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Urgent, Unheard Stories | The Nation

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Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay

New words from writers of color.

Urgent, Unheard Stories


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.

This attitude is refreshing. Rather than thinking about diversity as this vague yet complicated notion, I like the idea of looking for urgent, unheard stories. This fall, many such stories abound from writers of color.

In The Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward chronicles the lives and deaths of five young men in her life, including her brother, Joshua Adam Dedeaux. The Men We Reaped uses a powerful structure—chapters about Ward’s childhood are interspersed with chapters about each of the five men Ward lost, beginning with Roger Eric Daniels III, who died in 2004, and ending with the passing of Joshua Adam Dedeaux in 2000. The Men We Reaped is not merely a memoir of grief; this book reads like an open wound.

The words carry a furious sorrow about how race and rural poverty can conspire to limit young black lives. The writing is strongest when Ward recounts her childhood and what she knows of her parents—how they came together, how they fell apart. Of her mother, Ward writes, “She resented the strength she had to cultivate, the endurance demanded of women in the rural South.” This demanded endurance of women in the rural South is one I would have liked to see more explicitly explored. So much of this memoir focuses, understandably, on the lives of young black men cut short, but not enough attention is given to the women who mourn the men they reaped. Though these women stand at the margins of this memoir, it is clear that their stories are as urgent and necessary as the men whose lives and deaths have been so finely chronicled.

The high-rise public housing projects of Chicago have long carried their own myths. In High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing, Audrey Petty, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side during the 1980s, has edited and compiled the stories of twelve former residents of the demolished projects, torn down as part of a redevelopment project that has not been nearly as successful as was envisioned. The neglect of Chicago public housing has only continued. “Defunded by city, state, and federal governments over the course of the 1970s forward, high rise public housing was chronically neglected and mismanaged…. These problems were compounded by ongoing crises that occasionally made the nightly news: rampant gang drug dealing, turf wars, and gun violence.” This neglected, violence-ridden place is the one most people imagine when they think of the high-rise projects, but families, actual people lived in those buildings. In this volume, we get to hear their stories. As a whole, the collection is gripping, and nuanced and unexpectedly moving.

Dolores Wilson lived in Cabrini Green for fifty-three years with her husband and children. Though there was violence (“Snipers were a problem for many years”) there was also a vibrant community. Her husband coached basketball and baseball teams. There was a drum-and-bugle corps, and well-organized building councils that did their best to fight the violence and governmental neglect. Her family not only lived in Cabrini Green, they thrived. Eddie Leman lived with his mother in Robert Taylor Homes. In his conversation with Petty, he talked about the dangerous elevators, and his having to keep up his home because his mother was a drug addict. He made it out of the projects and joined the Marines. When he left the military, he started working in mental health, noting, “Living in Robert Taylor, you’re under a lot of stress and you learn to adapt, but there are people you get to know who have their own difficulties and sometimes the pressure is too much…. By the time I started therapeutic work, I had pretty much run across mental illness already.” Leman also worked as a sheriff, did well, but life has a way of getting in the way. He was involved in a theft in 2003 and was sentenced to seven years in prison. These days, Leman is in graduate school, working, raising a family, and all he wants is to live “anywhere I don’t have to watch my back. It’s been so long since I relaxed.” Each of the twelve stories in High Rise Stories reveals the simplicity of what so many people want and are denied.

Milk & Filth, by Carmen Giménez Smithm, is a sharp, feminist manifesto by way of poetry collection. Or that’s how I read it. We bring what we bring to the reading experience. In “Your Data is Political,” Giménez Smith takes on the way we mediate our lives online: “Your presence rises from scavenging: pages and words and webs/and signs. You’ve become a target but without the old spy gadgets.” These poems are political and personal in the same breath. She takes on motherhood and cultural expectations placed upon women and what we consume and how what we consume shapes us. These are not poems that try to make the reader comfortable. They are uniformly challenging, at times guttural in tone and always fiercely intelligent.

One of the great joys of reading is finding books that detail experiences not often seen in mainstream literature. Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman is a raw collection of short stories about the queer Somali experience. These are often stories about exile from family, from country, from sanity, from self. Osman works well within the fairytale tradition. He uses patois and slang and rhythmic cadence to tell these stories in the only language they can be told. Though the collection would benefit from a more rigorous edit, the power of these stories is undeniable.

It’s hard to know what to say about White Girls, by Hilton Als. These essays defy categorization. They are unwieldy, and meandering and as self-indulgent as they are intriguing. In the first, “Tristes Tropiques,” Als ruminates on his significant relationships with men, and their relationships with men, and the performance of friendship and interracial and intraracial dynamics. Of his friendship with SL, he says, “In short, we were not your standard Negro story, or usual Negro story. We did not feel isolated because we were colored. We did not want to join the larger world through violence or manipulation. We were not interested in the sentimental tale that’s attached itself to the Negro male body by now: the embodiment of isolation. We had each other, another kind of story worth telling.” That might describe this entire collection—not your standard Negro story. Als not only looks inward. His essays discuss Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Michael Jackson and much more. As a whole, the book is an interrogation of blackness and white womanhood. The prose is both intelligent and inscrutable. The essay “Gone With the Wind” is a masterpiece. This was a book I hated as much as I loved it for the incisive cultural criticism that has made me question nearly everything.

Another exciting new essay collection is Meaty, by Samantha Irby. She is well-known throughout Chicago as a blogger and comedian, so it would be easy to assume that the essays in Meaty are all for laughs. Do not make that assumption. Don’t get me wrong, you will laugh. Irby is self-deprecating, nearly to a fault. The way she sees the world is enthralling. There is nothing Irby won’t write about, from the frustrating effects of Crohn’s Disease to sex and dating and the awkwardness of having a human body in the presence of other human bodies. She writes about race but not in the way you might assume. What most impresses me about Meaty is not the humor or honesty but rather the undercurrent of sadness that runs through many of these essays and how well Irby controls that emotion. This is an unforgettable book, the kind where the author unapologetically bares her heart and asks you to hold it tenderly, with care.

For many black women, Terry McMillan has written the stories we need to hear. From Waiting to Exhale to How Stella Got Her Groove Back, McMillan has found just the right balance between writing about contemporary black women and telling a damn good story. In her latest and very charming novel, Who Asked You?, Betty Jean is taking care of her two grandsons in Los Angeles. Her husband Lee David is sick and needing full time care. Her daughter, Trinetta, is trying to get out from under the influence of drug addiction. Her son Dexter is in prison. Her sisters are all up in her business. Her best friend Tammy has her own issues and somehow, while dealing with all this, Betty Jean is also supposed to take care of herself. Who Asked You? is an unexpected character study. So much of Betty Jean’s life is dictated by the compromises she has made. If one word could describe this book, it would be “yearning,” because Betty Jean clearly wants so much for herself and the people she loves, but her sense of obligation often keeps her from reaching for more. In the end though, this novel offers hope that Betty Jean might someday get the simple things she wants and richly deserves.

The New York Review of Books has released a new edition of The Bridge of Beyond, by Simone Schwarz-Bart with an introduction by Jamaica Kincaid. When it was first released, The Bridge of Beyond was a bestseller, and it is easy to understand why. Most striking about this book is how magical the story is, even at its darkest. The Bridge of Beyond is a lush and entrancing fable about history and family and love. It is, truly, a hallmark of Caribbean literature.

You should also keep an eye out for Daniel Alarcón’s mysterious and well-crafted At Night We Walk In Circles. Paul Yoon’s slender novel Snow Hunters is exquisitely written—the kind of book that makes you think, this is the work of a writer’s writer. Tao Lin’s Taipei is not what you might expect. There is a meditative quality to the novel that held my interest and forced me to set aside my preconceived notions. Nina McConigley’s Cowboys and East Indians offers short stories that explore place, and displacement and identity that are all quite wonderful. Gabby Bess is one of my favorite young writers. I blurbed her collection, Alone With Other People, so I am biased, but her book is intimate and intelligent. The poetry and prose capture what it means to be a young woman in this digital age.

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In 2014, keep an eye out for Part of the Family? by Sheila Bapat, which looks at the rising movement to secure labor protections for domestic workers (March 2014). The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez, follows a Panamanian-Mexican couple who move to the United States after their daughter’s accident so she might recover in better circumstances, only to discover that nothing is nearly as easy as they imagined in their new home (June 2014). Queen Sugar, by Natalie Baszile, a debut novel where a woman inherits a sugarcane farm in Louisiana and moves there with her daughter to try her hand at making sugar and creating a new life (February 2014). Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi, a novel where Oyeyemi once again uses myth and fairytale to tell a clever, strange story about race and the secrets of our skin (March 2014).

Amazing writing from all kinds of writers is all around us. But I keep thinking about that young woman in Manhattan, Kansas. What I also wanted to tell her is this: Don’t worry about what to call yourself as a writer. Don’t worry about what people will call you. Write urgent, unheard stories. Read urgent, unheard stories.

Read Roxane Gay’s essay on being a writer in New York City.

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