Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper, which was nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature. His first collection of short stories, Salsa Nocturna, and the Locus and World Fantasy-nominated anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, which he co-edited, are available from Crossed Genres Publications.
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In this interview, Older discusses the self-fulfilling prophecy of marketing, why categories in publishing matter, and what meaningful change in terms of diversity would look like.
You write, “The publishing industry, people often say as if it’s a gigantic revelation, needs to make money and as such, it responds to The Market, and people don’t buy books about characters of color.” You add that this is marketing code for “you people don’t read” and an assumption that “white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.”
This seems like the central crux of what you’re writing about: the belief that white people will only read about characters who are like them–or seem like them. And if they do read books about non-white characters, it’s often out of weird impulses of guilt and the need to be vindicated. For example, it seems not surprising that, at least here in Texas, To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading and, say, Invisible Man isn’t. How much of this—at least, thinking about the difference between books and music albums—is due to the age of the consumer? Would it make a difference if “adult” books were marketed to teens?
Daniel José Older
I’m honestly not sure. I’ll say this: Marketing is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are certain assumptions in play until something comes along that ruptures them. And this applies to all genres. People tend to walk the line. That’s why courage comes into play, the courage to try new things. It’s wide-ranging, and industry-wide issue, not just editors and marketing people.
White writers have been writing to white audiences for decades but it was called being universal, which is a code word for white. Readers of color read white writers—even when they’re writing for write audiences—but the opposite isn’t always true. The industry isn’t representative of its readership. White writers can write for white audiences, and, at the same time, they can write to the industry.
In the essay, you tell a story about attending a conference where an agent was asked about the industry’s diversity problem, and the agent said this: “I think the change is going to have to come from within those who are affected.” You write, “This is the language of privilege: it’s not the intangible Market that’s to blame, it’s the writers of color, who maybe don’t have what it takes and don’t submit enough anyway.”
What I find really interesting is what you write a bit later: “We’re not writing for editors and agents, we’re writing past them. We’re writing for us, for each other.” I immediately thought of Kiese Laymon, a writer who, as much as anyone I can think of, has said that he’s writing for black audiences and entering a discussion with black writers.
You write about what white people need to do in order to dismantle white supremacy, but is this the opposing response? How do you think about your own readership?
Daniel José Older
I’ve talked to entirely white audiences and audiences that were entirely people of color. The reaction in both has been positive, but it’s different, too. There are different laugh lines. I tell this story: I read once to an all-white audience, and they were into it. Mesmerized is the word. But they didn’t laugh once. It was a horror story, and when I’d written it on a bus in Brooklyn, I’d been cackling. When I read the same story to people of color, they were on the floor. Both audiences were into it. At one point, I was going to stop reading, and it was at a moment of tension, a cliffhanger, and the white audience said, “Don’t stop.” There’s a difference in how different audiences respond.
White people are hungry to talk about race. They don’t necessarily have the language to do it. But when I speak on race, the reception is warm and curious, even if they don’t have the language.
You write, “Many of our gifts and challenges won’t be seen or recognized within a white cultural context. Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation – these are all layers of the non-white experience that rarely make it into mainstream literature, even when the characters look like us.”
I thought of this in connection with your urban fantasy novel Half-Resurrection Blues. It’s certainly working within the genre of ghost and paranormal thrillers. But there were moments when the fact that it was written by a writer who wasn’t white—and that it was about characters who weren’t white—was very clear. And those moments were great, at least to my mind, because they elevated the book above other similar books. Other books have cool monsters and cool worlds of the dead, but they don’t always comment on society. Did you set out to write a book about, as you say, “Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation”? Or is this simply an essential part of your work?
Daniel José Older
It feels natural to do it. It’s also what I know to be true. Write what’s true and then try to say something. Ultimately, it’s about asking books to multitask. You’ve got this entire book, and you can do a lot of things in it. When a book demands a lot from you, it asks you to step up to its level.
Do you think the industry shares your enthusiasm for books that multitask? You sometimes hear about books that operate within multiple genres or are doing multiple things and that agents, editors, and booksellers don’t know how to categorize the book.
Daniel José Older
We have a flawed category system. I write urban fantasy, which is a weird term. Urban is code for characters who are black or brown. Then you throw in fantasy, which is almost entirely white. There are very few fantasy writers of color.
But there’s probably no way not to have a flawed system. Categories are inherently messy. I’m reading Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said, and he traces the need to categorize back to the nation-state—the idea of borders. And now, of course, we’re talking about walls. With nationalism, we’re talking about how we value life. In a micro way, this is the case in literature: which books are sci-fi, which are high literature even though they have robots in them. All of these are questions about power.
The categories matter. Slavery was invented by white people, but it’s become “black history.” We need to be clear who was doing the enslaving or it gets erased. It’s talked about as a black people problem and is written about in passive voice, without identifying who was doing the enslaving. In the same way, sexual assault is talked about as a woman’s problem. You won’t find it in the men’s section.
You write, “The question industry professionals need to ask themselves is: How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn’t just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception? What concrete actions can I take to make actual change and move beyond the tired conversation we’ve been having for decades?” That work, you add, “means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submissions guidelines.”
It’s been two years since you published this essay. Have any answers occurred to you? Have you seen this in action?
Daniel José Older
We need to go from a flash-in-the-pan to a sustained movement. The question is how to make even more sustained, not just a buzz word but an actual revolutionary change, not just a new face on the same old shit. A good example of this, in a positive way, is We Need Diverse Books.
Because of how publishing works, how long it takes for books to come out, any changes won’t be apparent for a couple of years. One example is All-American Boys, which is about police brutality. That book was rushed—and rushed in a good way. There was a sense that it needed to get out there.
But we need to be on guard against white fatigue, the sense of, well, we’ve had enough diversity. If we’re not careful and precise in these changes, we’ll get something that isn’t good. Diversity doesn’t just mean diverse characters. It means diverse writers as well. If it just amounts to stories about characters of color being told by white authors, that’s not victory. That’s not the point of this movement. There’s a long history of co-option, and it’s especially dangerous. There are quotas in effect—literally. Publishers will say, we already have a black book. But it’s a book by a white person. A black writer is trying to get a book published and can’t because a white person already took that spot.
So, does that mean creating new imprints and houses? Or changing the existing ones?
Daniel José Older
There’s a new Muslim imprint at Simon & Schuster that looks really interesting, but it can’t be the only answer. There’s no white imprint. It’s mainstream publishing, and that’s what we need to transform.