Story power. Human Power. Black Power. To me, story power, human power, female power, black power, et. al. are all trains that run along the same vast system of tracks known as ‘publishing.’
It’s why Black History Month is such a fantastic time to highlight authors of color, to maneuver otherwise fringe/invisible authors—schedule those ‘trains’—to travel into the public view.
In an age where discoverability is a nightmare for all authors, Black History Month offers an organic time to highlight authors of color and treat readers to writers they might never otherwise see. This is critical because stories are important.
Stories shape cultural values.
A new breakout author could completely tip the pop culture world on its side. But how can these authors break out if they’re never even unboxed?
As we’ve learned from pop culture history, shows like Star Trek did far more to change public opinions, to ameliorate racial tensions, close the gender gap, push women’s lib, and ease xenophobia than a hundred protests.
Sure, Star Trek was TV (crossing the streams) but it was STORY, and these days Netflix and Amazon are scooping up books for production.
Story power is real! Stories bridge gaps legislation can’t. Why? Because stories allow us to empathize and understand another perspective in a way like no other. We can BE another gender, race, or species!
Story power is…well, POWERFUL.
That was why, when Random Penguin and Barnes & Noble decided to put literature in blackface to celebrate Black History Month, I was livid. A chance to highlight new, fresh voices was squandered.
Their loss, my gain.
What did I have? I’m blessed with a big mouth and a large platform of wonderful readers who CARE. I also have no filter, and passionate fans and friends eager to help. Which is how I can bring you *drum roll*….
Story Power From a Fresh POV
stalked reached out to a subscriber and colleague, the brilliant author Lynn Emery. Since she likes mystery, murder, suspense and a high body count as much as I do, I figured we’d hit it off well.
I’d tell y’all ALL about her—SO much to gush about—but this is one seriously accomplished lady, so her full bio is HERE.
A couple of highlights? Lynn Emery has won three coveted Emma Awards. Romantic Times Magazine not only recognized her earlier works in romance but also nominated her later fiction Good Woman Blues (August 2005, HarperCollins Publishers) for Best Multicultural Mainstream novel of 2005.
BET turned her third novel, After All into a movie, and I need to stop there because the gushing will just get absurd.
***So, seriously, y’all can go read her full bio.
Suffice to say, Lady Lynn is a force.
Granted, I was angry about the shenanigans with Random Penguin and Barnes & Noble. But, I was also self-aware enough to appreciate that my anger came from the position of a spectator, a consumer, an ally maybe?
So, I wanted a voice from the inside. A voice of authority, and so I reached out to Lynn. What did she think of all this, especially after the RWA meltdown? We had a fantastic and enlightening conversation. Lynn, the amazing lady she is, generously put part of our conversation into a post I know you’ll enjoy…
Take it away Lynn!
Story Power: Why Can’t a Book Just Be a Book?
Black people—mostly women—who love a good romance are super stoked about The Photograph. I know what you’re doing right now. Looking at the title of this post and wondering why I’m talking about a movie.
Hang with me a minute.
Articles have been written on black pop culture sites praising the heavens because it’s just a romance. The authors of said articles contrast The Photograph to Queen and Slim.
They pose the question…
‘Why can’t we have a black romance without trauma?’
In other words, why does every love story about a black couple have to involve the themes of oppression, suffering, and death? Or prostitutes, gangstas, and drug dealing?
They point to how many years it’s been since we had such sweet classics as Love and Basketball, Love Jones and Brown Sugar.
***Btw, Love and Basketball is my favorite (sigh).
Sometimes we simply want a cute meet, flirtatious banter, trouble, arguments, and then loves wins. Okay, back to books.
Let me make this clear, I’m not the Black People Whisperer. So, don’t take this as the definitive ‘How All Black People Feel’ on this topic, but sometimes we just want a book to be a book.
And black writers?
Sometimes, We Just Want to Write
No heavy topics or weighty issues. Another caveat, we love and devour books that tackle the meaty (and sometimes depressing) subjects of slavery, racism, mass incarceration, and more.
We know those are issues that need to be voiced, written about, and tackled. Daily. Relentlessly. Thank you very much.
And yes, there are black prostitutes, criminals, and drug addicts. BUT… sometimes we just want to read and write mysteries, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etc. No lesson, no message.
And please Lord, no trauma.
Okay, story time!
Several years ago, I attended a writers conference, as writers are wont to do. As part of the draw for authors was the chance to have one-on-one appointments with editors and agents.
For around ten minutes or so, we could pitch books in progress with the goal of getting an agent or editor interested.
I’d switched genres, having written around twelve romance novels for various publishers (Kensington, HarperCollins, Penguin). Yet my true love (see what I did there?) had always been murder mysteries. Which is why most of my books were romantic suspense.
To quote my late husband, ‘A dead body always has to be in there somewhere.’
So, I’m at the conference and I go into my appointment. An agent who already had my synopsis and the first three chapters. Btw, she didn’t know my publishing history.
I walk in with a smile and noticed her bright expression dims. To her credit she recovered fast. I almost didn’t catch the reaction. Almost. I sit.
She looks down at the proposal in front of her, sighs and says, ‘So, these characters are black.’ It went downhill from there.
To my credit I didn’t cuss her out.
You see, I could tell she’d been at least engaged with the characters and the story. Until I walked in with my brown skin self. I let her squirm and stammer through some BS to kill the time.
I may have controlled my temper, but I wasn’t going to make it easy. She struggled to make negative points about the proposal. I didn’t try to help with self-deprecating statements, although I didn’t argue with her either.
After twelve books from NY I knew better. It’s all opinion. Educated opinion, but still subjective to a large degree. She could have been correct, and I sure as hell hadn’t written the next great mystery masterpiece. But it was good.
Three middle-class black women who turn amateur sleuths to solve a murder, the ex-husband of one of them.
Best Enemies stars a soccer mom, an ex-stripper, and a committed gold digger. A professional freelance developmental editor agreed with me (to my immense relief when I got her notes).
And so, we return to our topic.
You see, black authors have historically faced a challenge if our fiction doesn’t include misery or the fight for civil rights. It’s not that we don’t include some of that in our genre fiction, but mostly not or at best a light touch. And we get dinged for it.
Translation—rejected and ignored, or even told the stories aren’t ‘real enough.’
Sometimes a cozy mystery is just a cozy mystery. Sometimes a space opera is just about traveling to other worlds and cool tech. Sometimes a horror novel is just about getting the bejeezus scared out of you.
Authors of color have the glorious freedom to write the stories inside us. Some of us will write about white privilege, racism, mass incarceration, and other issues that affect us daily.
But some of us will just write about amateur sleuths, space travelers, ghosts, and more. No message. Just fiction. We’re making room for all the things. Join us.
It’s Black History Month. Yay!!! Here’s my blog post Badass Black History to help celebrate story power.
Story Power & Books to Love
I present my reading list. Please know I had to restrain myself to limit the number. I kept finding something else on my Kindle app and going ‘Oh, that’s so good!’ Yeah, I’m all over the place lucky for you. Feast upon this buffet. You’re welcome.
Spook Lights by Eden Royce
Sisters of the Wild Sage by Nicole Givens Kurtz
Forever Vacancy, a Colors In Darkness Anthology
The Adventure of the Spook House by C. Michael Forsyth
Blanch on the Lam by Barbara Neely
My Darkest Prayer by SA Cosby
Tangled Roots by Angela Henry
A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes (and anything else he writes!)
Order of the Seers by Cerece Rennie Murphy
The Wolf Queen by Cerece Rennie Murphy
Taurus Moon: Relic Hunter by D. K. Gaston
Steamfunk by Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade
Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology by Milton Davis and Charles Saunders
The Acacia Trilogy by David Anthony Durham
Story Power & Thank You, Lynn
I INHALE books, so I’m really grateful for this new list. When Lynn and I spoke, it was funny/interesting to me how we’d come to similar conclusions. Her from the author’s perspective and me from the reader’s perspective.
Not that I haven’t read the heavy books or shy away from them, but when Lynn gave me a list of new horror, mystery, and sci-fi/fantasy I hadn’t before heard about? Better yet, from authors of color? I was like a kid in a candy store.You mean I can just enjoy stories with a fresh cast of characters?
Story power is real regardless. It’s why I believe all genres serve an important function and meet readers where they are. It doesn’t all have to be hard core literary stuff.
Again, Star Trek?
***Trekkies know no color.
We (readers) can learn about others who aren’t ‘just like us’ simply by being consistently immersed in their worlds and struggling by their side facing their problems and sharing their victories. When we come to care about the characters, we form a unique bond.
In fact, the MORE stories like this are in circulation, the better the odds readers will be exposed to a wide and varying array of characters they’ll come to better understand, love and enjoy.
I hope y’all will check out Lynn’s books and the books she was kind enough to curate for us. As writers, we all bleed red (ink).
I LOVE Hearing from You!
If you have some questions of comments for Lynne, you can leave them here. I also would love some suggestions for classes, and am putting together the upcoming classes for spring.
I’ve had a bugger of a time getting over my cough, so I am offering these three ON DEMAND classes on sale before I delete them.
On Demand Branding: When YOUR NAME ALONE Can Sell
Normally $55, and now $35. This class will be deleted to make room for a newer version. Most of the content will remain the same since what I teach is evergreen, so it is definitely a bargain.
ON DEMAND: Bring on the Binge: How to Plot and Write a Series
Normally $75 and now only $50 and this is over four hours of instruction on everything you need to know about plot. So if you want to know about the synopsis? You will BLOW it out of the water after this.
ON DEMAND: The Art of Character for Series
Normally $75 and also only $50 and this class pairs excellent with the plotting class (like a fine chardonnay and a Chilean sea bass). Treat yourself!
Thanks for me over to your house! 🙂
*kicks laundry back under couch* Sure! Any time! Thanks for coming over and for the wonderful reading list 😀 .
Ugh! Yes!! I had this very conversation a few days ago prompted by an old Toni Morrison interview that I saw. Where she stated this very thing that simply because she is Black and she writes about Black people, she’s criticized as always writing socialogical tracts. Sometimes a story is just a story where I have a hangnail just like anyone else. Oh yeah and I’m Black. I’m confused as to why that concept is so difficult.
That’s a very good point, regarding the ability of stories – any stories – to shape cultural values. And on the question of colour, if the story appeals, race will become increasingly irrelevant. We’re still shaking off the last 200 years. Give us another couple of generations of natural integration dating from primary school, and we’ll do it.
I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent newsletter. Thank you.
It seems ridiculous to me, the suggestion that race somehow defines (i.e. limits) the stories people ‘should’ tell. Or that anything can dictate the kind of stories someone ought to write (or read!).
Example off the top of my head: the Napoleonic Wars had a profound effect on Regency England, but do people diss Jane Austen for not writing scenes of battlefield butchery, and accuse her of being an inauthentic Regency voice? No. (OK, some do, but I don’t think anyone’s taking them seriously.) There is no sole authentic voice of any group or experience, and not all aspects of identity are defining – let alone defining in stereotypical, limited ways.
I say write whatever you want to write. Especially if there’s a dead body in there somewhere!
As a writer of African American time travel romances, I really appreciate this blog post. It expresses exactly how I feel about the issue. I write my books to entertain my readers and don’t always include heavy issues. Sometimes it’s good to settle back with a good read and escape to a fantasy world, leaving behind the problems of today. Thanks Lynn and Kristen.
I have anything by N.K. Jemisin on instant order. I’ll bet you can read 50 pages of THE FIFTH SEASON and then, it’s suddenly 3 am and howinhell did THAT happen? Splendid SF in a bit of fantasy clothing, and if you think earthquakes make you nervous *now*, well, it’s nothing to how you’ll feel later on.
All what you write is like a poem