We are ready for a publishing industry that represents the world we live in, and it will ignore us — writers and readers of color — at its peril.
Last night, I walked into a mini-disaster. Or to be more precise, I stood on a chair in it.
A few weeks ago, when Publisher’s Weekly asked me to give the keynote speech in a night honoring the industry’s young publishing stars, I jumped at the chance. Talk about your last year, they told me. Talk about what it was like getting published.
My last year has been intense. My book The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing came out, I spent a few months touring internationally, and from a distance, it looked like one big party. Up close, it looked a bit different. This was something I really wanted to get into, as sometimes when we talk about the sad statistics facing writers of color in publishing, they become just that: statistics. I wanted to back that up by talking about what it actually looks like.
But fate wasn’t with me last night. The sound system at the event was terrible, which was a real problem. But even as I stood up on a chair and yelled to deliver my speech, half the room turned away and started talking over me. By the time I was done, I was talking to a very small ring of people, which felt, well, awful. More awful were the disappointed faces of the minorities in the crowd, the few who hugged me as I walked out and whispered, We wish they had heard it.
Well, I do, too. Anyone got a chair?
True story: A few months ago, a producer from a literary show on Boston Public Radio asked me to read a section of my book on air. I sent it to him and he said he would need to edit it down. I totally got it. Radio is a different medium. Stories need to change. Sure! Change away. Then I got the edits back. Some of them were normal cutting 300 words to 25, but there were others. My characters’ names, he wrote, were confusing. There were three in the scene, could I cut them to two if I was going to stick with the unfamiliar names? And then there was this other note, even stranger. In a sentence setting the scene up, I had written “three East Indian teenagers, kids of immigrants, sit talking on the roof of the house.” In his notes, the producer had crossed out East Indian and written “ASIAN INDIAN.” Asian Indian. As if that is a thing that anyone has ever said to anyone else, excluding the sentence — “Not like American Indian, like Asian Indian.” And the note went on: “Alas!” — not kidding, he really said Alas! like he was some Victorian maiden — “Alas! Americans aren’t familiar with the term East Indian — it’s just not something we say over here.”
This is when my soul kind of made a Chewbacca noise. That horrible howl.