Fresh FIction Box Not To Miss

Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant | Reading Rainbow: Does a Story Have a Color?

September 15, 2010

Virginia Deberry and Donna GrantTITLEFor the past 20 years we have been writing novels, seven in total—the eighth in the works. No Pulitzer or Nobel winners, but well crafted stories that have enlightened and entertained tens of thousands of readers. Our first “big book” Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made was published in 1997, has never been out of print, is in its fifth edition and has sold over 750,000 copies, without any major advertising or endorsements.

But that was then.

Now, we along with many of our “classmates”, black women writers who started their careers in the mid 90’s, find our future in jeopardy. This precarious position is not because we write bad books, but because we all fall in the general category “African American Fiction” and we just aren’t selling as well. What we write is women’s fiction with Af-Am characters–stories of struggle and triumph, loss, coping, love, and life, learning. But we are labeled, handicapped, before we’re out of the gate. Folks who might enjoy our work because the theme might be relevant to their life- like What Doesn’t Kill You, our 2009 novel—a funny and uplifting story about a woman who loses her long-term job, but finds her true self, don’t ever see the book because it’s in “that” section and they aren’t going “there.” Even reviews and articles about the novel stated upfront, that it was the story of an unemployed, African American, single mother. Our character’s unemployment was the result of being “outplaced” from her job of twenty-five years. She was single because she was divorced. She was a mother with a twenty-something married daughter. And yes, she was also black—but she could have been anyone. In fact whoever you are, white, black, male or female— she probably is someone you know.

Then we had the December 2009 “Afro Picks” Publisher’s Weekly cover featuring works of African American authors, further indicating our separate place in the market, pointing out our status as ‘other.’ PW in its defense said the cover was intended to be amusing, clever “a delightful and wry expression of historical Afro Americana.” What like the Gold Dust Twins and Bucwheat? Yes, Felicia Pride’s lead article was insightful and important. All of that however, was overshadowed by the furor and controversy caused by selecting a cover that so clearly marginalizes the writers who were intended to benefit (we hope) from the piece.

A few years ago we visited a book club meeting—as authors it has become a pretty common way to spend an afternoon or evening. One of the founding members had read our book, Better Than I Know Myself, and proposed it to the group which made it their monthly selection, then contacted us via our website. We arrived at the home of the hosting member and were greeted with hugs by women who were eager to welcome their first real live authors to their club meeting. There was food, wine and plenty of enthusiastic questions about our book, our lives and our writing process– absolutely typical of the dozens of book club meetings we have attended—except for the first time, we were the only African Americans present.

Did this make a difference? Should it have? We were writers. They were readers, but we were certainly aware this was an unusual event. The members of the First Wednesday Book Club of Morristown, NJ liked our work, identified with our characters and found the book to have universal appeal. In fact, they were so intent on “getting the word out” about us, that they invited their local paper, the Daily Record of Morris County to send a reporter and photographer to cover the story.

When an African American writer or entertainer achieves success with a wider audience, a la Will Smith or Terry McMillan, they are said to have cross-over appeal. Why isn’t the reverse true? When blacks watch CSI, Transformers or pick up the latest James Patterson or Jonathan Franzen, no one attributes that to cross-over. Is it assumed that EVERYONE will find these diversions entertaining? That race of a character doesn’t matter as long as that race is white? That blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, Lakota Sioux, Lebanese and whomever else the census separates out will “get” the storyline and generate the dollars requisite for success? We had our very own experience with this years ago when a major studio was interested optioning the film rights to our book, Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made. They loved the book, said it was a universal story about women’s friendship and coming of age and therefore they needed to make the main characters white instead of black. It never occurred to them that their idea was both insulting and stupid.

In our first novel, Exposures, there was not a black character in the book. At the time, for us it was a matter of expediency—we wanted to get published. Neither of us had attempted a novel. We needed to see if we could wrangle all those words into a coherent, entertaining story, or if we were suffering from English major’s syndrome—the misguided notion that you have a novel or two in you. Also, there was not much precedent for co-written fiction, so we had to find out in a hurry whether we could write together without drawing blood. At the time there was no ready outlet for African American contemporary fiction and we decided that was one more experiment than we could run simultaneously, so we did not add the black variable. Popular writing wisdom is/was to, “write what you know,” so since we met while working in the fashion business, Exposures is set in that world. Our heroine is a young, female fashion photographer of Swedish heritage, and the story is a tale of friendship, family secrets, betrayal, love, loss and the search for self and family, themes we have continued to explore in our later work. The novel sold well enough in its original publication as a Warner/Popular Library paperback to warrant translation into Spanish and Russian so we had answered the first of our questions.

It took a lot longer to find a home for our first book with black characters. At the time we didn’t fit the established categories. We called it our Toni/Terry problem—we weren’t Morrison or McMillan, so many editors didn’t believe we would find an audience—they were wrong. We made a name for ourselves writing about the challenges and triumphs of people living their everyday lives. Our stories don’t center on the role that race plays in our character’s circumstances—for those of us who are black in America that is a given, but not always the focus of our lives, much as it is for our characters.

Not so long ago, a white reader (one of many who identify themselves that way) emailed to say how much she enjoyed one of our books, but wondered if she was welcome to read our work since she wasn’t black. We were stunned by the question, but it spoke to the segregated reading habits which are more the norm than we would like to admit. Are we so tired of dealing with each other at work, in the supermarket, on the bus, that it’s a relief to open a book and find people with strange accents and hairdos banished from our fictional world? Or is it more insidious? Are books our mirrors, and we only look for reflections of ourselves?

Shouldn’t reading provide a window to the greater world? We read Anna Karenina without being Russian, The 100 Secret Senses without being Chinese, Catcher in the Rye without being teenaged prep school boys, Shelters of Stone without being Cro-Magnon—Anne Rice without being a vampire. We delight in Carl Hiassen without being Floridians, Sandra Cisneros with no experience of being Latinas from Chicago, understand the plight of a Nigerian girl as told by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, never having set foot in Lagos. Since childhood we have read thousands of books about people who didn’t look like us and found them enlightening, hilarious, heartbreaking, and know, without doubt, we are better people because of it.

Why then is it so surprising that, except for “literary” efforts like those of Edwidge Dandicat, Alice Walker and Edward P. Jones, which mostly recount our collective, tragic, post middle passage history, or the stories of the elite, Talented Tenth as told by writers like Stephen Carter and Colson Whitehead, works of fiction by black authors usually do not cross over? Are we to believe that as fully franchised, contemporary Americans living a variety of social, educational, and economic circumstances that our stories are so foreign as to be incomprehensible? Do we share no universal human truths?

After the surprise success of Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made, which featured drawings of two brown-skinned women on the cover, our publisher made a conscious effort to cross over our next book. That cover was stylized and beautiful–dominated by a house flanked by a lush tree. Our three main characters were rendered the size of carpenter ants, their color indistinguishable. So, to appeal to a wider audience we had to lose face? What must we sacrifice to be palatable to the culture at large?

Some bookstores even have separate African American areas. Granted, some argue that having a unique section celebrates the black experience. But are they really separate but unequal niches, a publishing ghetto with very different real estate values? Why I Don’t Want to Be the Next Amy Tan by Celeste Ng, shows the problem goes beyond black and white.

Until Waiting to Exhale made publishers understand that black people buy books, we were mostly left outside the gates. Clearly the decision makers in the publishing world slept through the unit in American history that explains that slaves risked and often lost their lives to learn to read. The Exhale phenomenon was the reason many of us were given a chance. Walter Mosley reached a wider readership thanks to the endorsement of President Clinton.

Would The Help by Kathryn Stockett have received so much attention if a black writer wrote about her mother or grandmother who actually were “the help?” Would The Blind Side have done as well at the box office if (as most often happens) Michael Oher’s aunt or cousin took him in?

Author Bernice McFadden (Sugar, Glorious) calls it Seg-Book-Gation. Carleen Brice’s (Children of the Waters, Orange Mint & Honey) blog, Welcome White Folks and Virginia’s Open Letter to Oprah all speak to a situation that is becoming more dire, not improving.

Is it really so hard to step away from the mirror, throw open our windows and get some fresh air—fresh fiction? Browse a bookstore section you usually pass without Oprah to lead the way? Ask a librarian or a co-worker for a recommendation; that’s how many non-black readers found our work. Particularly at a time when fearful or hateful manifestations of our differences seems to be what makes headlines, perhaps exploring each others lives in the pages of a novel is a good place to discover those things that we share. You might discover a good read on an unexpected shelf—maybe gain insight into someone else, or surprisingly, yourself—we know we do.

Virginia and Donna’s latest novel, Uptown, was published in March by Simon and Schuter/Touchstone.

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