Stone’s Dear Martin, two timely, masterful books based on the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as Erika L. Sanchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, a powerful coming-of-age story about Mexican-American girl who loses her sister.
YA is obviously changing in front of our eyes, and Twitter is being used to boost these amazing books and track down new ones. My concerns are with how white the industry is, about how POC voices are still being moderated in the background both on and off Twitter, and agents are still saying, “Oh, I already have one black writer” to present their “wokeness” and dismiss responsibility in signing new ones. Publishing is changing, but it could be changing faster, especially as social media exists as a platform to curate these things easily. I encourage everyone to put fire under this conversation, and make sure diversity does not come and go as a trend.
Literacy and book enthusiasm are economic issues, inextricably tied to the school system. Many young writers from low-income communities are not as fine-tuned in the craft because they haven’t gone through well-funded language arts programs or learned from experienced teachers, and because so many school curriculums involve books and characters they don’t care about. There is so much potential in the heart of the stories they have to tell, which could and should be fostered and developed by agents.
It’s also easy through social media to follow marginalized writers and bloggers talking about books and to boost them if they don’t have a lot of reach but have valuable input on the rep that’s coming out of the market. It’s easy to help people up via social media, and it’s how I got my agent.
I’m interested in starting a Twitter for black book bloggers and reviewers as well as a round table blog for LGBTQPOC. Please contact me at ryandouglassw (at) gmail (dot) com if you’re a black book blogger or LGBTQPOC interested in either option. Also, if you’re looking for a query critique, contact me the same way!
Anyway, I want to dive into the topic of this #amwriting blog, which is writing the truth and overcoming fear of your truth. I’m using my experience because it’s my best point of reference, but I know other marginalized writers struggle with this.
Telling the truth is scary because people don’t want to hear it. And it’s necessary because people need to. As a gay, black writer, centering my own identity feels like a huge risk in three parts:
1) I’m afraid the black community won’t embrace a gay storyline.
2) I’m afraid the gay community won’t embrace a black storyline.
3) I’m afraid the publishing world won’t embrace an intersectional storyline.
At every turn, there is some problem I feel with telling my story. So writing well is an act of fighting these fears. The notable lack of out, gay black writers with work in this genre (hint: it’s zero) says to me that my voice does not go here, so take it somewhere else. Why would you write a book about yourself knowing people don’t want to read about you?
Because if you’re born with an identity the world has not seen, with a voice the world has not heard, or an experience the world doesn’t know, you have to be the one to show them and make them listen. Don’t edit yourself to fit the market. Write for yourself. No one else is gonna do it for you, and no one else is gonna get it just right, and no one is gonna want that voice out there more than you.
When you write for yourself, you write for all people who get you, and for the people who don’t get you but should. Ditch thoughts of what makes people comfortable. People are not comfortable with anything until they have to be. Stand in your truth, because that is what readers need to witness; not an image they expect of you. If it’s realistic to your life and it’s not being seen in rep, that’s a problem you have to fix.
There are stories, like white girls falling in love on vacation, that the industry will always want, because they fit easily into YA. Straight people writing gay stories, gay stories about white gays, and black people in stories where they’re tokenized and stereotyped are all things that the market has encouraged for years and years and years. Because of the bad representation, it can feel like when you’re writing you have to reverse all of that, but honestly? Fuck nobility. Just write your mess. The point is that you’re a human being, not that you’re perfect. Write your flaws in there.
The best writing, to me, thrives on the things you have a more natural understanding of than other people do, and this doesn’t have to be about your identity. It can be about mental health, or a place you grew up, or the politics of a sporting league, as long as it’s something you know about that will make people say, “Hey! I’ve never seen that before!” As long as you have something to teach someone–something you get that you see others missing or misrepresenting.
Write what they’ve never seen before. Open up your chest, show them the cracks in your heart, rip the tape off your mouth and scream at the top of your lungs even if you think it will embarrass you. Because other people need you to do it for them. That work—the work that is dangerously honest—that’s the work that carries power. That work that is scary to you because it’s different but deeply personal—that’s your voice, so use it.
Mom finds the genre I write in repulsive. “I don’t want to see that mess,” she’ll groan, every time I’m scrolling through channels and happen upon The Conjuring (I always watch The Conjuring when it’s on, because how can you not?)
I get into debates with her about how horror has so much more depth than she realizes. I identify strongly with this genre because I identify with being afraid. I’m intrigued by the psyche and the places people go when they’re faced with desperation, because I think that reveals something fascinating, visceral and dark about the human condition—something raw that shakes under the false image of “okayness” we’re all encouraged to put forth to survive and look cute. That, on top of the fact that living as a gay, black man is, for most of us, inherently scary. Finding support in either community is a dangerous journey, and when you do find it, it’s often lukewarm.
Everyone is terrified and no one really knows what the fuck is going on, but they will think they do until you teach them something new. So you may as well throw your voice into the ring. You may as well just show up to the party exactly as you are and make them deal with you.
Mom has always told me “there’s always going to be someone better than you.” The mantra is meant (I guess) to discourage me from judging myself so harshly, but it’s always felt limiting to me. To the POC writers coming up in the industry, I’d say you can be the best, in spite of everything you’ve seen, and even if you’ve never seen a narrative with you in it. Because why not? Who’s gonna be the best at what you’re doing if not you? The best person is only the person who believes in and cultivates their talents the hardest. The person who tells the truth, even before the world is ready to hear it. That can be you. You can be the best. So open up your work-in-progress, open up your truth, and be it.
All my love,