At the GrubStreet Writers of Color Roundtable
Swati Khurana on Insights from the 2016 Muse and Marketplace Diversity Panel
At the end of April, I attended the 2016 Muse and Marketplace Conference, hosted by the Boston-based independent writing center, GrubStreet. Celebrating its 15th year, the three-day conference hosted 594 attendees, 133 presenters, 100 volunteers, staff, and supporters. Participants were able to choose from sessions on craft, the “muse,” and sessions on the business of writing, the “marketplace.”
During breakfast on Friday, April 29th, the first day of the conference, people were grouped into cohorts so that they could stay connected with other writers during and after the conference. Throughout, there seemed to be an emphasis on connection, and access—access to space, to writers, and to resources. At one point, when there were about 50 people waiting for the elevator in between sessions, I noticed three attendees in wheelchairs; the conference was very ADA-accessible. Given some of the public debates about the national writing conferences and accessibility, I was happy to see that the facilities and arrangement of tables was set-up for wheelchair access.
Since it was founded 19 years ago, GrubStreet now offers over 500 classes a year (in-person and on-line), serving 2,500 adults and 450 teens annually. But the Muse and Marketplace conference will likely remain small, according to Artistic Director Christopher Castellani. He said they wanted to keep the conference intimate, with a high ratio of presenters to attendees so that presenters would be accessible. They tend to invite back presenters who are generous with their time and interact with attendees.
One of the most anticipated events on Friday was the “Writers of Color Roundtable,” inspired by the current conversations around the lack of diversity in publishing. At the Roundtable were agent Regina Brooks, writers Alexander Chee, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Mira Jacob, Jennifer De Leon, and Celeste Ng, editor Emi Ikkanda and moderator Sonya Larson. Larson, who conceptualized the Roundtable, was motivated by A Publisher’s Weekly 2014 survey which found that the demographics of publishing are more skewed than most industry watchers assumed. Indeed, according to Publishers Weekly: “of the 630 respondents who identified their race, 89% described themselves as white/Caucasian, with 3% selecting Asian and another 3% indicating Hispanic. Only 1% said they are African-American.” These figures suggested to Larson that “the relevance and vibrancy of the narrative arts is under threat.”
The writers shared how their personal experiences affected what they wrote, the expectations placed upon them, and their pathways to publishing. In the audience were many aspiring authors interested in learning about the process and making contacts with agents and editors.
Alexander Chee, whose second novel The Queen of the Night was recently published, spoke about his journey with his first novel Edinburgh. As he told the audience, his literary beginnings seemed that they would be straightforward: graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1994, getting a literary agent in 1995, winning a Michener in 1999, which was awarded to Iowa graduates “as a way of saying ‘Your novel is ready.’” Yet it took him two years to sell his novel, after many rejections. Editors could not decide if it was a Korean novel or a gay novel, and it did not center on an immigration or coming-out story. In frustration, his “survival strategy” was “walking around bookstores and picking up books and saying, ‘Why did this book get published? Obviously my book isn’t shitty enough to get published.’” Then he met Chuck Kim, a Korean-American editor at Welcome Rain, a small press which no longer exists. They published the book in 2001. Kim was also an excellent publicist, and by the time the book was optioned to paperback, Chee said, “Eighteen houses asked for the manuscript, and of those, 11 had rejected it in hardcover. So I was getting letters from editors that said, ‘I feel like I let something precious slip through my fingers and I wish I could make up for it.’ ”
An especially poignant moment came when Jennifer De Leon, editor of Wise Latinas, shared excerpts from a stack of printed rejection letters for her novel that she had received from several editors. It was sobering to hear the exact words and phrases that the panelists had used when they talked about their own rejections, recurring phrases from “the writing is beautiful and the characters are so well-crafted,” to “this book isn’t right for our list,” to “Can you write more like Amy Tan?” to “I will be there, cheering from the sidelines.” De Leon said she would have welcomed any editorial feedback that would make the writing stronger, but it was hard to hear that people loved the book, had no critiques, but couldn’t see it a “fit” to buy. From the perspective of an attendee, and an aspiring author, I was touched by the vulnerability it took to share these rejections, as we often hear about successes at literary conferences.
So why do editors let precious books by writers of color slip through their fingers? Regina Brooks, founder and president of Serendipity Literary Agency, offered an important perspective as a literary agent. At the Association of Author Representatives conference, she asks every editor, “If you know the book has an interested audience, but it’s not necessarily a project that you would buy for yourself at the bookstore, would you still acquire that book?” The answer was staggering: 90% in Brooks’ informal survey said they would not buy the book. The reason? “They cannot necessarily champion the book because they have to love the book,” Brooks explained.
In the audience, I was struck by that comment, and wondered—could diversity, representation, and access to publishing really come down to that simple four-letter word: love? Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You, wondered about editors basing their decisions so heavily on personal taste. Regarding whether or not one can argue with an opinion, Ng said, “You’re entitled to feelings but there’s also a value in examining, why do I feel that way? What else should I consider? That’s how you get out of the box of saying: I can only identify with stories that are just like mine.” To this, Chee offered a suggestion to editors and others in the publishing industry: “Go home and look at who is on your shelf, because that is what is real to editors. If the books there are not diverse, the problem can be dealt with privately.”
All of the panelists affirmed that everyone in the publishing industry should read more widely. Celeste Ng, Mira Jacob, and Kaitlyn Greenidge spoke about their experiences with white editors, who were able to champion their books, partially because of their wide reading of or interactions with communities of color.
Kaitlyn Greenidge, the author of We Love You Charlie Freeman, said “the premise of my book—a black family moves to a nearly all white town to teach sign language to a chimpanzee—sounds like the set up for a racist joke.” However, her white female editor at Alonguin “mentioned in passing that Toni Morrison and American black women writers were the writers she responded to most in her undergrad days.” Greenidge understood the power of that connection: “Suddenly, I understood a bit why I was in that room and why she understood what I was trying to do. And why she was not afraid, but rather excited, by the novel’s conceit.” Similarly, Celeste Ng, whose novel featured a mixed-race family, said “I don’t think it’s an accident either that my agent is married to a black man and has a biracial child.”
Mira Jacob, whose novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing went to auction, was in the fortunate position to choose among editors. One editor said, “this story is about immigrants, also Native American culture, the politics of being American, and it needs to be about one of those things, and the rest of it needs to go.” She eventually chose an editor that liked her novel how it was, in all its complexity and interwoven themes.
The editor is so crucial in the publishing process, because not only do they buy the book, but they also work intimately with it. A member of the Association of American Publishers’ Diversity Dialogue group, Emi Ikkanda—who is also a new Senior Editor at Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Penguin Random House—explained, “Your editor is like your ambassador through the whole system. They talk to the art department, the sales, the publicity, so they really have to get what your book is.” Chee and Ng spoke about their fears that their books covers would undergo the “Chinkifaction” process—bamboo leaves, calligraphy, fans, chopsticks—but luckily, their editors knew enough about their books to not let that happen.
While Jacob had a relatively smoother path to publication, she spoke about the discrimination she faced as her book made its way out into the world. When she gave a keynote at a Publishers Weekly event, honoring the industry’s young publishing stars, she was ignored. As people turned their backs with their drinks, and spoke loudly over her speech, Jacob got on top of a chair and spoke to a group of 12 who huddled to listen, as she eloquently wrote about in BuzzFeed.
Many writers of color face obstacles before they can get to the page or to the marketplace. When De Leon told her parents that she wanted to be a writer, “they were just horrified. Not only were journalists killed [in Guatemala], where they grew up, but it’s a profession they knew very little about.” And then the understanding of how to even navigate a literary career is another challenge. She said, “Coming from marginalized communities, there is extra work to do what might seem ‘easier’ for white people: submitting, applying to programs or grants or fellowships, going up to an author after an event and saying ‘Can I get your card and email you?’ All these things are done with agency, which communities of color do not always have.”
When De Leon said that, I recognized that it also took me many years to feel empowered enough to approach conference speakers and writers, and to get over the fear introducing myself while they signed my book. Something that helped me gain confidence was seeing writers of color speak about their process, learning how that path is possible, and getting involved in diverse literary communities.
Conferences like the Muse & the Marketplace help by curating in an inclusive way. The presenter list featured many other writers of color, including but not limited to Angela Flourney, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Matthew Salesses, Daniel Saurez, Chaitali Sen and Sunil Yapa, who lead intimate craft workshops on topics such as multiple points-of-view, writing about work, and dramatic structure. To keep the conversation going, Grub Steet’s blog has a series “Writing & Publishing As A Person of Color,” where members of the GrubStreet community post entires on topics like relatability, confronting fears, and making changes in the industry. Given GrubStreets’ commitment to reach marginalized writers, Castellani said they initiated a program with 20 tuition scholarships for the conference for the first time this year, which were all taken. He said he intends the program to continue.
As the demographics of America are changing, its literary culture needs to reflect that richness and complexity. The point of discussions like this, according to Chee, is “to get so many of these white people and these white-identified people in these publishing houses to understand that there is a big complex country around them that wants more than just stories about the people that they are related to.”
Feature photo by Swati Khurana.