final stretch

Cover-linesSpring break is almost over! I’m trying not to panic but there’s grading to be done and my screenplay still isn’t finished. This morning I picked out fonts for my new books and I posted an online ad for a book designer; I’ve got bids from several women, which is nice since almost all the bids for illustration came from men. I need a new website and my illustrators aren’t done, though I saw a cover illustration today that I absolutely love (left, by Mauricio J. Flores). I’m in panic mode and so I finally closed the laptop and went outside. The leaves are opening on the trees and my favorite lemon magnolias will be in bloom in the botanic garden before too long. I’m tempted to watch a Jane Austen film this afternoon but instead I’m going to force myself to work on the screenplay. The one thing I did accomplish last week was a guest post for The Brown Bookshelf. It will be published as part of a series in May but for now I thought I’d share my objectives for this new self-publishing venture:

  • To generate culturally relevant stories that center children who have been marginalized, misrepresented, and/or rendered invisible in children’s literature.
  • To produce affordable, high-quality books so that families—regardless of income—can build home libraries that will enhance their children’s academic success.
  • To produce a steady supply of compelling, diverse stories that will nourish the imagination and excite even reluctant readers.

I’m giving an informal talk tomorrow night about self-publishing; I thought I’d have finished books to share but they’ll have to settle for some finished illustrations instead.

indexI’d been planning to write an essay on the bias against self-published books/authors when I unexpectedly received an invitation to write on that very topic for a popular kidlit blog. I thought about seeing The Railway Man tonight but I think instead I’ll stay put and get this essay out of my head. I’ve met with a couple of author/illustrators this week and hearing their perspectives on publishing reminded me that walking your own path can be a long, lonely journey. How many friends will I have left if I stay the course? I’ve also started to feel like a broken record, which is why I’m turning away from advocacy for a while. Reflecting tonight on “the myth of meritocracy” led me to revisit another guest post I wrote for The Rejectionist back in 2010. Here’s some of what I had to say 4 years ago:

I have a sequel that’s waiting to be written, but I’m very creative when it comes to procrastination and so I found myself thinking of other advantages white writers might experience here in the US (though I suspect this also applies to Canada).* Like McIntosh, I do not mean to suggest that these advantages are “generalizable” (experienced equally by all writers who are white).**

1. You can submit a manuscript and it will likely be judged by someone of your race—even at a multicultural press.

2. You can query a number of agents who have extensive experience selling manuscripts by authors (and to editors) who share your race.

3. You can be pretty sure that the book buyer in a large chain or indie bookstore is someone of your race.

4. You can be pretty sure that your book—if it’s lucky enough to get reviewed by the major outlets—will be assessed by someone of your race who operates with an appreciation of your culture’s particular literary tradition(s).

5. You can attend numerous children’s literature conferences with programming that reflects your interests and/or your culture, you can network with industry professionals who share your race, and otherwise feel comfortable as a member of the majority.

6. You can write about anyone who lives anywhere and be accepted by many as an extraordinarily creative person and/or an expert on topics outside of your lived experience.

7. You can participate in a literary event and trust that your invitation was based on the merits of your book, not your race.

8. You can be pretty sure that the person responsible for acquisitions and programming at most schools and public libraries shares your race.

9. You can be pretty sure that most major award committees are composed primarily of people who look like you.

10. You can trust that disappointing sales for your book will not be attributed to your race (or to members of your race being unable/unwilling to read).

11. You can expect that your book will be displayed in stores and shelved in libraries according to its genre, and not according to your race.

12. You can be pretty sure that a (white) editor will not call your (white) characters’ language “too formal,” nor will you be expected to make hardship and racial conflict the central focus of your book.

13. You can rest assured that your book will be considered “universal” and will therefore be promoted widely and not only to a “niche market.”

14. You can trust that your book will be for everyday use, and not for one particular “heritage month.”

15. You can expect to be invited to give school presentations all year round, and not only during a designated “heritage month.”

16. You can trust that your white protagonist will not be depicted as a person of color on your book’s cover.

Getting published is hard—I think all aspiring writers would agree with me on that point. And race isn’t the bottom line here, but it is a factor in one’s ability to navigate the incredibly homogeneous publishing industry. I don’t mean to suggest that whites are incapable of editing manuscripts by and about people of color; there are many wonderful books that are the product of such collaborations, including my own picture book, Bird (plus one of my closest friends is a white editor!). Really, I’m talking about cultural competence, and that can be demonstrated by anyone who has taken the time to learn about a culture not their own. But as Peggy McIntosh points out, there’s rarely any penalty for whites who choose to remain oblivious. Instead, PoC pay the price and we see that reflected in the dismal statistics compiled by the CCBC: in 2009, out of an estimated 5000 books published for children, less than 5% were authored by PoC. We could conclude that writers of color simply aren’t good enough to be published in greater numbers. Or we could reach a conclusion that’s closer to the one McIntosh reaches in her essay:

For me, white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own. These perceptions mean also that my moral condition is not what I had been led to believe. The appearance of being a good citizen rather than a troublemaker comes in large part from having all sorts of doors open automatically because of my color.

My father used to call me a troublemaker, and initially I rejected that label because it felt like a cruel mischaracterization—sure, I asked a lot of questions, but why should I accept the status quo if it served others’ needs and not my own? I now realize that as a black feminist writer, making trouble is what I do! I likely won’t be thanked for my complaints about the lack of diversity in children’s publishing, but that’s ok. Being unpopular just might mean that I’m doing something right…["Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." -Ed.]

*Many thanks to Doret and Neesha for their suggestions as I compiled this list.

**McIntosh concludes that “since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems at work, we need to similarly examine the daily experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.”

art every day

6a00d8341c630a53ef01156fa83a02970c-800wi1I’m trying to write my second screenplay. I wrote my first, Brother’s Keeper, in 2007 after finding out about a contest for emerging writers; the deadline was just a month away and so I ordered a book (How to Write a Movie in 21 Days) and got to work. This time I’m adapting my novel, Ship of Souls, and submitting it to the Sundance Lab. Another long shot, but deadlines force me to get work done. I’m hoping to have these 5 new chapter books ready by the end of the month because I’ve got book fairs on May 10 and June 1. The Sundance deadline is May 1 but I only have to submit the first five pages of my screenplay. In my mind’s eye I’ve seen all my novels unfold on screen, so I don’t think this should be too hard. My other goal for spring break is to nourish my imagination by consuming art every day. On Sunday I went to see “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” at the Brooklyn Museum. I was struck by Barkley Hendricks‘ gilded portraits and the way artists in the ’60s formed collectives and used their art to raise money for the cause. On Monday I visited Katie Yamasaki‘s studio, which made xzavierme feel like a kid in a candy store. I’ve bought some of Katie’s prints for my nieces and nephew but the truth is, I wanted those prints for myself! I got to see her new collages and hear about her books-in-progress. We talked about the possibilities of publishing and the limitations. It’s time for a new model and my friend Rosamond gave me some advice about starting a not-for-profit. We went to St. John the Divine to see the phoenixes—they’re stunning. And today we’re going to see the Carrie Mae Weems retrospective at the Guggenheim. Tomorrow? Maybe the Studio Museum of Harlem or the new Muppets movie. I want to see a play this week and may go to St. Ann’s to see Red Velvet. This is New York—there’s no reason anyone should be starved for art, least of all our children. I’ve got an essay brewing on the role of art in education. Break won’t last forever but somehow I’ll find time for it all….

art binge

page3_copyI went to the botanic garden yesterday. The tulips and daffodils are in bloom, the crocuses are fading, and the lilac bushes are starting to bud. I haven’t been to the garden in quite a while; the entrance closest to my home is closed and so I contented myself with glimpses of green seen through the fence along Flatbush Avenue. Certain places feed my imagination and yet during the winter months, I haven’t really nourished my dreams. I’ve been running the perimeter of Prospect Park instead of doing the inner circuit; I haven’t seen many good movies and the books I’ve read lately have been disappointing. I go to such lengths to protect my “sensitive soul” but what it really needs is ART. Juggling five different books-in-progress at once isn’t ideal, but I can’t tell you how good it feels to take a break from grading and find a glorious new illustration in my inbox. Spring break starts on Monday and I’m going to visit Katie Yamasaki‘s studio before meeting a friend up at St. John the Divine to see Xu Bing’s phoenixes suspended from the Nave. My diet is a mess and I’ve got more than a few winter pounds to shed, but what I really need is a steady diet of art—because that’s what nourishes the imagination. And with a big life change looming in the distance, I’m going to need all the creative energy I can muster…


indexPart 2 of “When You’re Strange” is up on the Media Diversified site now. Stuart Hall’s death in February sent me reeling and I found myself writing about him in my essay:

The recent death of Stuart Hall led me to revisit his work and reconsider its impact on my thinking about migration; I now see even more parallels between Hall’s journey and my own. I didn’t know it at the time, but in my senior year of high school I went through a serious depressive episode and have lived with depression ever since. In a 1992 interview with Kuan-Hsing Chen, Hall reflects on his years in Jamaica and admits:

“When I look at the snapshots of myself in childhood and early adolescence, I see a picture of a depressed person. I don’t want to be who they [his parents] want me to be, but I don’t know how to be somebody else. And I am depressed by that. All of that is the background to explain why I eventually migrated.”

When I was a teen, I hid from the camera; I believed messages I got from my family that said I was hideous, and so embraced the invisibility imposed upon me by Canadian society. I spent hours alone at home, curled up with a book (usually Dickens); I slept up to twelve hours a day, hoping to make time pass more quickly. My father had already moved to the US by then and my mother was mired in her own depression. My older sister—the only Black female role model I had at the time—dropped out of university to follow her boyfriend across the country. The disintegration of my family seemed complete and I clung to the hope that a scholarship to university would transform my sad reality.

Stuart Hall also sought escape from a dysfunctional (if intact) family. He, too, found “a huge gap” between the life he wanted for himself and his parents’ expectations of him. The “strange aspirations and identifications” of his upwardly mobile, color-conscious, and pro-colonial parents ultimately destroyed Hall’s sister Patricia. Her nervous breakdown and subsequent electroconvulsive therapy rendered her unable to leave home while propelling Hall out into the world. This traumatic experience, Hall explains,

“crystallized my feelings about the space I was called into by my family. I was not going to stay there. I was not going to be destroyed by it. I had to get out. I felt that I must never put myself back into it, because I would be destroyed. My decision to emigrate was to save myself.”

I left Canada with the same sense of desperation, and I now draw upon my migrant experience as I attempt to develop a mythology of displacement for Black teen readers.

All are welcome to join our Twitter chat later today at 4pm ET (8pm GMT).

hogan-s-alley-black-history-month-stampAt the start of this year my friend and fellow blogger Edith Campbell told me about a CFP she saw on Twitter from Media Diversified, a site dedicated to writers of color. I’d been wanting to write something about Orville Douglas, the Black Canadian man who wrote an op-ed in The Guardian last fall to tell the world how much he hates being a Black man. I wrote a short essay and submitted it to the editor; she asked me to extend it but I had to switch gears and work on my Canada Seminar essay. In the end, the shorter piece became the foundation for my talk at Harvard and the editor allowed me to write a two-part essay for Media Diversified. Part 1 of “When You’re Strange” is up now. Here’s a taste:

Of course, I never truly left Toronto behind. Most of my family members still reside there and so I return once or twice a year. Last semester I was displeased but not surprised when a student raised her hand at the end of class and asked how I felt about my hometown’s crack-smoking mayor. Rob Ford is ridiculous enough to be quickly dismissed, but another controversy emerged from Toronto last fall that was deeply disturbing and much harder to ignore. When I first read Orville Douglas’ controversialonline op-ed, “Why I hate being a Black man” in The Guardian last November, I was immediately embarrassed and enraged. “Of course, he’s from Toronto,” I fumed. “Only Toronto could produce a freak like that.”

I immediately shared the article on Facebook; two Black Canadian women responded and agreed that Douglas was an anomaly who in no way represented Black male Torontonians. A few days later I shared the article with my community college students; we had spent the semester dissecting the stereotypes that surround Black men, and my working-class students of color were amazed that any Black man in 2013 would see his race as “a prison” and publicly ask, “Who would want to have this dark skin, broad nose, large thick lips, and wake up in the morning being despised by the rest of the world?” I asked my Black male students to describe the ways they practice self-love. They struggled with that question but had no problem listing the ways they showed love for other Black men. We concluded that Douglas’ “condition” likely stemmed not only from a lack of self-love, but a lack of community.

Orville Douglas’ public admission of self-loathing earned him a great deal of international attention—a mixture of condemnation and pity. When a friend directed me to his earlier articles inNOW Magazine, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Douglas had once hoped to migrate to the U.S. declaring, “America is a land of opportunity, while Canada is a nobody’s land.” It seemed logical to me that a Black man who felt unwanted, invisible, and unloved in Canada would believe he could build a better life in the U.S. since that’s exactly how I felt back in 1994. Despite (or perhaps because of) my initial reaction to Douglas’ op-ed, I’ve since had to consider the possibility that this troubled Black Canadian man isn’t “a freak like that” but rather “a freak like me.”

Part 2 will be published on Friday and the site always has thought-provoking pieces, so check them out!

going global

Scene2-rough-BIt’s almost April and I am counting down the days until spring break. I had a student collapse in class yesterday and the week before I had an altercation with another student who I suspect has mental health issues. For the most part, my students have been wonderful this semester but I am weary, and what keeps me going at this point is the artwork submitted by my freelance illustrators. I come home, open my inbox (yes, I could do it on my smartphone but I prefer having something to look forward to) and marvel at the way these artists are making my characters come to life. I’m working with FIVE illustrators right now–one is in the US and the others are in Honduras, Vietnam, Argentina, and India. This is an experiment for me and I do have some anxiety and some ethical concerns, but overall this is incredibly empowering and exciting. The hard part will be finding a way to get readers and educators to invest in these books. I want to find a foundation that would be willing to sponsor/subsidize author visits in schools and community institutions. Not give free visits away but perhaps set up a grant program so that schools, or churches, or community centers could apply to have half the cost of an author visit covered by the foundation. I feel strongly that all parties have to make an investment. I had brunch with two authors yesterday and we shared our experiences with schools that try to cram as many students as possible into an author visit, which (in my opinion) diminishes the experience. If we know that students benefit from a smaller class size, then it makes sense that students would also benefit from having a more intimate experience with an author. This week I’ll be visiting a high school that has asked me to spend 2 hours with ONE CLASS. I can’t wait to share my books, published and forthcoming, with these young readers…



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