One of the two radio programs I listen to religiously is the CBC’s The Next Chapter, which is all about Canadian books and authors. On the most recent (April 27th) edition of the program, literary journalist Donna Bailey Nurse, who is one of my favourite columnists on the program, was talking about Canadian publishing’s neglect of black women writers.
This issue has been on my mind (and on the mind of many among my demographic, I’m sure) for a long time. For me, the obvious results of this neglect (how few novels by black Canadian women, if any, come out in a given year) would feel freshly embarrassing after each time I finished yet another novel by a contemporary young Black British or Black American female writer (most recently the unputdownable Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue), and after yet another year came and went without a single work of fiction by a Black Canadian writer being published. I kept asking myself, why does Canada not have the same level of output when it comes to fiction by black women? On the one hand, I found this glaring absence bizarre and maddening,. But it also motivated me to work that much harder to correct the situation (i.e. get published, exist!)
The podcast ended with this exchange:
Shelagh Rogers: As the editor of Black Iris and as a critic and as a reviewer, when you’ve talked to women who are trying to get their stories into print or to get attention for the books that they’ve written, what are you hearing from them?”
Donna Bailey-Nurse: “They don’t feel completely discouraged about the quality of their writing. They’re often just told “we can’t sell this”. That is the primary thing that they hear…Black women are, in this country, the quintessential outsiders… Access is a huge issue and also just being told once you do get the access, that there’s nobody to hear you, and nobody to read your book, that there’s no audience or your book. Even though, as we know, college educated black women read the most books.”
This is exactly where I find myself now, having finished my first novel manuscript after seven years of work and started the process of knocking on agents’ and publishers’ doors. I haven’t received the first ‘NO’ yet, but I’m sure it’s comin’, any day now. So I am stretching regularly, the better to be limber enough to spring right back up after I receive the first of many smackdowns to come, and to then promptly move on to activating Plans B & C, neither of which involve self-publishing.
As a sort of emotional insurance, I have already told myself maybe you should start researching American agents and publishers, even U.K ones. Maybe they will be more willing to take a chance on you. But I hate that I think like that. It’s in Canada where I’ve lived the bulk of my life and where I came/continue to come into my own as a person and as a writer. It’s Canada, in a million ways tangible and intangible that has shaped me. And so it is to Canadian literature I want to belong, and dare to say that I even have a right to belong, considering that I’ve busted my ass (literally—I’ve got intermittent ‘false’ sciatica from so much ‘planting my butt in the chair’ to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite) to deliver a manuscript which is no worse than most of the published work out there and—I don’t say so myself but those in the know did say—is pretty damn good.
Recently, I attended a weekend long workshop for writers of colour hosted by the Ontario Arts Council, and from there tweeted a quote by one of the audience members during a Q&A session after a panel.
I had to tweet that because I had had that exact same experience the first time I sent something out. In retrospect, I wish someone had warned me, or at least reminded me that I was black. Back in 2009, a play publisher, who herself had sought me out and asked for my play script, had given me pretty much that exact line by way of ‘NO’. It was a full-length play that had been developed on commission over many years, then professionally produced and well-reviewed. (If you want the gory backstory of its’ coming into being, I invite you to read my journal entries from when I was in the thick of development…and the aftermath of another kind of rejection). Sure, the wording of the rejection email was more…sophisticated, but what I heard, loud and clear, was you think you exist and matter but there aren’t enough of you to really qualify as existing nor to matter.
I wish I could say I took it in stride. But I didn’t. It totally derailed me, being basically a Bambi to writing and publishing at that time. It took me years to re-send it out to other Canadian play publishers after that (response: NO & NO & SILENCE). I’m not protesting being rejected here, let me make it clear. That’s par for the course. It’s this nagging feeling that, for a certain demographic of writer, the quality of the work is not enough to get them through the door, and very often we barely knock on the door, feeling that it’s going to get slammed in our face anyway.
After that play publisher encounter, it took me even longer to bother writing anything again, plays or otherwise. In fact, I only got back my writing mojo when I found myself in a place where I really didn’t exist: small town China. More than material for a novel, that first (horrendous) draft was just one long statement of dammit I DO exist and I have a story worth telling.
Thankfully, with the guidance of many mentors & editors, that mess turned into an actual novel manuscript. And now I’m back in that place: having sent my baby out into the world, with the crucial differences that this time I am well braced for rejection and committed to the long haul. I insist on seeing a day in the future when new books by Black Canadian women authors coming out every year will be as expected as, say, seeing varieties of Ethiopian coffee on café menus.