Laura Warrell on Publishing While Black
“What’s key is not that authors of color talk about race the ‘right’ way, but simply that we’re here.”
The young Black woman giggles behind her hands as she sits in the furthest corner of the lecture hall at the DC public library where I’m launching Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm, my debut novel about a cast of women, of all ages and backgrounds, who become entangled with a freedom-loving jazz musician. I assume she’s amused because she, too, has been seduced by a Lothario similar to the one in my book, so I acknowledge her with a smile.
She’s one of only two Black women at the sparsely attended event and appears so immersed in the conversation I’m having with Well-Read Black Girl’s Glory Edim that she keeps drawing my eye. I write, in part, to connect with people so it’s rewarding to see I’ve reached her.
When she speaks to me afterward, I make a joke about how elusive good love is, but she’s not here to talk about romance. Hands quaking, the woman says what moved her was seeing two Black women talking about overcoming obstacles to achieve in American culture.
“I feel like I’m always being told what to do and how to do it,” the words pour out of her. “I’m not taken seriously. The way I express myself is constantly dismissed.”As a writer, my work has usually been interpreted as a representation of Black American life, no matter the subject.
I ask if she’s a writer. She’s not, but she says our talk suggested there may be hope for her if she keeps trying to do what she wants.
“I just mean being in the world as I am,” she says. When we hug, we both have tears in our eyes.
Eight months before my novel’s release, I speak with a New York Times reporter writing an essay about the historical lack of diversity in the book world and the way my publisher, Lisa Lucas, and executives like her are attempting to transform the industry. She wants to hear more about my struggles as a Black writer: the short-sighted critiques and occasional attacks in fiction workshops, the pressure to make mentions of race digestible to white readers, the lack of inclusion in community writing circles, and my decades-long search for representation, all of which I’d written about two years before in an essay titled “Writing While Black.” It seems my debut novel will be presented in the essay as one ripple in a possible sea change.
I’m terrified. The piece will mark the first time most people—other authors, readers, critics, the literary establishment as a whole—learn about me and my work. What if I come off as ungrateful to an industry that’s now welcoming me? What if I’m dismissed as angry or antagonistic? What if the piece sets up expectations the book doesn’t meet? What if readers feel obligated to buy it as a show of solidarity rather than choosing it on its own merits? Will this book, like so many cultural products made by creatives of color, be expected to somehow prove the viability of Black novels in the marketplace?
Isn’t one writer’s book too small to meet that colossal responsibility?
When I ask a white male author what he worried about as the press for his debut started to roll out, he says he just hoped his book found an audience.
My mother tells me my brother, a Black trans man and returning college student, was hesitating about switching majors from social work, a practical choice, to film, his true love, but seeing his big sister finally achieve her creative goals after more than two decades helped tip the balance.
When I ask him how, he says, “It’s very difficult to be seen and actually achieve anything concrete, and I recognized in the film industry, the odds of going anywhere were slim. But I decided I might as well go for it. Now I knew it was possible.”
In June, the Times puts out the essay about publishing, a nuanced, rigorously researched piece and I’m proud to have been featured, especially alongside my publisher. But soon comes the next psychological hurdle: reviews are coming in from galley readers and, I’m told, some resent what they see as a lack of emphasis on race in the book, while others see too much.
I’ve braced for this. I’ve been through it.
Years ago, I shopped around a novel about a Black American woman trying to make a creative and romantic life for herself in Europe and came across editors who balked at every nod I made to the exoticization my main character experienced and others who wondered why the book didn’t hit race harder or differently.
As a mixed-race woman, I like writing about multiracial characters in a multiracial world and exploring the internal and external forces impacting their lives, including race. I have plans for novels that directly address the subject, but for Sweet, Soft, I wanted to flip the script on the oft-told tale of the Don Juan who can’t help but trifle with women the way cats do their plush toys. The goal was never to write “about race” though when race played a role—a white woman who fits the mold of American female desirability likely experiences rejection differently than a Black woman who doesn’t—I attended to it. Still, the book doesn’t center the racial dynamics operating below the surface.
However, as a writer, my work has usually been interpreted as a representation of Black American life, no matter the subject, so I expect questions and criticisms about race as it lands on the pages of my debut and in my world. I feel what author Jason Mott calls “the pressure…put upon Black creatives and Black artists to always talk about the Black existence as opposed to simply talking about their humanity and their human experience.” I see condescension in this approach to such dialogues, as if the only talking point with Black artists is their supposed position outside the mainstream, as if the purpose of our work is to fascinate or pique the curiosity of white audiences. It diminishes everything else we are as people and anything else we have to say about living.
But something else remarkable happens in June. I receive the first question for my first interview and it is this:
“Is your main character based on a real person?”
My publisher points out that this kind of racial blindness, to the extent it can exist, is possible because the book is about love.
I recall a workshop where a story I’d written about the challenges of connecting in an increasingly isolated culture turned into a condemnation of my work because I briefly referenced the Black protagonist’s unease in a mostly white neighborhood.
Later, when I sought support from a white mentor, he suggested references to race would likely trigger such deep-rooted anxieties in readers that they’d be unable to focus on anything else. Thus, I may have to consider whether to include those details if they’re not central to the story, advice I found icky and depressing, but unfortunately borne out by my experiences in workshop.
What he meant, likely without realizing, is that these references might trigger white readers (he also assumed the default reader was white). Black readers would likely absorb them and still be able to recognize the greater plot and themes, as would many white readers, undoubtedly. So maybe the question becomes: who are you writing for? If the answer is “people in my community,” does this limit or liberate your engagement with craft? If the answer is “everyone,” what do you do about race? What other answers are possible?
Before the kick-off of my book tour, I’m invited to write a follow-up to “Writing While Black” in anticipation of a publishing journey that may mirror my previous experiences in the literary community. But during the tour, I’m rarely asked directly about race unless it’s relevant to plot or character. In Boston, I talk about dialogue. In Austin, my interlocutor wants to discuss structure. In San Francisco, I get questions about the male gaze. What I’m asked about most often during media interviews is why I decided to have my male character, Circus Palmer, play jazz.
Most exciting are the messages and conversations I have with readers who tell me, I’ve been that woman. I know that guy. My uncle was just like Circus. My sister married a player like him. That’s my dad. That’s my best friend.
Similar exchanges happen between writers and readers from marginalized communities all the time. Mecca Jamilah Sullivan tells me a ten-year-old girl asked her to sign her book, Big Girl, at a reading in Houston and left their conversation feeling affirmed in her identity as an artist. Monica West, author of Revival Season, says fans have shared their enthusiasm reading about families like theirs in her novel because it “helped them see their upbringings and experiences as valid fodder for art.”
At the end of my tour, I participate in the Well-Read Black Girl festival after having received an invitation from Glory Edim at our DC event. A young Black attendee stops me at the bar to ask about my publishing journey and when I ask if she writes, she says she wants to but her family insists she make money in business. It’s hard to get around because of her disability, she tells me, but she wanted to come to the festival to “commit to the dream.” She feels inspired by all the authors at the event but she also worries she has too much going against her because she’s Black, disabled, and female.Hopefully, we’re also recognizing such writers as craftspeople expressing both distinctly individual and culturally-informed creative impulses.
I share what my mentor said about finding the universal in our work though I bristle at the idea since for many people, as Bernadine Evaristo writes, “only white narratives are seen as capable of exploring universality.” What would have felt truer would have been to tell her to dismiss the notion that her story wouldn’t interest anyone. Sure, there are readers who only want to see themselves in what they read, but so many more come to literature to encounter the fullness and complexity of the human experience, which happens more profoundly and honestly when we step outside ourselves.
Most importantly, it’s her story. If she wants it in the world, she should feel free to write it.
Frankly, I don’t have clear answers about this aspect of putting a book into the world. I don’t always want to talk about race but also believe it’s constructive. I know my public conversations felt boundless when I was asked about craft or inspiration. After publishing my first novel, I also know I’m grateful to have my voice included among so many others I admire and to have had the freedom to present myself in ways that felt authentic.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming feeling I have now is optimism. We’re experiencing the greater multiplicity of voices that so many of us have sought, which goes beyond simply seeing historically marginalized voices hold space in our shared narrative. Hopefully, we’re also recognizing such writers as craftspeople expressing both distinctly individual and culturally-informed creative impulses.
“I’m feeling encouraged, inspired, and uplifted,” an attendee wrote in an Instagram post after the Well-Read Black Girl festival. “I’m so overwhelmed and overjoyed and feeling really seen…I’m feeling really heard. And I’m feeling like my story and stories by women that look like me are powerful and they matter.”
What’s key is not that authors of color talk about race the “right” way, but simply that we’re here.
Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm by Laura Warrell is available from Pantheon/Doubleday UK, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.