Widening the Path: The Importance of Publishing Black Writers

by
Elizabeth Nunez
12.14.16

I am struggling to keep up my spirits. Upon receiving a writers award in 2011, in my acceptance speech I quoted Patricia Hampl: “In a way, a writer has to want to be famous, has to want that because it’s the only way to say you want to do the best work possible. If there isn’t a reader on the end, it is rather solipsistic, the whole relationship with art or words.” So there’s the rub: How to get motivated to do one’s best work if one is often ignored by the gatekeepers of awards and reviews, not to mention the big publishers?

I think of a painter I met at Yaddo. Every morning he came to breakfast looking disheveled and haggard. “I can’t let myself get discouraged,” he said. “I have to delve down deep and motivate myself, even if the galleries don’t want me.” I bought one of his paintings at a price I could ill afford, as much for his sake as for mine. It hangs in my living room as a reminder that I must push myself to do my best work even if my work does not get the attention I believe it deserves. I am a midlist writer of literary fiction, and while I am the first to admit that white writers of literary fiction face an uphill battle, the challenge for black writers of literary fiction to get their novels published and promoted is many times more daunting.

***

It is 1983. I am chairperson of the Humanities Division at Medgar Evers College, the City University of New York, in Brooklyn, where I teach. With some of my colleagues, I have been toying with the idea of organizing a writers conference. It is the best I can do to get close to my dream of becoming a published writer, a dream I can date back to when I was seven years old and persuaded my father to submit a story I had written to a contest in the local newspaper. My story won, yet growing up in colonial Trinidad, it didn’t seem possible that I could become a published author. One needs role models, after all, some examples of the possibilities out there, and there was no published author I knew who looked like me or shared my background. So I pursued my dream vicariously. I devoured books, earned BA, MA, and PhD degrees in literature, taught literature, and published literary criticism in scholarly journals. Then John Oliver Killens walks into my life, having been assigned to my department as writer-in-residence. John comes with a following of hopeful writers who have attended his workshops for years, among them Terry McMillan and Arthur Flowers. I show John my scribblings. “You are a writer,” he says. I need no more encouragement. I take a year off from work and join the creative writing workshops he conducts every Saturday at the college.

John wants to increase the number of published black writers. He believes that it is the black writer who can best give hope to the black community. He cites the importance of writers like James Baldwin and Richard Wright, whose stories of the injustices inflicted on African Americans stirred the nation’s conscience and were influential in ushering in the reforms of the civil rights movement. He charges me to organize a conference around the theme of the responsibility of the black writer to the community. I balk slightly, for I believe that the writer should not be constrained by any social or political obligation. The story, I believe, will reveal the theme. “The play’s the thing,” Hamlet muses, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” Nonetheless, I see his idea as an opportunity, and decide to take on my department’s long-stalled project to bring black writers together for a conversation on the state of publishing for black writers. I submit a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and we are awarded five thousand dollars more than we had asked for.

After three years of hard work, the inaugural conference is held in Brooklyn in 1986 (the same year that, dream of dreams, my first novel, When Rocks Dance, is published by Putnam). Believing that the tide may be turning for black writers, we boldly name the group the National Black Writers Conference. Maya Angelou consents to be the first keynote speaker. John dies before the second conference, but we march on, bringing in other luminaries—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Derek Walcott, Stanley Crouch, Ishmael Reed, Paule Marshall, Arnold Rampersad, among many more—and attracting an audience of close to two thousand. The NEH continues to fund us, five times in all; the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Reed Foundation are enthusiastic supporters and Gwendolyn Brooks sends us a generous check. We are giddy with optimism. We expand beyond our Brooklyn locations to include Manhattan, and for the subsequent conferences we are so overcrowded that we have to turn away people at the Schomburg Center and the Public Theater.

When Alice Walker—author of The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and was later adapted into a highly successful movie directed by Steven Spielberg—speaks at our conference, we need overflow rooms. Then comes Terry McMillan’s blockbuster novel Waiting to Exhale, followed by the moneymaking film adaptation directed by Forest Whitaker. In 1996, we triumphantly title the conference “Black Literature in the ’90s: A Renaissance to End All Renaissances?” a reference to the heyday of black literary arts in the 1920s, and its rebirth in the 1960s, which produced greats like Lorraine Hansberry and Zora Neale Hurston, respectively. It has been ten years since the first conference, and we are on a roll. We are unstoppable. The New York Times gives us a front-page article in its arts section. Henry Louis Gates  Jr. calls to congratulate me and share our optimism that publishing houses are now sitting up and realizing that there are big audiences for stories written by black writers about the lives of black characters.

But despite all of these successes, part of me is wary. Some of my distrust is based on my personal story. It has also been ten years since my first novel was published, and I cannot get my second, Beyond the Limbo Silence, published. Unlike my first book, it is not set in the Caribbean, but in Wisconsin, in the 1960s, and traces the growing awareness of a young Caribbean immigrant girl to the pervasiveness of racial discrimination in America. “It spooked me,” my editor says. A novel set in the Caribbean about Caribbean people would be more successful, she advises.

I put my second novel aside and begin to work on a third, Bruised Hibiscus, this one set again in the Caribbean, which my agent sells quickly to Amistad. “It’s your breakthrough novel,” my new editor says, and perhaps it would have been had Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, not found itself caught in legal troubles between its publisher and the main house. In a struggle for control, a number of contracted books including my own are used as a bargaining chip and get stuck in publishing limbo. It takes five years and an Authors Guild lawyer to extricate myself from my contract with Amistad, but eventually Seal, a small women’s press, enthusiastically agrees to publish both my second and third novels.

My difficulties notwithstanding, books by black writers are doing well, and it seems that the renaissance has indeed come for black writers. Clones of Terry McMillan’s romantic novels mushroom after her third novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, stays on the best-seller list for weeks and is made into a successful movie. I invite E. Lynn Harris to the conference and he generously declines my offer of an honorarium, hires his own limousine, and purchases a first-class airline ticket. The glory days have arrived! Publishers are aggressively seeking out novels by black writers, and it is not unheard of for a black writer to get a two-book, even a three-book contract from a major publishing house. But look closely: Most of these publishers have a special imprint where they corral the novels of black writers. Bookstores follow suit, shelving fiction by black writers in a separate section. Even scholarship by black writers, whether or not the topics relate to the black experience—say, a treatise on Milton—is presented and marketed differently. Segregation, it seems, is alive and well in the publishing industry.

And what sort of books do these publishers want? What assumptions have these editors made about the intellectual ability of the readers, who they presume would be black?

In 2002 Ballantine buys my fourth novel, Discretion, but I am to be published under its One World imprint, which I quickly realize is designated for writers of color. One World indeed! Still, I am happy. After all, I am going to be published by a major publishing house again. Then the jacket for the book arrives. On the cover is a black girl with dreadlocks gazing woefully into the far distance. What does this cover have to do with my novel, which explores the conflict between our personal desires and the public good? My editor gives me this answer: Let them think this is another girlfriend book and see how they respond to the challenge of reading literary fiction. I am doubly offended, for myself and for readers of novels by black writers. But I understand what she means; I understand that it is her way of letting me know the publisher’s expectations of the literary tastes of black readers.

My editor soon loses her job, but happily not before giving me a contract for my next two books. I have already written Grace, my fifth novel, and have begun Prospero’s Daughter, a novel inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. When the galley for Prospero’s Daughter is produced, in 2006, I am informed that the finished book is to be removed from the One World imprint and published by the main house, simply under the Ballantine name. I am embarrassed, not knowing whether to be pleased or dismayed. It dawns on me that fiction by black writers has been considered a genre unto itself with no distinction made between plot-driven fiction and literary fiction. Should I rejoice that Prospero’s Daughter has been pulled out of that bag? The novel does not fare well in spite of a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review and an incredible audio recording by a British actor for the BBC.

Prospero’s Daughter will be my last novel to be published by a major press. I will write three more novels and a memoir, all published by the remarkable independent press Akashic Books, whose publisher, Johnny Temple, has my undying admiration.

Many black writers have not been as fortunate. It was not a renaissance after all, that booming interest in books by black writers in the 1990s. It was a passing fad, like last season’s fashionable style in clothes, replaceable when publishers, their eyes on the exotic, “discover” an untapped ethnic group among writers of color.

***

I began this essay by acknowledging that white writers of literary fiction also face daunting prospects of being published and promoted, but they belong to a club where almost all the members look like them. Recently I attended a literary gathering where the room was packed with publishers, writers, editors, agents, publicists, book reviewers, distributors, and booksellers, yet I needed only one hand to count the black people there. At another event, where the organizers had clearly made an earnest attempt to diversify the audience, I huddled with ten or so black writers, all of us sadly noting that we were the same group recycled from other literary celebrations.

What chance then does a writer of color have when the publishing industry is a white industry, when choices are likely to be made based on the staff’s comfort and familiarity with the worlds in those books, when, for literary fiction to reach a wide audience, the writer must be anointed by a white critic or white writer? It may be convenient to say that one feels more comfortable with others of one’s own racial or ethnic group and so is more likely to make choices about books that reflect one’s world—i.e., the white world—but this way of seeing negatively impacts black writers. And I don’t accept the canard that publishers are simply responding to the market, claiming that people of color do not buy books. Indeed, according to recent findings by the Pew Research Center, in the United States a college-educated black woman is the most likely person to read a book in any format.

I count myself fortunate that I grew up in Trinidad, albeit colonial Trinidad, though to a great degree my education was stunted. I was taught nothing about the history of black people, nothing about the British involvement in slavery. I was exposed solely to British literature, required to memorize long swaths of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Wordsworth. As a teenager, I immersed myself in the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot, finding characters with whom I could identify and whose values I shared. When these writers spoke of “we” I never for a second thought I was not included, certain that I was part of the human family, just as they were. By the time I learned about the horrors of slavery and the inhumane injustice of racial segregation, I had already ingested the notion that there were good human beings and evil human beings, regardless of their skin color. I could choose my heroes from among white characters as well as from among black characters; I could aim to emulate values based on the actions of people regardless of their racial and ethnic backgrounds.

John Killens urged black writers to write novels that would provide black readers with stories that would assert and strengthen their pride in their identity, but the white community would also be well served by books by black writers that reflect the black experience. In spite of the gains in desegregation laws, Americans continue to live in communities separated by race, and young people are educated in schools where the racial imbalance is alarming. How then do white communities encounter the black experience?

Sure, things are improving. It is no longer an essential requirement for female TV anchors to be blond; commercials today are peppered with black characters; and just when I had been considering canceling my subscription to the New Yorker, I noticed there were more frequent photographs of black people and stories that went beyond the sad tales of black impoverishment. But this is not enough. Indeed, not a single black writer was mentioned in a recent New Yorker article that, marking the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, highlighted novels published in 2016 that reimagined Shakespearean plays—even though my own, Even in Paradise, a novel inspired by King Lear, was published by Akashic Books in the same year.

The publishing industry must change if we are to have a safer world, and that change must begin with the gatekeepers in the industry—those who determine which books will be published and which will be promoted. In his remarkable book Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), Ta-Nehisi Coates blames the legacy of America’s history for endowing police departments with “the authority to destroy” the black body. Literary novels by black writers offer white America the opportunity to revisit that history through the lens of black characters, to see the self through the eyes of the Other, to recognize and acknowledge our common humanity and so defuse the possibility of more violence, widening the path to a more humane world through the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic pleasures of the written word.

But there is more. There is the danger that when black writers of literary fiction are confronted by an impassable wall in the publishing industry, they could lose confidence. Worse still, they could stop writing. Fortunately, many black writers remain undaunted, buoyed by the growing number of independent publishers who actively seek and promote books by black writers. As their work expands, so will the path toward a better world.

 

Elizabeth Nunez is the author of nine novels and a memoir, Not for Everyday Use, which won the 2015 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for nonfiction. Her novel Anna In-Between won the pen Oakland Josephine Miles Award. Her new novel, Even in Paradise, inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear, was published in April 2016 by Akashic Books. Nunez is a distinguished professor at Hunter College in New York City, where she teaches fiction writing.