By Daniel José Older; originally published at his eponymous blog
Had coffee with Saeed [Jones] 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, over-defined, 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 [ridiculous] online 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, and I see the writers around me as my brothers and sisters, not my competitors–and we rise together.
At VONA Junot [Diaz] 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, [White] trans folks, [White] cisLGBQ, [white] 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.