by Toni McGee Causey

A long while back, there was an interesting interview where Diane Sawyer was speaking to writer Alice Walker about the order in which she perceived herself: was she black first, then a writer? or a writer first, and then black?

Walker responded by saying [paraphrasing here] that she saw herself in the order of: black, then woman, then writer.

There was some discussion wherein Sawyer tried to make the point that she didn’t see Walker in that order. (I believe she saw Walker first as a woman, then writer, then black), and Walker disputed that. Of course Sawyer saw her as black first, Walker stated. And the very fact that Sawyer had even asked the question made Walker’s case for her, unless Sawyer has asked everyone she’s ever interviewed if they saw themselves as black (or white or Hispanic or Italian or… ) first.

Then writer Christopher Paul Curtis was asked about Walker’s statement and asked how he saw himself, and here’s a part of his answer:

A lot of the so called multicultural young adult literature is actually
produced by white writers, and they’ll take on an Asian or an African
American voice for the book, or even more often, a Native American
voice. Now, on the level of a writer, I say that’s fine. You should be
able to write about anything you want to write about. But then, as an
African American, I’m conflicted by it because our story has been
defined by other people for so long that it’s very confusing to have it
told by other people. If everything were equal, it would be fine, but
everything is not equal, and authentic stories by African American
writers, by Native American writers, by Hispanic writers need to be
told by those groups. Then again, there’s a real scarcity of such
writers among those groups.

I’ve seen bookstores where there is a section dedicated to African American literature, but I can’t decide if this is a good thing (there’s specific focus, marketing effort, shelf space) or a bad thing (the sections are rarely in the middle of the store as far as I can tell, and segregate literature away from the mainstream and frankly, I forget to look there and it smacks of the assumption that somehow the African American experience is outside the mainstream). Furthermore, in the few sections I’ve perused, I can’t quite tell the defining characteristic which has a bookseller placing the book there vs. the fiction section, since some writers appear in both (Earnest Gaines, for example).

If a separate section were somehow beneficial to my friends? Then I’m all for it. But I can’t tell if it’s that successful, and I look around at our nation and wonder how on earth are we going to learn about each other if we’re segregating fiction? (I get that it’s a marketing attempt by the bookstores in the same way that labeling something "mystery" or "romance" is also a marketing attempt.)

Is it hubris to think that we can, of course, understand enough about another ethnicity’s challenges to write them accurately, authentically? Last year I was one of the readers among a group which included Clarence Nero, an astounding talent, and he read from his brutal fiction and I thought, you know… I couldn’t have written that. I’m not entirely sure that any amount of research or life experience would have given me the dynamics he drew. I’m not sure if he realized how powerful they were–I still remember his reading months later.

Or is it purely, simply, only a matter of research? Life experience? Is Mr. Curtis’ comment above true? And is the lack of writers from the groups he mentioned a result of an actual lack, or the absence of perceived market? Is ethnicity a niche? Is it beneficial for it to be marketed in that way?


WINNERS ANNOUNCED: Hey, everyone, go check out Allison’s post for the winners she’s announced for the BOOK GIVEAWAY.

18 thoughts on “color

  1. j.t. ellison

    I’m going to go track down Theo Gangi, who has a firsthand experience with this… cool topic, Toni. I’m curious to hear what people think. I know we have to have labels, but do we need to break our books out by race too? Excellent, provocative question.

  2. R.J. Mangahas

    I think separating books by one’s race is ridiculous. A good story is a good story. And just to point out, from what I’ve seen, there tends to be ONLY an “African American” lit section in some stores, but you don’t see writers such as Sherman Alexi tucked away in a “Native American” aisle, Ha Jin and Naomi Hirahara in an “Asian American” aisle. What about a “British Writers” section for Lee Child and J.K. Rowling? And where would they shelve writers such as Kelly Parra who is Filipino, Mexican AND Italian. Is there a special “Multi-ethnic” section (or perhaps mutt). I know that sounds silly, but you see my point. Why does everything have to be neatly categorized and compartmentalized, including people?

    Now, I’m Filipino, but I’d rather be seen as a writer and judged on those merits, not by my ethnicity.

  3. pari

    I don’t know if THE DIRTY GIRLS SOCIAL CLUB would’ve worked or brought its author such fame if it hadn’t had at its core the exploration of Latina culture.

    Though Valdez-Rodrigues decried being pigeon-holed as an ethnic writer, she earned international fame in fiction precisely because of it. And she very shrewdly did it on purpose.

    In NM, the U of NM publishes works by “ethnic” writers all the time, but they don’t often hit the national consciousness.

    We can blame distribution and lack of coop monies etc for that fact, but I’m not sure it makes much difference.

    Stereotypes remain and I suspect they’re pervasive in millions of ways in the book marketing and publishing biz — book buyers make assumptions, agents make assumptions, publishers make assumptions, authors make assumptions . . .

    Oh, I could go on and on . . .

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Toni.

  4. J.D. Rhoades

    Responding to the Curtis’ quote: I’d suggest an adaptation of the Turing test for writing in the “voice” of a particular ethnicity.

    The Turing test was proposed in the early days of computing. It tests whether true AI (Artificial Intelligence) has been achieved. You put a person in a room with a screen and a keyboard. He communicates using only the screen and keyboard with something or someone in the next room, either a computer or a human. He doesn’t know which. If he’s unable to tell the difference, you’ve achieved artificial intelligence.

    The adaptation is this: If an African American, or Latino, or Asian (for example) reader reads a book with an African American, or Latino, or Asian character, and the voice rings true enough that he or she can’t tell the race of the writer, the book works. And that’s all that matters. I don’t think only African Americans should be writing African American characters, any more than I think only women should write women characters.

  5. Fran

    Interesting topic, especially for me as a bookseller. We tend not to segregate our sub-genres in mystery/suspense (with a few exceptions), but a few time in the last month, I was asked where our gay mystery section was. We used to have one, but not any more. I said it had all been integrated, that I chose not to isolate and segregate but to integrate it. I was gently scolded by the gay gentlemen in question. They liked the idea of being separate and different. They cut me some slack when they realized which team I’m on, but they still shook their heads sadly.

    It’s a tricky and touchy situation, and I wish I could say there’s a clear-cut right or wrong answer, but I can’t see one, at least when it comes to shelf placement. Is it segregation or honor to be in a separate place? Does being integrated into the general population make everyone equal, or does it drown out special voices? I have no idea.

    As to written voice, I agree with JD. If the voice rings true, does the face behind the writing really matter? If a Yankee can write Southern Gothic well, do we despise him for not being Southern? If a straight man writes great lesbian noir, do I discount his writing? It just seems to me that the writing is what matters, as long as it’s honest.

  6. Louise Ure

    I’m with Fran and J.D. here. It’s the articulation of the experience, not the background of the writer that is important.

    As for separating works into sub-groups in the bookstore, it makes no more sense than putting all books written by blondes in one place.

  7. pari

    I’m in agreement with JD, Fran and Louise too.

    If someone is effective with a voice, it shouldn’t matter what ethnicity the writer is.

    HOWEVER, I’ve noticed on the marketing side that it doesn’t work that way as much.

    I don’t think Toni — who is a wonderful and sharp, witty, downright funny writer — could’ve written the exact same DIRTY GIRLS book and gotten the kind of intense national coverage Alisa has received. She’s become the “Mother of Chica Lit” . . .

  8. Allison Brennan

    I think Fran has the key point here: some groups want to be separate, some don’t. Some black writers want a separate African-American section, some don’t. (Though I think titling it “African-American” is itself poor since blacks come from all over the world. One of my good friends is Jamaican. Not even an American.

    I, personally, feel that books should be shelved in their genre. Black romance writers should be shelved in romance. Black mystery writers in mystery. I happen to agree with Fran–gay mystery writers should be in mystery as well. I’ve always believed that the greatness of America is that we are a melting pot of religion and race, that when we segregate we marginalize and our strength comes from our collective unity. I understand that there’re individuals in all races who agree with me, and those who don’t, and their reasons are valid. I can respect that. I still think we are stronger when we’re together.

    And Will Smith isn’t segregated into “African American Movies” so why we want do to it in print entertainment stumps me.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    JT, I’d love to hear what Theo has to say — hope you can lure him over here.

    Pari, yep, I think there’s a distinct lack of marketing… but then we get around to the other chicken/egg problem… are they being judged on ethnicity, or are they being judged solely on the writing? If the former, then the lack of dollars makes no sense, but if the latter, then it’s the same boat we’re all in, how does one prove there’s a market for one’s fiction if the books aren’t actually out there in the market with marketing dollars to build awareness?

    Dusty, I was hoping someone would make that point, that it’s probably just as valid a question as to whether or not one gender can write valid women of another gender. (or, are we more forgiving of those flaws?) hmmmmm. I think one of the biggest (however inadvertent) compliments I received early on was when a producer was expecting a man to walk into the meeting because the script was a military thriller (very dark) and he just could not believe a young woman with no military background wrote that story. (until after we talked, then he believed) But he told me he would have never picked it up and kept reading if he’d have thought a woman wrote it because he couldn’t have crossed that point voluntarily where he thought one gender could write the other so well, and within a background so wholly different than she’d lived.

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Fran, I think you’re right. I think there’s also this sense of exclusion that I’d feel if I approached a section set up just for one ethnicity or one social construct and if I didn’t already belong to that group, I’d feel like I was invading something. Not quite privacy, because obviously, the books are there to be bought.

    Louise, as always, you boil it down to the one brilliant line that sums it up.

  11. toni mcgee causey

    pari, you’re right – on both counts. I think there’s a level of writing what you know that becomes a vital implicit component of certain stories and settings, and being a member of that group can be a marketing angle. [I think the marketing angle only works a couple of times, though, until there are a lot more members of the group publishing, and then it’s just a group, like every other group.]

    Allison, great points. And Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle and… on and on.

  12. toni mcgee causey

    RJ, I think that’s probably the strongest argument against–because there *are* so many ethnicities in America, once you start giving out special sections, where on earth would it stop? (I don’t think there’s a Cajun-Irish-Scottish-Italian section for me.)

    I was on a panel not long ago with Earnest Gaines, whose work had greatly inspired me to become a writer and the moderator gave a long speech extolling his virtues, and kept referring to him as a national treasure because he was a great “African American” writer… and I could see Mr. Gaines’ face while the moderator could not. And not that I’d want to put words into Mr. Gaines’ mouth, but every time the “African American writer” phrase hit the microphone, Mr. Gaines flinched a little and looked away, and it seemed pretty clear that he would rather have been simply thought of as a great writer, period, that what he’d done had transcended the very lines he’d struggled to cross years earlier.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    This is such an excellent topic, Toni. And your last comment really crystallised the subject for me.

    In the past, I’ve had the comment about one of my books that it was the ‘best thriller written by a woman’ that this particular reviewer had read. I should have been wholly delighted, but the ‘written by a woman’ rider really stung. Either it’s a great thriller or it’s not.

    Anything else is consolation praise.

    And many congrats for not only finishing your latest t/s, but also for having yet another Murderti post picked up by the Chicago Sun-Times! Way to go!

  14. R.J. Mangahas

    Toni — I agree. Why couldn’t the moderator just have referred to Mr. Gaines as a great writer, rather than a great AFRICAN AMERICAN writer. It’s almost like saying, “Wow, an AFRICAN AMERICAN wrote THAT?”

    And I think it’s important to remember too that just because one is part of a certain group,it does not necessarily mean the group supports the writer. A great example of this is Sherman Alexi. There are Native Americans who don’t care for his writing because Alexi also portrays some of the harsh realities about Native Americans.

  15. Jake Nantz

    I’m sorry, but I refuse to go to ANY section set up specifically for one race, gender, etc. I have no idea if anyone there can write or not, but I feel it should be all or nothing, and that’s my protest.

    If I walk into a bookstore and see the “African-American” section, or the “Latino” section, I avoid it and will continue to until I can find the Welsh/German/Southern-American section where my books will go one day.

    What tripe. All I’ve heard for years is that we have to see people as people, not as Black people or Asian people or any other kind of people. But now certain groups have their own special sections, because we need to what? Acknowledge that they’ve done something because they’re a certain ethnicity? In spite of it? What? Isn’t this what the civil rights movement wanted abolished? Or was it that they were okay with different sections (and schools, and water fountains, and such) as long as the quality was equal, which it most certainly wasn’t back then? My family has come from so many places that I know one thing…I’m an American. Shelve me with the rest of the American mystery writers and I’m good.

    Oh, and the saddest and yet funniest thing I’ve ever overheard was when Nelson Mandela was released and I overheard two women scold a young boy for calling him Black. “You’re supposed to say African-American now, young man.””Funny,” I interrupted. “I didn’t think Nelson Mandela was ANYTHING-American.”

    Unfortunately they didn’t get it, and gave me the head-turn-look my dogs sometimes do. Oh well. Thank you for this topic, Toni. Very thought-provoking.

  16. Fran

    And let me stipulate that our sub-sections at SMB are by topic, not ethnicity. We have a culinary mystery section, an animal mystery section, a historical mystery section, things like that.

    Okay, tell the truth, British imports are segregated too, but that’s ’cause they cost more. And our collectables obviously are isolated.

  17. Emilie

    I’m loving all the comments on here about this topic, especially as a former bookseller and a writer myself. Of course a bookstore wants to show customers as easily as possible where “their kind of book” can be found, especially as a lot of our readers have polarized and only read specific kind of books. It’d be interesting to see what customers would think of books if they didn’t have sections and covers to tell them what to pre-think.

    For instance, while I was at B&N a man asked to find the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series and was devastated that they were shelved in romance. He was deep into the series, but had been buying them at a smaller bookstore that didn’t have the space to segregate their fiction. Their covers don’t make them look like romance novels, so he’d had no idea. Until Barnes and Noble and I told him he was reading romance novels. He still bought the book he was looking for, but I had to give him a pep talk first.

    What I think a lot of bookstores/sellers are missing is the selling possibility if we don’t give customers a chance to ignore every other kind of book they assume they won’t like.

    WHAT would happen if Diana Gabaldon just happened to be next to next to a hard-hitting espionage series by an author also with the last name G? The alphabetic possibilities are endless. But as we are now, we’re marketing ourselves to death. Customer A is only interested in historical romances, Customer B only wants nonfiction books about the Civil War and Customer C only wants magazines. So we very easily give them an excuse to ignore every other type of reading they might surprise themselves by liking.

  18. Patricia Sargeant

    Great topic, Toni, and very well handled. Thank you.

    I like Allison’s reminder that our country is a melting pot.

    One troubling observation I’ve made is the Triple Whammy Effect. Many African American titles have African American characters pictured on the cover, are written under an African American imprint and then shelved in the African American section. The subtle message seems to be, “We really, really, really want to make sure readers know this is an African American story. We wouldn’t want one to slip by us.” LOL!

    Thanks again for a very interesting and well-handled topic, Toni.


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