We Rise Together: Resisting White Institutional Culture In Publishing

Had coffee with Saeed today and we were talking about how, as people of color, we are socialized to feel gratitude to even have a seat at the table in the publishing industry, and how silencing that discomfort can be, the challenges of knowing how and when to push, how to gain and maintain a strong footing and sense of self while navigating the swamps of the literary world.

Then I went home and looked over a contract, noticing how every part of me just wanted to say IT’S FINE IT’S FINE WHATEVER YOU GOT FOR ME IS FINE because I’m still just so happy to be paid for writing something, aghast at what that is and even though I know I’ve earned it and I know it’s my path, there’s always that voice trying to barge its way in saying Stay In Line, Be Careful How You Come Across, Don’t Ask For Too Much because it’s fragile, the weird world of publishing, the undefined, overdefined, never full outlined beast called Success.

And so WTF is success right? I prefer the term Victory because that’s what it feels like when shit comes together, but Success is the word we hear most after the word Literary, and what we believe to be Success and Not Success matters. It matters a whole lot and what we’re never taught to do, not in MFA programs, not in stupid on line how to be a writer troll ass blog posts, not damn anywhere except maybe if you go to VONA – is that we have to , HAVE TO as in it’s a matter of survival, have to deconstruct the fucked up, narrow version of Success that we’re spoon fed and create for ourselves a new understanding of what that means. Each of us has to do this, and we have to do this as a community.

Part of the problem is that the literary world is still very much caught up in the mores of White Institutional Culture. This is in part because it’s an industry overwhelmingly run by actual white people, but on a deeper level has to do with the fact that that culture has never been fully challenged or taken apart and put back together with an updated, anti-racist, global, historical, non-linear, non-self delusional, feminist analysis. That hasn’t happened, so we default, and in the US the default is always Straight White Patriarchal Cisnormative Institutional Culture.

This means that our concept of “Making It” is predicated on that particular, ruggedly individual, patriarchal idea of The Breakout Novelist. It’s a model that isn’t rooted in community, isn’t rooted in humanity, is all about the dollar bills and trite, unhealthy, viral sense of Make Or Break explosiveness that usually makes human shells out of people when it doesn’t all out kill them. It values your “edginess,” your proximity to whiteness, your ability to toe the line while shaking things up just enough to make things exciting and make money. It does not value your humanity, your voice, your compassion or your roots.

Saeed was talking about how important his mentors had been along the way, how amazing and generous folks had been with their time and wisdom and friendship. I’ve had the same abundance of blessings, people who have dropped out of the sky like fucking angels and guided my steps, and there’s no formula no math no simplified exchange that can express the power of that connection and the way it extends beyond the two people involved into the lives of the larger community. Because once I’ve been lifted up, once a writer I admire has wrapped their wings around me, i rise in the model of their compassion, I see the writers around me as my brothers and sisters not my competitors and we rise together.

At VONA Junot told us that whenever we’re around other writers, the ONLY thing we should be doing is building community. Not trying to find fans, not “networking” and that is the realest shit there is. Community is what will have us back during the trolling and whitewashed covers and rejections based on cultural norms and feeling like we’re crazy and rooms full of unwelcoming faces and majority white MFA programs.

This is the way that folks of color, trans* folks, LGBTQ, disabled folks, human beings on the margins of society have survived and thrived for centuries. This is in our blood, not being sudden tokens, shining singular success stories that “rise above” and “make it out.” That’s a narrative of individualism, and yes the world will often rewrite our victories to look like that, but what will always sustain us is fellowship, community.

It’s time for a new language of what it means to be victorious in our storytelling.












7 Replies to “We Rise Together: Resisting White Institutional Culture In Publishing”

  1. Very thought-provoking post, Daniel. I think my experience is a little different because I am so isolated. I am self-published, so I define what is acceptable in the bubble of my own passion, taste and circumstances. I, of course, have an editor and people I trust to read my work with a critical eye, but in the end, I make the final calls on everything. I have only one writer’s group that I interact with, but besides that, I have very little interaction with others in this field. I only start to hear things like “black people don’t read science fiction”, “white people don’t read books by black authors” or “to make it, you HAVE to do this” when I step out of that bubble. Honestly, I don’t find the messages from either side of the aisle helpful on most days. I have too much fear on my own to absorb the hate, desperation or ignorance of others. I think as authors of color, our biggest challenge is to remember that we are limitless. Our race, our ethnicity, or culture are our foundations, the lens through which we see and understand the world. They do not limit, contain or determine where we point our lens or what we create to express our experience. We can do as we have always done, whatever the hell we want. That is our true legacy and our only calling, as people of color, members of the community and children of God.

  2. A few years ago I decided to take a creative writing course offered by a local university, thinking that if nothing else, I’d hopefully find other writers that I could form a community with.

    I was the only Black person/person of colour in that class. I was told “the Black thing is really interesting” (direct quote from the instructor) but also that I needed “to explain things to White people like us” (this was in response to them not knowing what “Jodeci” was and not bothering to ask Google – as I would do whenever I read something I didn’t understand in their work). I didn’t actually get the community nor the constructive feedback I was looking for – they were too distracted by this “other” culture they didn’t get.

    Just yesterday I was having a conversation about how we are always too damn happy JUST to be there (in any job situation). It is so tiring.

    I really felt this post.

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