NY Times: Writers Like Me

A VONA alumna sent a link to a NY Times article by Martha Southgate titled “Writers Like Me.” In so many words she discusses the constant neglect of black authors, whether it involve conferences, book reviews, or book sales in general. Here’s an excerpt from that article (which also features quotes from ZZ Packer, Tayari Jones, and Edward P. Jones):

 Things are tough all over, but arguably tougher for some. For many black writers, a writing life very rarely unfolds the way it does for so many white writers you could name: know you want to be a writer from the age of 10, get your first book published at 26, go on to produce slowly but steadily over a lengthy career. Even Morrison didn’t follow that timeline: her first novel wasn’t published until she was nearly 40 and had worked for a number of years as a teacher and then an editor at Random House. And she didn’t quit that day job until urged to do so by Gottlieb in the mid-1970s, after “Sula” was published.

So what’s holding us up? Sometimes it’s just the ordinary difficulty of juggling family, writing and earning a living. But African-American writers also speak of a larger problem of what I’d call internal or cultural permission. It’s just plain harder to decide to be a writer if you don’t have a financial cushion or a long cultural tradition of people going out on that bohemian limb. Consider the case of Edward P. Jones. He published his first book, “Lost in the City,” in 1992 (he was 41 at the time) to much critical acclaim and a number of significant honors, if not huge sales. He returned to his day job at Tax Notes magazine, where he remained until he was laid off 10 years later. He then wrote “The Known World” in about six months — though he told me he’d been thinking about it nearly those whole 10 years. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize.

When asked why he didn’t make the leap to full-time writing sooner, Jones spoke firmly: “If you’re born poor or you’re born working-class, a job is important. People who are born with silver spoons in their mouths never have to worry. They know someone will take care of them. Worrying about not having a job would have put a damper on any creativity that I would have had. So I’m glad I had that job.”

The problem isn’t just money, says Randall Kenan, a 1994 Whiting Award winner who published two critically acclaimed books of fiction in 1989 and 1992, and two nonfiction books since 1999: “I think among middle-class black folk, it’s still a struggle to validate literature as a worthy way to spend your time.” ZZ Packer, the author of the story collection “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” who is currently at work on a novel, said the situation is somewhat different for those who are younger. (She is 34.) “People who came half a generation before us were the first ones to begin to go to elite colleges in larger numbers,” she said. “They were beholden to a lot of their parents’ expectations, namely, that if you go to a prestigious school, you’re going to become a doctor or a lawyer, you’re not going to ‘waste your time’ writing. People who are around my age have seen blacks in the Northeastern establishment for a while. … They don’t always feel the same obligation to ditch their dream for something more practical.”

Read the full article.

I always wanted to pursue my master’s degree in African-American literature (and take a few creative writing classes along the way), but I was always fearful of how I would support myself. I also questioned whether my writing was good enough. Seven years of work later, I decided that if I have to eat beans out of a can until I achieve what I really want in this world, then that’s fine with me. I want to write. I want to read/research African-American literature and discuss my findings with others. If I have to be broke or labeled crazy to accomplish that, so be it. In the meantime, I’ve surrounded myself with posters of black authors. I’m hoping that feeling their eyes on me and noting their greatness on a daily basis will continue to force me to step my game up.

Anyway, I’m reading several different things for a change. Inspired by a conversation with MJ at VONA, I’ve wanted to read more short stories. I’ll let you all know what I’ve ordered as the books arrived, but some of my selections can be seen in the previous post.

My boyfriend also purchased Black Like Me, so I secretly read 20 pages out of that knowing that he wouldn’t expect it.  The truth is, that book has been on my list since high school! Obama can wait.

And most importantly, I’ve been inspired to write again, which I’m going to do right now.

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5 thoughts on “NY Times: Writers Like Me

  1. trenee, kudos on the decision to pursue your writing dream, no matter the circumstances. i love that you surround yourself with the eyes of those whose paths you’ve admired. and more than likely, your fears (being broke or labeled crazy) won’t materialize.

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  2. iyan and egusi soup – Thank you for your comments. I know you more than anybody else realizes what it is like to pursue this writing dream, huh?

    Thank you, anonymous. I’ll try to keep it classy (not ashy).

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  3. I’ve actually read and enjoyed Martha Southgate’s The Fall of Rome. But her essay reads more like a lament than a clarion call for young black writers to embrace rugged individualism and vigorously pursue the artist’s life.

    She and Packer neglect to mention the networks that writers of color have forged among themselves to nurture their talents. I’m always reading a post by Mat Johnson hailing some new talent or book and announcing an upcoming workshop. Your post likewise introduces folks who reside in the lower frequencies.

    The mainstream may marginalize us to an extent but I also feel that black writers are more confident and have never been more prolific. Maybe we don’t have a black version of Jonathan Franzen but Zaidi Smithis pretty darn close. I’m currently reading Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas and I can tell you that this brother is the real thing.

    Most writers, colored and white, are not heralded. Great works and writers are sometimes beyond our early reckoning but I have no doubt that they will be acknowledged if they strike a chord. That approval doesn’t necessarily take the form of a famous literary prize or membership in a prestigous arts society. It can sometimes simply be a father passing on a favorite dog-eared novel with notes in the margin to his daughter.

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