Imagine you’re Black and gay. Your name is Kosoko Jackson. You write a novel about a Black gay man in Kosovo in the 1990s. And you end up cancelling the publication of your book (a month away), the 55,000 copies already printed go straight to the recycling dumpster… all because you’re criticized for not being qualified to write about that place and era.
It’s a true story. When I read it, I recalled that several years ago, I read about a lesbian writer who was stalked on the internet, to make sure she was indeed a lesbian. In some ways, the #OwnVoices movement has gone too far.
In other ways, it’s not possible to go far enough.
I grew up in a world of bland, more-white-than-beige books. The Dick and Jane books had no diversity. Carolyn Keene (a man) wrote the Nancy Drew mystery books I inhaled as a pre-teen… and they were full of nothing but white characters. When I was a kid, I cried for Wilbur when he lost his friend Charlotte in E. B. White's classic. When I got to middle and then high school, I read Richard Wright and fell in love with Langston Hughes.
Today, young readers are more fortunate. There is some diversity. But not enough.
These days, I’m donning my flak jacket in preparation for the grenades that are ultimately going to be lobbed at me. After all, I’ve written a story from the perspective of a young Black man. I’m white, female and in my 60s. I wrote an earlier post about the obstacles I’ve faced when it comes to this manuscript/book. Do I have the right to tell this story?
I say yes, but here is why:
I’ve done lots of research over the span of four years. I’ve pored over articles and books and videos of first-person accounts of the Tulsa Race Riot (Massacre).
I’m fired up. I’m a teacher, and I’m upset that students don’t know about the Tulsa Race Riot (Massacre). I’m appalled that grown-ups are ignorant of it. Passion fueled the first draft of my book, then set fire to it because it was pure crap… and the embers burned for so long, I had to start from scratch and write the story again--the next drafts, better.
I was an educator in a school in Ferguson, Missouri for more than a decade--during the time when Michael Brown was killed. There were protests because of Michael Brown… but no protests over 300 massacred in Tulsa a century ago (the 100-year commemoration will be in May 2021).
Henry Simmons--my main character--spoke to me. I know it sounds too fantastical to believe, but it’s the only way to explain it. Things happened to Henry, he saw things, he dreamed dreams--and none of them were plotted by me. His life unfurled in front of me as I typed--sometimes my fingers hurrying to keep up.
My wish is that dozens of Black writers tell the Tulsa story. Picture books. Middle-grade books. YA novels--more novels like Dreamland Burning--because the massace is a story that should be read by every American. As more diverse authors are embraced and celebrated and published, I hope there is room for all writers to tell all stories… as long as they stay true to the characters and as long as the story is burning a hole in the writers.
In the article that told of Kosoko Jackson, Rosenfield ended with, “But there's still time for the industry to course-correct, not by sacrificing its focus on diversity, but by relinquishing its stranglehold on the stories themselves. A colorful and creative future lies in welcoming and supporting authors from all backgrounds — and then letting them use their voices to tell whatever kinds of stories they want.”
Henry’s voice told me the story he wanted to be told…
Sioux Roslawski is a middle school teacher, and a freelance writer. If everything works out and all the stars align, her book about the Tulsa Race Massacre will be published this spring. If you’d like to read more of Sioux’s writing, check out her blog.
I'm ready for whatever criticism comes our way because I believe that we are doing the right thing. I believe both of these statements you made with my whole heart: As more diverse authors are embraced and celebrated and published, I hope there is room for all writers to tell all stories… as long as they stay true to the characters and as long as the story is burning a hole in the writers.ReplyDelete
And the one you quoted from the article: Rosenfield ended with, “But there's still time for the industry to course-correct, not by sacrificing its focus on diversity, but by relinquishing its stranglehold on the stories themselves. A colorful and creative future lies in welcoming and supporting authors from all backgrounds — and then letting them use their voices to tell whatever kinds of stories they want.”
I am under the belief that the change in leadership we will soon have in the U.S. will help with everyone being so tense and upset because we are going to be led with love and goodness--no matter what your political beliefs are.
Also, my press is small. That's in our favor, I think. We can make changes as we want/need to. We are the only two making the decisions. We can give money the book makes to the right cause.
Plus when people read Henry's story and see how much work, time, thought, and dedication you have put into telling it truthfully, their criticism will be more a reflection of themselves than of you and your work.
I'm always reminded of this quote: First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It's one of my favorites. You are speaking out for the people of Greenwood and for children's authors, in my opinion. :)
Sioux, as writers we have to have a thick skin because no matter our race, gender, religion or sexual identity, our work will be critiqued and sometimes so will we personally. We all have the right to tell our stories in our own diverse voices and readers can decide whether they want to read our words, stories, articles, books. As I said before, you have taken great care to write this story about Henry, and I think most people will see the heart of this novel while hearing a tale of a horrific time in our history and also see your heart, that you wanted to express your outrage, your grief in the form of Henry. We all agree that there needs to be more diversity in book publishing and the lack of diversity has been systemic for too many years but I have hope that will change. I hope you will one day be on a panel to discuss this as you talk about your novel and how it came to be with other storied authors once it is published. Wishing you much success with this novel.ReplyDelete
Also, there are books about the Tulsa Massacre that were written by black authors, "Unspeakable; The Tulsa Race Massacre," by Carol Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, "Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa's Historic Greenwood District," by Hannibal B. Johnson, "Black Wall Street 100; An American City Grapples With It's Historical Racial Trauma," also by Hannibal B. Johnson, and also a children's book entitled, "Black Wall Street Children," by African Tree Press, are a few.
Also, Rilla Askew is a white author who wrote, "Fire In Beulah," a fiction novel about two families, black and white, whose stories unfold during the Tulsa Race Massacre. The reviews for this book were very good.
Sioux, this is a passionate post and I love it. I am looking forward to your book's publication. BIG CONGRATULATIONS to you. Keep us all posted, please!ReplyDelete
Margo--I certainly hope that our new president will bring positive changes. It has been a horrible four years. I also hope that readers will give Henry a chance.ReplyDelete
Jeanine--I would gladly--and proudly and happily--sit on a panel surrounded by authors of color... and then I would step down to let them be showcased. I cannot imagine what it's like to have my family and me shut down and dismissed and ignored and refused and raped and enslaved and lynched and whipped. I cannot claim to imagine what that would be like. However, I AM outraged and horrifed by how awful we are to others.
I have read some of those books. There aren't any for middle-grade kids. "Dreamland Burning" is a good one for middle-schoolers and YAs but like "Fire in Beulah," it's written by a white author.
Joanne--You had a big part in this novel getting completed and published. You were the one who suggested I join a writing accountability group, and they nudged me along this rocky journey. Thank you... and you're mentioned in the acknowledgements. ;)
Looks like we both wrote about a similar topic this week, Sioux. :-) I know you and Margo have faith in this project and that's what matters most.ReplyDelete
As an educator I think you have an especially compelling story for why you wrote this book and how the idea came to you. It isn't often we are blessed with a character choosing us to tell their story. I can tell this has weighed heavily on your heart but you are doing the right thing and I can't wait to read it!ReplyDelete
Cathy--Great minds think alike? I loved your post. It really made me rethink about a book I've loved for many years... and made me look at it in a different way.ReplyDelete
Renee--Yeah, I've never had a character speak to me like this. I don't imagine it will ever happen again. It's a weird experience, but exciting.
Henry's story was destined to be written by you. It's launch and landing will make a big difference in this world. I wish you the best.ReplyDelete
Linda--I hope so. Thanks, as always, for your encouragement.ReplyDelete
It's a writer's mission to tell as true a story as they possibly can. I have no doubt you've done so, and I can't wait to read it. Congratulations!ReplyDelete