There's a movement happening right now on social Media. Thanks to a group of dedicated and driven authors and bloggers, the book world is fired up with the need for diverse books.
You can follow the #WeNeedDiverseBook account HERE
I can't even tell you how much this issue excites me. I'm not a writer of color (obviously), but I spent most of my (other) professional life reading and teaching and writing about writers of color. Writers like Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, Amiri Baraka, Octavia Butler, Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, Charles Chesnutt... the list goes on and on and on. These are the authors that made me fall in love with Literature (with the big L). These are the authors that continued to fuel my love of the written word. For more than 10 years, these were the authors that were the focus of my literary world.
I didn't really start reading genre/commercial fiction in any real way until I was done with my Ph.D. and needed a break from unhappy endings. I dove in, head first, devouring romance, YA, and Kidlit like I'd never done before. And here's the thing--even though I'd just spent an entire decade focusing most of my energy on writers of color, when I started reading more "commercial" fiction, I didn't even notice that I stopped seeking out books by writers of color. Segregation of literature (just look at any college course catalog) is bad enough in academia. In the bookstores, it's basically an epidemic. And, at first, I didn't even notice what I was doing.
It's so easy to ride on the tide of hegemony. It's so easy to just take what's offered, when what's offered looks just like you.
Let me be honest--when I sat down to write SWEET UNREST, I didn't explicitly have in mind the idea to write a book with a diverse cast. I had this idea that stemmed from ghosts that showed up in photographs. But once I decided that I wanted to tackle Voodoo, when I realized that to do that, the novel had to be set in New Orleans, I also realized that this could not be a white-washed book. I didn't want a side-show version of Voodoo. I wanted to take it seriously as a legitimate form of spirituality and understanding the world. So I dug into the ethnographies written by Zora Neale Hurston and others, and I tried to build a world based on a system of belief that was rooted in what was real as well as what was magical.
Once I knew the book would be set in and around New Orleans, I knew my cast could not be predominantly white. And once I knew I had to set the book in New Orleans, I knew that it had to--in some way--be about race. Perhaps nowhere in the country was--and is--race such a foundational part of the history and culture. In the 1800s, free men and women of color had freedoms that didn't exist in other states and restrictions that certainly did. Even as late as Katrina in 2005, New Orleans exposed the continuing struggle America faces in dealing with race and difference in a stark, devastating way.
Let me tell you, nothing I've ever written before was scarier than writing that book. I was--and continue to be--ridiculously nervous that I got it wrong. That I made the wrong choices about how to handle the story. That I misrepresented. That I shouldn't have gone so far from what was safe. That I should have gone farther. That I shouldn't be writing the story at all when I'm not of color, not of the South. It continues to make my stomach turn on a daily basis--and probably will for a while--because I so wanted to get things right. To write real, living, breathing, and complex characters who could reveal to readers some truth about the horrors and dangers that come from seeing skin color as some sort of marker of worth.
Did I get it right? Probably not.
Should I have written it? I hope so. Because I hope, mistakes and all, the book does more good than harm. I hope that readers will take Lucy, Alex, and Armantine's story and do important work with it--even if that work is to just critique it. Even if that work is just to start talking about what I got wrong and how we can all do better.
Today, there's a movement starting. I'm hoping that it's a movement that continues. Because one way or another, I'm going to continue being part of it.