In 2012, I had the opportunity to participate in the Callaloo writing workshop at Brown University. As part of that, I had the opportunity to read from my then new novel Oh Gad! They’ve recently posted that reading to YouTube. Here it is:
The Rachel Renee Russell Writers Digest (January 2015) interview that prompted this post is actually not available online; though you can find outtakes and insights from that interview on the WD website. I wanted to speak a little bit on a couple of things that jumped out at me just now from reading the interview.
Like this exchange about the publishing industry and writers of colour.
Q. Do you feel that minorities as a whole are underserved by the publishing industry?
A. Oh, most definitely! There’s always the fear that [a book with] an African American character is not going to sell as well, or is not going to be well-received by readers or the book-buying population. I can understand that, but I think some of it is created by the publishing industry.
There was a bookstore – I think it was Borders – that would file all of the African American books together in one section. If the books were non-fiction, I could see where it would make sense, because you do have African American history. But [they] put all of the African American books in the same section for fiction – which would not be such a problem for an adult author. But if you’re a children’s author, more than likely the children are going to be hanging out in the children’s section [where your books aren’t shelved]…
Then you have to worry about publishers thinking that your book is not going to sell to anyone but black people – and of course you want to sell to everybody. You want your book to be embraced by everybody in the world. As an African American author, there are challenges.”
As an African Caribbean author there are similar challenges so this jumped out at me. Of course, I’ve written across the spectrum – children’s, teen/young adult, adult – I don’t think black adult writers have it easier than children’s writers, and I guess I don’t quite understand why books can’t be filed according to demographics and according to genre – like, why is it either/or. But maybe there are just too many books in the world and though Oh Gad! for instance may appeal to readers who favour women’s fiction, or readers who favour adult dramatic fiction, or readers looking for black fiction, or readers interested in Caribbean or world fiction, it can only sit in one category never to be found by those strolling the other aisles. Assuming it makes it into the bookshop at all. Like I said there are a lot of books. I have to admit though I think a Musical Youth for instance could move more units if filed in the teen/young adult section, not only the black book or Caribbean books section. There’s a teen of whatever race who won’t wander over the black books section who might be able to relate to it, and it frustrates me a teensie bit that they might never find it. So anyway I get what she’s saying.
She also had an interesting comment about writing a character of another race as she does in her Dork series – “when Nikki popped into my head, she was a white girl. I don’t know why, but she just was…” This, I have to admit this is something I’ve struggled with. Not with Aeden in Oh Gad! though he is neither black nor is he from the same Antigua I’m from if we take certain class distinctions into account. But I never felt like I didn’t know him – even with him being a him (at least not once he corrected me about his name). But there’s a long-in-gestation work-in-progress with a caucasion character with whom the struggle is very real; I don’t want to hover on the surface of her so I’m working to get into her skin, to understand her though we are of different races, nationalities, ages, cultures…so many miles between us and yet she is insistent that she is a part of this story that I’m struggling to tell for reasons that have only partially to do with her, and of which she is only one part, but a significant one. I’m not resisting her, I like the challenge, and I also like that parts of her feel familiar. Then there’s the story I recently submitted somewhere where the man’s voice, though he’s black, is so different from the familiar Caribbean cadence all around me, to the point that before hitting send I worried that I would be perceived as both imposer and imposter, but after several go-arounds with him, I had to acknowledge that it was as surely his voice as if he was standing in front of me speaking to me. Point is when characters come, as much as I embrace writing my world, and through programmes like Wadadli Pen, encourage young Antiguan and Barbudan writers to do the same rather than defaulting to stories about the people and things we’ve been conditioned to believe stories are about, when characters seemingly out of step with the world we know or the world as we think we know it show up, as long as they’re true and themselves, a writer can’t help but listen to and try to understand them.
Finally, an interesting insight about her process; when writing, she can’t get more than a chapter ahead of the illustrations – as in she can’t write the whole thing and then say to the illustrator, okay, now, draw. The images help to inspire the telling. That was interesting to me and a reminder that every writer has her/his process and you have to do what works for you.
In the movie Friends with Money, the Frances McDormand character was quite unlikeable…everyone in the movie thought so, every critic I read said so…and yet …her frustration at the person jumping the line, been there. But her calling out rude people for being rude (admittedly with great and increasing stridency) had friends and critics alike trotting out the C-word…no not that one, the one likely to have you prescribed mood altering medications…preferably by a professional.
From Fatal Attraction to Gone Girl to just about every episode of Snapped, there’s a part of us, if we’re honest, that …hopes we’d make better choices…but, on some level, understands…not the actions (poor bunny) but the emotions. Doubt it? Think back to every gripe session with your girlfriends. Now, yes, it’s a helluva leap from frustrated to homicidal (seriously, don’t make that leap) but feeling shafted, feeling betrayed, feeling frustrated, being messy as bleep, who can’t relate to that? It’s okay, you don’t have to admit it …don’t cry out loud.
Many reviewers of Oh Gad! even or perhaps especially the ones who like the book call out main character Nikki for her messiness. She’s emotionally distant; she carries grudges from childhood against one parent who is dead, and another parent who has moved on; she breaks up with a lover she doesn’t love enough, using his infidelity as a loophole instead of owning up to her part in the break-up; she falls for someone any sensible woman could have seen for what he was – or so several readers have said after the fact, and no I’m not about to call them on hindsight being 20/20 because we don’t know anyone out here loving the wrong man or maybe just the fact that he gives good love … nah that’s only in fiction (and really great love songs); she gripes and moans about her misfortunes, a contrast to her blunter (brutally blunt) sister who just gets on with it, because, really, life didn’t promise it’d be fair or smooth.
Nikki is also someone though who grew up feeling emotionally isolated because her father was distant and her mother was miles away on an island in the Caribbean – and I’ve conversed with enough daughters who have been shipped off for a better life to know that the reasons might be noble, a better life and what not, to know that often, to the child it still feels like abandonment. And I know women older than Nikki who still haven’t gotten over it.
I watch her struggle to let people in and, sure, she frustrates me but I also know that trust can be a fragile thing…and that this business of who we love and why can be complicated (and often without discernable rhyme or reason)…and that sometimes we don’t know the real deal when we see it. To be messy is human.
I say this to say that I understand Nikki, and Selena (yeah, she’s in line for a smacking by many a reader-account, too), in the way that I do some of those other unlikeable women in fiction. Maybe like many a reader I want to smack them but I sometimes want to smack myself too and I think if more people were honest with themselves, their frustrations at the self-sabotaging behavior they see in the less-than-perfect woman walking around in their skin – her bad choices in love, her failure to let go of things etc etc – we might admit that part of the frustration characters like Nikki, Selena, and other unlikeable women inspire is just a wee bit of projection. Just a wee bit?
Okay, maybe, maybe not (you know you best)…maybe this is just the defense of Nikki I promised I’d never write. Yeah, tell yourself this is just about another movie/book where the psycho bitch trope had your skin itching, Joanne. I’m messy enough (and honest about my messiness) to admit that my reasons might be complicated though.
And I say where is it written that women have to be good girls all the time – never admitting their neuroses, never acknowledging their fears and failures, never stumbling over nothing but their own bad decisions, never giving rein to their anger or frustration or feelings of betrayal, never giving themselves the luxury of being human? Where is it written that only men get to be messy in life and in fiction?
…the neck bone’s connected to the back bone and the back bone’s connected to the …
Figuring out how this moment connects to that is not always that easy though in the world of writing and publishing. As I prepare for my fourth day here in Anguilla – as a guest of the Anguilla Lit Fest – some connections are clear. I know the invitation to be here came through the publicist at Strebor/Atria/Simon & Schuster, publishers of my book Oh Gad! and that thanks to that I was billed here as a first time novelist – a quirk of publishing I had to explain to the audience of my first panel who were like wait our kids have been reading your earlier book The Boy from Willow Bend for a while. And it’s Willow Bend, marketed when first published just over 10 years ago as a teen/young adult novella, not the full length adult novel that is Oh Gad! making the latter my debut in that category, that has me thinking this early morning about connections. The chair of my panel recollected reading about Willow Bend on the LIAT inflight magazine and how from that awareness sprung interest in bringing the book into schools in Anguilla and how from that interest the book is now part of the secondary schools’ syllabus, required reading for first formers, and how from that requirement came a genuine response to the book by students and, according to one teacher,
boy students in particular, boys who had to have their arms twisted to read in the past who were now finishing the book before the start of the school year, and evidence of that genuine response in the young people gathered for my panel, asking me questions about the novel – e.g. how do you explain the bond between characters June and Vere for instance after the boy realized she was his aunt? – and from that genuine response an autograph (and selfie) line where in lieu of their books they asked me to sign slips of paper that they could stick in the books because… I can hardly process it all, all these connections. Meeting these young ones (first during a presentation earlier at the public library and earlier today (yesterday?) during my first of two panels here) has been a highlight of my participation in the Anguilla Lit Fest, which this year has also attracted the participation of the likes of Zane, Elizabeth Nunez, Benilde Little and a number of others including…me, because, connections.
The night of my panel, there was a reception and soca music dance party during which I was approached by a mother, her daughter, and her daughter’s friend who, the previous night, had won the island’s spelling bee, I was informed. Both girls informed me that they were not only avid readers – one read about a book a day, the other had read both The Boy from Willow Bend and Musical Youth and wasn’t shy about sharing her favourite and why – but also novelists…not budding novelists, novelists. They’d both written books…and someday, if they keep on that track, we may be seeing those books in print someday and maybe more books from them. Go, girls! Did I mention one of the boys in the audience of the earlier panel mentioned that he was seven chapters into writing and sharing his own book on WattPad? As getting young people to read and write is a big part of what I try to encourage at home in Antigua and Barbuda, especially through my involvement in the Cushion Club reading club for kids and the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize and its annual writing challenge, and professionally through the workshops I offer and other programmes like the Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project, this filled my heart.
When asked during a TV interview that night about how the government can support a literary culture, part of what I said was about continuing on that track – exposing young people to books that make them want to read, encouraging them to write, giving writers a platform to share their work and learn from each other, giving these young people opportunities to move among living, breathing authors from their world and beyond, and tangibly supporting the arts so that artistes can thrive.
The light in these young people’s eyes, their articulate presentation of their ideas, the fact that they have a perspective, are a reminder to me why it matters to back up our support for the literary arts in these and other ways.
…because the neck bone’s connected to the back bone, and the back bone’s connected to the…
There are pieces of paper stuffed in the holes. 12 of them, four to a row. At first it’s the paper that fascinates. The very idea of it. No one had seen paper since the last of the trees was uprooted for timber, 30 or so years ago. She’d been a little girl then, and her Tanty had still been alive. That’s how she knew what the thing with the holes was, a coal pot, for cooking, though only rarely used for cooking by then. At picnics and on Fridays when her Tanty turned cornmeal for the fungee. It nearly knocked her down, this vision, memory, of Tanty bent over the coal pot, bathed in sweat, rump doing a circular dance, like a wine, to a soca beat, as she ground the grains of corn meal into something at once soft and solid. She hadn’t had fungee since Tanty’s death but she could taste it now, the savouriness of it, the sliminess of the okroe mixed in, because fungee wasn’t fungee without okroe and though she detested okroe, she loved her Tanty’s fungee. She always told herself she had time to learn it; it was a fancy more than anything as she wasn’t much for cooking, even then, before cooking became obsolete and everything became pre-packaged and tasteless, and functional, like food wasn’t meant to be. The coal pot was at the old house, tucked under it with the electric typewriter, the blue water tank, and other useless things. The land was being reclaimed now that Future Tech had perfected the art of personal breathers allowing what was left of humanity to leave the domed living spaces sour with recycled air and make a go of recolonizing the earth. Nothing was as it had been, but her feet still took her home to the peach house, where improbably aloe and bougainvillea, and the Century plant her Tanty’s grandmother had planted when they’d first moved into the house on the hill, bloomed. There were no more trees, and, as such no more oxygen, but there were these plants defying everything and insisting on life. And there was the coal pot, under the house, with bits of paper stuffed into the holes where the pot would sit soaking up the heat from the coals below. The clay of the coal pot was cool to her touch, and at the touch of it, feelings surged up inside of her; tears, a lump, memories. Tanty, gone. When she pulled out the first of the papers, it was instinctive, a way of distracting herself from feelings she didn’t know what to do with, and then at the sight of what was written, the feelings pushed against her shaky resolve anyway. Tanty’s handwriting.
“Bring the slimy, okra water to a boil before adding the corn meal”
If the others in her scouting team thought it odd, the sight of her crying over a cracked coal pot and a badly scribbled note on scrap paper, they had the good sense to look away as they continued foraging among the remains.
For today’s writing exercise, I decided for the first time to try one of these blog prompts; this one specifically:From the Collection of the Artist This is what became of that experiment.
So here I am in April 2012 at the midnight launch of Oh Gad! at the Best of Books.
Ever grateful that the book continues to find new readers.