Jesmyn Ward, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction for her book “Salvage the Bones,” poses for photographs at the National Book Awards on Wednesday, November 16, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)
I gave a reading at Kansas State University last week and during the Q & A session, a young woman asked how I feel about the label “black woman writer.” I said, “Well, I am black, and a woman and a writer, so I’m fine with that label.” I understood what she was getting at though. Women writers and writers of color don’t really have the luxury of being known simply as writers. There’s always a qualification.
Earlier this year, Wikipedia editors began moving women novelists from the American Novelists category to the American Women Novelists subcategory. It was a strange move and one that met, as you might expect, with a great deal of resistance. It felt like segregation. It was an infuriating qualification of where certain writers belong in the public sphere.
In my early 20s, when I was first coming into myself as a writer, I was adamantly a writer. I was not a black writer or a woman writer. I did not want to be pigeonholed or backed into a corner by certain labels. I still don’t. My first novel, out next year, is about a Haitian-American woman who is kidnapped in Port au Prince, but the three novels I’m currently working on are quite different. One is a YA novel about a transformative year in a girl’s life. Another is magic realism, for lack of a better description, about a miner, so tired of the darkness, that he flies an air machine into the sun, shrouding the world in darkness. The third is about a woman who has an unbreakable bond with the daughter she was forced to bear as surrogate for her sister-in-law and how she schemes to get her child back.
Are these the novels of a writer or a black woman writer? Does it matter?
Labels are troubling, but we love them. We love categorizing and naming things. There is comfort in knowing where things stand, but it is uncomfortable to feel like you can only stand in one place. What the hell is a “writer of color,” anyway? Sometimes these words feel like they mean so little. When I read I don’t think about a writer’s identity. I lose myself in beautiful arrangements of words and ideas. I lose myself in story and verse. When we call for a more diverse literary conversation, we simply want to see more of an acknowledgment of the diversity of writers who are beautifully arranging words and ideas. We are many. We are everywhere.
I have, as of late, kept an eye on the Penguin imprint Riverhead’s list. In the past few years, they’ve published Danielle Evans, Najla Said, Mohsin Hamid, Khaled Hosseini, James McBride, Catherine Chung, Dina Nayeri and many others. When I asked Riverhead how they create such a diverse list, director of publicity Jynne Dilling Martin said:
I think the diversity on the Riverhead list comes out of our editorial team’s genuine curiosity and hunger for great new stories. We aren’t doing it “by the numbers” but responding to the electricity of new perspectives that aren’t treading the same worn paths we’ve been reading for decades. And because our Riverhead list is so small—just about thirty books a year—our team approaches publishing each book in a curatorial and hand-crafted way, so that our writers don’t feel like representatives [of their nationality or ethnicity], but like individuals with a unique perspective and an urgent, unheard story to tell.