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On Which Shelf Do I Belong?

26 Aug 2016 12:16 PM | VL Towler

This philosophical question had been nagging me for the 15 years that it took me to research and write my novel.  The ubiquitous "they" say that one should know one's audience.  Well, I wrote this novel for myself. I was tired of not seeing characters like mine. I was tired of publishers ignoring people like me. I was tired of reading characters whose identities are wrapped up more in their accoutrements and wealth. Wealth is not a bad thing, mind you. But not all of us live with it. 

I wanted to create a black female character who is inherently proud of her blackness, but who is also aware of the fact that she is a minority in a country that extols whiteness. She is not bitter about it.  Lula Logan lives her life. She does the best she can to achieve in her chosen field, forensic anthropology, and has dedicated herself to learning her craft. She is a professional. She is not arrogant about her knowledge. She is comfortable with herself.  Period.  Unlike so many female protagonists (of all races) nowadays, who are awash in aspirational upper-income trappings of owning designer-labeled this and that, Lula doesn't equate her worth with what she owns, and, like most women, appreciates fashion, in her own style. She doesn't subscribe to fashion magazines, as she has no time for that.  She likes attending concerts, listens to music of all kinds, and usually has it playing in the background. She is a quiet intellectual.

Lula Logan is navigating through life alone, in search of the right partner, but not letting the world stop for lack of a soul mate.  She has dated different men, preferably of her race, but has not succumbed to an Afrocentrism that prevents her from seeing the merits of men from other backgrounds.  She lived in Oakland, growing up, but went to majority white colleges and universities.

Lula is a university professor at a majority white college, and works in a small rural town doing slave burial research in an open field where she works in a solitary atmosphere. She has few friends where she lives, as the town, though interracial, is segregated, and has not met people of her educational background.  She doesn't live a life of quiet desperation, but she's also waiting for something.  Her boyfriend is a Creole police officer with whom she has a comfortable relationship; the chemistry is there, but she questions whether the relationship is going anywhere.  

As far as protagonists are concerned, she prefers to blend in rather than draw attention to herself. She is strong in her resolve, but not dictatorial. She's not angry, disillusioned, or unhappy.  She's living her life on her own terms. My quest was to create a character that eschews the negative stereotypes of the "boss bitch," "the temptress," "the monstrous hellion," in books that make it to the shelves for Black masses quicker than you can say, "urban fiction." As my earlier blog post discussed the issue, I'm not totally dismissing rap, hip hop, or urban fiction as sources of entertainment, but not all Black writers can successfully write the urban fiction genres,  nor do we want to contribute to their already crowded shelves. 

That's the back story of my character.  But that's not the novel's plot.

The novel is about a scientist whose work entangles her in the intersecting quirky worlds of macho police officers, wealthy eccentrics, and struggling working-class inhabitants in real town America-- who are trying to live their small town normal lives as well as they can.  I like to think that I am writing about real people, living in real time. 

So, here's my dilemma: does creating a black protagonist seal the deal in putting me on the shelf among other black writers?  I ask this, rhetorically, because when I read my first Alex Cross mystery, I swore that James Patterson, the author, was Black (although a couple of phrases or explanations didn't exactly jibe with me).  Does the fact that the famous author is not Black give him "cultural waiver" that allows him to be considered merely a "novelist?" I asked the question on a website for independent writers and was pilloried for race-baiting (I thought I was opening up a discussion from which I could learn, too, actually). I do think it's an interesting question, nevertheless.  I also asked whether it was best to get a Black agent for my novel about a Black protagonist. The answers were that I should. Yet, again, I wonder if James Patterson has a black agent. 

Don't get it twisted. I am not running from my own Black race in asking this question. I hope that my Black brethren voraciously consume what I have to say. But the story that needs to be read need not only be read by Black people. We know our Black lives. We live them.

I wonder aloud if my quandary will be resolved once I decide whether to label it crime fiction or a mystery (I've yet to discern the difference between the two genres). I have a hint, however. In doing research about the labeling of Black writers, of course, the most famous Black mystery writer around, comes to mind: Walter Mosley.  Mosley is half-Black and half-Jewish (the latter of which was news to me), surely an asset to both groups to which he belongs. But even Wikipedia explained the dilemma of on what shelf to put him:
In 2010, there was a debate in academic literary circles as to whether Mosley's work should be consideredJewish literature. Similar debate has occurred as to whether he should be described as a black author, given his status as a best-selling writer. Mosley has said that he prefers to be called a novelist. He explains his desire to write about "black male heroes" saying "hardly anybody in America has written about black male heroes... There are black male protagonists and black male supporting characters, but nobody else writes about black male heroes.”[8]
Even Time Magazine had to give him his due that he belonged to a hallowed category of ethnic writer's whose work "transcends category and qualifies as serious literature." I know it's a compliment, but it speaks volumes, essentially, saying, "Even though he's Black, we accept him as one of us." Which is offensive.  I've heard no Black critics exclaim that "Alex Cross has crossed the line to become Black like us." Can we not be Americans of different persuasions, without meeting a litmus test for acceptability because some of us might be ethnically different than the rest of our writing breed?  

“A writer whose work transcends category and qualifies as serious - See more at: http://www.waltermosley.com/#sthash.07Fs8BRO.dpuf
“A writer whose work transcends category and qualifies as serious - See more at: http://www.waltermosley.com/#sthash.07Fs8BRO.dpuf
“A writer whose work transcends category and qualifies as serious - See more at: http://www.waltermosley.com/#sthash.07Fs8BRO.dpuf
“A writer whose work transcends category and qualifies as serious
I am neither a journalist nor a professor; such  cache that would give me entree as an author worth of serious consideration.  So what happens to novice Black writers? How can we appeal to a larger audience? Do we sit on a shelf and hope a non-Black person walks by, or must we wait for Black celebrity status to be considered noteworthy for the masses?  I suspect that my literary identifier will become, like for most of my race, my pigmentation, rather than my strengths as a writer.  Other than being a descendant of slaves, slave-owners, and a half-Irish, half-Native American great-great grandmother whom I never met, I, like so many other Black Americans, are the amalgam of slave ownerships through the centuries, of forced sex, abuse of power, and perverse desire stigmatized by history's transgressions. But we're trying to live in the now.  That's what I write about. The now of being an educated Black woman in America.  The living day to day. 

I am pretty sure that I won't have a photo on my ebook or hardback cover, because I don't think my face will sell novels.  Furthermore, my novel's jacket will likely not show colorful people or African mosaics publishers like to use as the code for "ethnic"--so you'll just have to keep your eye out for my title, I guess.  I might lose readers. But it's more important to me not to pander to the racial definition of what book is or is not shelf-worthy--merely based upon my pigmentation.

Don't get me wrong. I am going to be marketing the hell out of this book to a largely Black American audience and will welcome any attention my own people give to my writing. But the question still stands: can an intelligent writer "of color" get equal footing in America as a writer without waiting for a green light by Whites? Do white people visit the ghettos of the Black shelves in bookstores? Especially if you are not Black, share your thoughts. You will not be pilloried for your thoughtful answers.

I was invited to re-publish this blog post that I wrote in January 2015 for IPNE readers. I appreciate Charlotte's interest in the topic.




Comments

  • 26 Aug 2016 3:00 PM | LJ Cohen
    A fabulous blog post. And I would read the hell out of that book, no matter what you categorized it as.
    Link  •  Reply
  • 30 Dec 2016 11:46 AM | Anonymous
    Beautifully written!
    Link  •  Reply
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