Diversity is not enough: Race, power, publishing
By Daniel Jose Older
“Cuando el EZLN logre lo que busca, entonces ya no será necesario el EZLN, por eso decimos que luchamos por desaparecer.”
“When the Zapatista Army of National Liberation achieves what it seeks, it will cease to be necessary, and so we say that we fight in order to disappear.”
—Subcommandante Marcos, EZLN, February 2001
A young writer that I mentor reached out to me last week. “None of these agents look like me,” she said, “and they don’t represent anyone that looks like me.” She’s wrapping up a final draft of her first novel and I’d told her to research literary agencies to get a feel for what’s out there. “What if they don’t get what I’m doing?”
I thought back over the many interactions I’d had with agents – all but two of them white – before I landed with mine. The ones that said they loved my writing but didn’t connect with the character, the ones that didn’t think my book would be marketable even though it was already accepted at a major publishing house. Thought about the ones that wanted me to delete moments when a character of color gets mean looks from white people because “that doesn’t happen anymore” and the white magazine editor who lectured me on how I’d gotten my own culture wrong. My friends all have the same stories of whitewashed covers and constant sparring with the many micro and mega-aggressions of the publishing industry.
“I don’t know,” I said. Useless words, but it was all I had in that moment. I don’t. There are so many paths to success, so many meanings of the concept, and race and power complicate the equation infinitely. It’s not enough for writers of color to learn craft, we need to navigate the impossible waters of an unwelcoming industry. I flailed for words that would prepare her for all that lay ahead; none came.
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