by
Syreeta McFadden
From the November/December 2014 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

As a child I didn’t have a vocabulary for what I felt was an erasure of the American life I knew beyond my schoolbooks. I could only say that I was hungry for more than what I was reading, so from time to time I found myself in my grandmother’s bedroom, sitting in her reclining chair reading and rereading Black Voices, edited by Abraham Chapman and published by New American Library in 1968, the only anthology featuring African American writers that I knew existed. The writers in that collection became a kind of compass—or perhaps a trail of bread crumbs leading toward an inclusive body of powerful voices in American letters that were not all white and male. Anthologies can be excellent introductions to new voices in literature: The Best American Series, the O. Henry Prize Stories, and others regularly assemble robust collections of contemporary American fiction. Yet a reader can often count on one hand the writers of color—and specifically women writers of color—included within those pages.

In response to this deficit comes All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color, a new anthology edited by Rochelle Spencer and Jina Ortiz and published this month by University of Wisconsin Press. Spencer and Ortiz, both writers themselves, hope to address not just the lack of writing by women of color in the contemporary canon, but also the problem of representation—that is, the tendency to publish or teach a single story by an established writer of color in an attempt to represent an entire population. The idea for the anthology first emerged when Spencer, a writing instructor at Spelman College in Atlanta, heard a student complain that “all black women writers write the same story.” In the anthology’s forward, Spencer writes, “My student’s attitude wasn’t unique; many of her classmates felt the same way: They truly believed that there really was one black experience or one woman experience worth writing about, for in their high schools, that was all they had been taught. Despite being female and of color themselves, they had rarely been exposed to multicultural writing by women authors.”

Thus the twenty-seven stories gathered in All About Skin resist a singular narrative, offering a broad range of voices—featuring work by writers of African, Asian, Native American, Latina, Caribbean, and mixed-race backgrounds—and stories that explore themes both universal and specific to identity and experience. Joshunda Sanders’s “Sirens” tells the story of a young girl reckoning with everyday violence and a disintegrating relationship with her mother while yearning to escape her tiny Bronx apartment; Ivelisse Rodriguez’s “A Different Story” follows a group of young Puerto Rican girls as they struggle to understand the complexities of love; and the anthology’s title story, by Xu Xi, examines attitudes surrounding beauty and immigration.

Some stories in the collection take direct aim at the educational system and its relationship with diversity. “Lady Chatterley’s Mansion” by Unoma Azuah, for example, follows a character who is accepted to an “elite MFA program,” but lack of student housing leads to a gothic Afro-futurist unfolding. Metta Sama’s “Lillian Is an Ordinary Child,” meanwhile, offers an innovative critique of policy decisions in public education, told through the wildly unique voice of an eleven-year-old girl.

Spencer and Ortiz hope that their collection will not only offer exposure to women writers of color, but also inspire and sustain a greater discourse among readers, educators, and publishers about the role of those writers in contemporary literature. “Chinelo Okparanta, Patricia Engel, ZZ Packer, Xu Xi, and many of the other women featured in the anthology are masters of the short form,” says Spencer. “I think the anthology will show that the work of these women writers of color is diverse and challenging and grows out of a particular, often neglected, perspective—even when it isn’t necessarily focusing on ethnicity or gender.”

Syreeta McFadden is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn, New York. She is the managing editor of Union Station and a cocurator of Poets in Unexpected Places.