Creativity: A Family Thing

USA Today has a great article in the Life section about Jerry Pinkey and his family. He, his wife Gloria, their son Brian, and his wife Andrea, all have been published. Their other son Myles and his wife, create picture books. The family name, the article says, graces the covers of 175 books. Their other two children pursue art and creativity in other ways: Daughter Troy is an art therapist and son Scott is a fine-arts painter and creative director of a Toronto ad agency.

Jerry Pinkey didn’t do well in school. He had dyslexia, though it wasn’t diagnosed back then. But he loved to draw. A bit of serendipity happened as he was working at a newsstand at the age of twelve. A patron complimented Pinkey on his sketches. That patron was John Liney, who illustrated a comic strip called Henry that ran for thirty years. Visiting Liney’s studio inspired Pinkey, made him realize that people could have careers doing what he loved to do–make images. He got a scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum College of Art and went on to become an illustrator of works such as Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

Sometimes it works like that. I had a love/hate relationship with English classes, especially diagramming sentences. But I loved to read. That love of reading became a love of writing, but I didn’t take it seriously until I was 29, working part time in a bookstore, and met a group of ladies who were having a signing. Real live authors, y’all. Those ladies were part of Georgia Romance Writers, which meant they were local. Then they told me that they meet monthly to talk about writing and publishing. People do that? I went to a meeting, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But I digress.  This story is truly inspiring on multiple levels, and I encourage people to read it. You’ll find a variety of axioms lived out by this family, and you may even see yourself (or learn a few things) in them. For example, Gloria Jean Pinkey was always a storyteller, but she was a talker, not a writer. It wasn’t until she reconnected with long-lost relatives that she decided to put her story into words. So, you see, it is never too late to bring a dream to the light of day.

The family nurtured creativity:

“Wherever we lived, we created a common space with art supplies and work tables and no TV. The kids could do what they wanted.”

Which for Brian became books on black history, on which he collaborated with his wife Andrea, who also writes teen books and edits for Scholastic. For Myles and his wife Sandra, that means picture books including Read and Rise, which has a forward by Maya Angelou. Seems like marrying a creative person was almost inevitable for these siblings.

Leonard Marcus, a historian of children’s literature, who wrote about Jerry and Brian Pinkney in his 2007 book Pass It Down; Five Picture-Book Families Make Their Mark, says no other family matches the Pinkneys’ “depth of involvement” with books.

Marcus also says Jerry Pinkney “came along at a time when the U.S. still wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge the multiracial nature of our society in the books it gave its children, and he has played a pivotal role in changing that situation for the better.”

Grimes says that in the Caldecott Medal’s 72-year history, Pinkney [who won the award last month] is the first individual African American to win. Leo and Diane Dillon, a multiracial couple, won in 1976 and ’77.

To which the poet adds, “It’s about time.”

That Cover

The person responsible for the Publisher’s Weekly cover and tagline “Afro Picks!” offered up a defense that many will recognize as an attempt to derail the true issue. Say it with me: “It’s not about the photo.” It’s not about the book the photo is in, or the artist, or any of that.

The photo says quite loudly and strongly that this issue isn’t for everyone. It’s about THE OTHERS. And when you make it about the Others, you instantly categorize it as not for mainstream. It instantly becomes marginalization.

Given that the article it illustrates the tough climate for black authors in publishing today, the photo is a doubly bad choice. We authors are trying to make a living from our writing just as non-black authors are. We want to appeal to the widest possible audience, to show that our words are for everyone who loves a good story.

The photo is beautiful, illustrative of a time when the African American community truly needed to be empowered and take pride in itself. But in case you didn’t realize it, Calvin, African American literature isn’t stuck in the 70’s. The publishing landscape isn’t the same, and the world sure as heck isn’t. We are a global community, and I think it’s high time that black authors join it.

Writing, Worrying, and Working

I wish I had something scintillating to share, but I don’t.  I’ve been writing this novella and this novel forever it seems.  I am still keeping their tones distinct, which is the best thing I can say about the process.

Based on advice from author and fellow GRW member Stephanie Bond, I took my synopsis, broke it down into chapters, and translated those chapters into an outline.  Each chapter gets a title that describes what happens in that chapter, and a sentence that explains how events drive the plot forward.  OH MY GOD, writers, you should totally do this, even if you are a pantser! It’s helped to show where I can drop in world-building, raise the stakes, and avoid the sagging middle (which worries all writers constantly because you spend so much time polishing those first three that you can lose steam.  Like one of my fellow GRW authors said, “You get to chapter 4 and go, ‘now what?'”)

Thursday sees me in New York for the PASIC conference, which occurs every other year in NYC.  I really enjoy being a member of this chapter.  I have to say, if I continue being a member of RWA, this chapter will be why.  I also plan to meet my agent for a face to face career plotting thing

I’m not even going to get into whole Race Fail 09 debacle that’s been occuring in the SF/F community since early January.  (Though it makes the romance racism discussions seem like pre-school spats in comparison.) Google it or check out this wiki if you want to know more or just want to find a timeline , but it will probably just piss you off or make you despair.  Since neither is an emotion I want to feel as I’m finishing my first urban fantasy novel with a black female as the main character, I’m not going to go there.

What it does tell me is there is still plenty of work to do and be done, that there needs to be dialgoue and effort.  You can’t just throw your hands up and say it won’t work, I give up.  I don’t know if I can contribute anything to the discussions, and there are probably people who think I shouldn’t.  Just as people thought I shouldn’t have gotten into the discussions of race in romance.  But when I’m at a writers convention, walking down a hotel hallway in business attire with my conference bag on my shoulder and a white woman steps out of her room to ask me for more towels, I tell her I don’t work for the hotel and she doesn’t apologize, I know we still have far to go.

Happy Black Folks Month!

It’s that time of year again, the time when people acknowledge the accomplishments of black people then promptly forget when March 1st comes around.

Okay, yeah, that was a little harsh. I’ve always been of two minds about Black History Month. On one hand, it’s the best way to discover little known facts about black folks in the historical context of America. On the other hand, I resent that we have to have a month in which to highlight black people. In my rose-colored-glasses world, the accomplishments of all people would be covered in our schools, history books, and media. But we know that’s not the case.

Which means it could and should fall to writers to show just how rich the tapestry of American history is. I personally would love to see more Black historicals.

Unfortunately, when people think of black folks and American History, their minds immediately go to two eras: slavery and the civil rights movement. It’s quite easy to ignore that there were free blacks roaming the country. According to BlackPast.org, free blacks came over with Columbus during his second trip to the New World in 1494. In 1526, slaves who’d been brought to work in the Spanish colony of San Miguel de Guadape in Georgia escaped to live among the native Americans. Then there is the rich and proud history of the Black Seminoles.

One great resource was recently published, and I think would be an excellent investment for schools, libraries, and black writers. It’s called the African American National Biography, and it profiles some 4000 well- and little-known black folks in American history.

One such figure was profiled in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage of the AANB:

Stagecoach Mary Fields

Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Ursuline Convent, Toledo, Ohio

Stagecoach Mary Fields was a gun-toting, hard drinking, cigar smoking frontierswoman who gambled, brawled and reputedly even killed a man. Well into her 60s, she dependably steered her coach through some of Montana’s harshest weather to deliver the mail.

She was also a beloved housekeeper at a convent, tended her own vegetable garden and late in life presented bouquets to men who hit home runs during baseball games in Cascade, Mont.

How could you not want to write a story about this woman?

The African American National Biography is a joint effort of Havard University and Oxford University Press, and is edited by Henry Louis Gates, Hr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, both of Havard. The eight volume set covers the lvies of some 4100 well-known and obscure people. You can order it through the Oxford University Press website for $795. I think it’s worth part of an advance, and for writers it’s tax-deductible. There is an online version forthcoming, and they are soliciting donations to make the collection available for libraries.

CBC.ca Arts – Romance cuts across racial lines, publishers find

CBC.ca Arts – Romance cuts across racial lines, publishers find

Between the cat food and the diapers in most North American supermarkets lurks a haven of verdant passion.

It’s the aisle for romance novels and its customer in 2007 is nearly always female, but just as likely to be a woman of colour as a Caucasian soccer mom.

Publishing houses across North American are creating new lines of romances aimed at people of Asian and African descent, according to Brian Miller, a Seattle journalist who follows the market for romance novels.

The article doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t know, but hey–we’re getting coverage. And we should get even more as Black History Month approaches!

(Okay, I’ll admit–I’m shocked that there’s a journalist in Seattle who follows the market for romance novels.)

Race in Romance: Affaire de Coeur

The Romance Slam Jam is roughly five months from now. I’m really looking forward to it, not the least because I get to return to Chicago for their hot dogs and pizza, but because I get to see the largest gathering of black romance readers and writers on the planet. If you want to join in the party, meet a bunch of romance writers, and take a bunch of workshops, register a group of 5 or more get a discount and pay just $175 per person, or individual for $200 until December 31st.

Isn’t that a bargain for a conference?

Anyway, author Dyanne Davis had an interview with Louise Snead, the owner of Affaire de Coeur. You can check it out on Dyanne’s website or the Romance Slam Jam’s newsletter.

In the I-told-you-I’m-not-crazy-department, Ms. Snead makes this observation:

If you poll the average romance reader, they don’t read African American romance. Why? Romance readers indulge passionately in this genre because they want escape and fantasy. They want to believe there is a partner out there for everyone. They want to fantasize about who this person is. If you can have a heroine with all her foibles be loved by the end of the book, then there is hope for the reader. Many readers accept and love romance with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, faeries, elves, and the like, yet cannot accept a hero and heroine of color.

I know this is true. I’ve actually had a reader tell me so. Black people in any other genre, she can read about them and enjoy the story. A black heroine? Not so much. I think that’s sad, but then I also know some readers who only read black woman/other ethnicity male romances and won’t pick up one with a black hero.

Sigh. There are days when I think I’m only writing for myself. Then again, if I were writing for the market, all my heroines would be blonde.

Readin’, Writin’, Racism, Romance ~ pt 1

A comment-laden post on Dear Author that started as a dissertation on opinion vs. actual defamation quickly became a discussion on race, veered closely to defamation on someone else’s blog (no, I’m not going to link to the blog, but saying that an author is breaking the law by exchanging sexual favors for money sounds a lot like defamation to me) then finally became a somewhat ordered discussion on racism in romance and racism in general.

So, I’d like to continue that discussion. And I’d like to thank Monica, because if she hadn’t come out guns blazing, and throwing herself on the grenade so to speak we wouldn’t even be having this discussion (and really, I can’t blame her for reacting/responding to the post, especially when a commenter called her out). And thanks to Dear Author for letting the post be hijacked and not closing the comments or moderating them. I learned a lot about a lot of people because of it, and not what many of them wanted to share, I’m sure.

Please note: I’m specifically dealing with romance. I may veer off from time to time, but I do want the focus to be on romance in general and blacks in romance in particular.

Some points of reference:

  • Karen Scott’s Great Racism in Romance Survey in which a number of non-white authors participated with varying opinions.
  • Gwynne Forster’s commentary on AA romance for Affaire de Coeur
  • Monica has had several blogs on the subject, but she made this one came after the Dear Author one, and she references great links you should click through
  • Even Romancing the Blog had a post on it back in May

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think books should be shelved by genre. In some chains, this is not the case. In some chains, if the author is black and writing fiction, that book will be mixed in with all the other books written by black people. Romance, scifi, fantasy, horror, mystery, poetry, street lit, it’s all jumbled in there together. Sometimes AA romance isn’t represented at all, or it’s represented by one or two “name” authors.

The problem with this is many-fold. First of all, it assumes that black people only read books written by other black people. Second, it assumes that black people will pick up any book, no matter the genre, just because it’s written by a black person. Third, it assumes that only black people want to read books by black authors.

Note that I said authors, not characters. Because the segregation isn’t based on the race of the characters, but instead is determined by the race of the authors. Therefore, lots of fiction featuring black characters written by non black authors or even romances by non-black authors that feature a black heroine are not shelved in the AA section. (I think this kinda put holes in the niche marketing theory some mention.)
I’m sure there will be some people who will say, “See, she’s only doing this because she wants more readers.” Yes I want more readers. I want to be able to be a full-time fiction writer like so many of my counterparts. What is wrong with that? Woo in this business doesn’t want that? But more than that, I completely believe that shelving books based on the race of the author is not only wrong, but a disservice to the author.
Inspired by the comments in the Dear Author post and from other blogs, I’m going to make several other posts on this subject. Among other things I want to discuss/address are:

  • African-American imprints
  • Is black romance different?
  • Is niche marketing nice?
  • Next steps

I don’t know if I can do this, or even should. Maybe I’m killing my New York career as Seressia Glass before it can even start. Still, the important things aren’t easy, are they?
Now I’d like to hear from others. I truly think it is important to talk about this, to build awareness. But more than that, I think we need to reach consensus on what we should do next. If you know anyone, regardless of their color or affiliation, who is a reader or writer of romance, please ask them to stop by and give their two cents.