My editor at Thomas Nelson (HarperCollins), Kimberly, wrote the following message to me in the editorial notes for my next book, When Stars Rain Down:
"I don’t think I can start this editorial letter without acknowledging that my editorial eyes are white. I’m acutely conscious that I’m editing a story written by a Black woman about Black people, and there might be moments—despite my best efforts to listen and educate myself—where I get something wrong because of that. If that happens, please know that you have the space to push back and let me know."
I have been fortunate in my writing career to have some great editors for my work and in most cases, they have all been white. And for any of you who have ever read my writing, you know my stories generally involve Black, southern, rural characters. So, I always have a bit of trepidation when I surrender my work to an editor because often they don’t share the same region or ethnicity as my characters, and because of that fact, I prepare myself to be offended or worse, put in a position where I have to defend my artistic choices, which aren’t really choices, but are more like obligations I owe to the ancestors to get their stories down correctly and with the utmost respect.
Therefore, when I received that note from Kimberly, I breathed a sigh of relief. In a way, I looked at my characters and said to them, “We don’t have to fight today. She gets it.” And what I mean by that is I could be myself and my characters could be themselves. They could split infinitives and use colloquialisms and not feel judged. They could be domestic workers and sharecroppers by day, and complex, loving souls at night without worrying about the white gaze reacting in a condescending manner towards them. They could follow the traditions of their ancestral religions and Christianity and not be judged harshly for the amalgamation of those multiple, spiritual beliefs. They could celebrate births and deaths with loud screams and shouts, and no one would call them out on it.
That is a huge deal for a writer in general, but it is a mind-blowing deal for Black writers or writers of color. We are used to writing our stories and then defending them like someone in a court of law because often times there is no one in the room who truly “gets” them. We struggle to make everything “clear” to the point of sometimes sacrificing the story for an overabundance of telling, not showing.
A survey by Lee and Low found that “in the [publishing] industry overall, 76% of employees are white, 74% are cis women, 81% are straight, and 89% are non-disabled. At the executive level, 78% are white, 60% are cis women, 82% are straight, and 90% are non-disabled” (Maher). This explains why it is so difficult for those of us who are considered “outside the canon” to find homes for our work.
For the writer who is The Other, it is often difficult getting one’s foot into the door, but then once you make it on the other side, it becomes even more complicated because so often editors will want to “sanitize” the work or make the work have more of a crossover appeal. In the 1991 Robert Townsend movie, The Five Heartbeats, one of the characters, Eddie King, said something that stuck with me all of these years later when it came to “crossing over” with our music or in my case, my writing. King said, “Cross-over ain’t nothing but a double-cross. Once we lose our audience, we’ll never get them back. Next thing you know, they will try to change our sound.”
More than being published, I have always been most concerned with being authentic to the stories I told, and the people I imagined were my readers. Granted, I want as many people as possible to read my work, but I specifically care what readers who come from my background think. I want them to read my upcoming novel, When Stars Rain Down, and say to themselves, “That’s my Big Mama. Or that’s my Cousin. Or that’s me.” I want those readers to feel a kinship to the imaginary characters I’ve created, so for them, I am always willing to fight for every word, every phrase, every symbol that reflects Black, southern, rural culture.
Therefore, you cannot imagine how excited I was to receive that message from Kimberly. It’s never about the ethnicity of the editor for me (or their gender, sexuality, etc.), it’s always about “Will they listen to me? Will they recognize that I am the authority in this world?” Once that happens, I am always open to the fine-tuning that I am asked to do. When I know I am not going to hear, “Does she REALLY have to speak in broken English?” OR “Is this really something a Black person would say or do?” I then have the freedom to allow my characters to soar unapologetically, and for me, that is all that matters.
Maher, John. “New Lee and Low Survey Shows no Progress on Diversity in Publishing.”
Publisher’s Weekly. 29 January 2020.