This conversation first appeared in Scratch magazine’s Q4 2014 issue. Read more Scratch about the business of being a writer here.
In the publishing industry, most of the gatekeepers come from a place of race and class privilege. How does this skewed power dynamic affect the careers of writers of color? Scratch invited our panelists to have a conversation about their experiences as people who walk through those “gates” every day. Novelist and essayist Kiese Laymon, journalist and essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, poet Harmony Holiday, and editor Chris Jackson (Spiegel & Grau) discuss inclusion, community, and how things are or are not different for writers of color in today’s media landscape. Scratch editor Manjula Martin moderates. This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Manjula Martin: It’s hard enough to write a book. But being published—and having a career—in an industry that’s overwhelmingly homogenous is an entirely different challenge. To start off, I’m going to put Chris on the spot a bit. You’re the only editor at this table. Can you give us a sense of what the conversation is like in big publishing houses in terms of expanding their lists to include more writers of color and their stories? What’s changing or not changing?
Christopher Jackson: If there has been a shift, it’s been a shift in the direction of there being less inclusiveness in terms of staffing among book publishers than in the past. Publishers Weekly just did their annual salary survey, and they included information about racial diversity for the first time. The sample is small—about 600 people—but the survey showed an industry that is 89 percent white, 3 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, 3 percent mixed race, 1 percent black/African-American, and 1 percent other. So that’s pretty extreme. It’s even worse than I thought. Until I started walking around the hall and doing a head count, and I was like, yeah, that’s about right.
When I started in book publishing in the 1990s, there was a lot more talk around increasing diversity, particularly in terms of race. And after a boom in sales of black books—led by black novelists from Toni Morrison and Alice Walker to Terry McMillan and E. Lynn Harris—the major publishers began creating black imprints to address black audiences. Those imprints didn’t always work very well, for a variety of reasons. And then during the waves of consolidation in the industry that followed, the publishers either got rid of them or quietly let them die off. Since that time publishers have largely pretended that issues of inclusiveness and diversity don’t exist.
That said, I think there’s a lot of exciting work being done in other forms of media, particularly digital media and independent publishing. And gigantic publishers are just missing out.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: At times I don’t understand the sensibilities of someone in the market—who looks at artists like Arundhati Roy, Toni Morrison, and Ha Jin—and doesn’t do the math and see that the writers who are really knocking down doors now include a very powerful group of people of color. It doesn’t make any sense to me—creatively or financially. Many of the up and coming big books that I hear about are by writers of color.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
So I think there are visionary book editors who are doing great, important work. And, maybe, the rest of the homogenous industry is not only just failing, but also willfully putting itself on the vine to dry?
But I’d rather praise people who are doing excellent work in terms of knowing how important diversity is, not just for us—for them as well. I think places like Buzzfeed and the Virginia Quarterly Review are doing that. I think the New York Times Magazine under Jake Silverstein will do that as well. So that is very encouraging and tremendously exciting.
Kiese, you edit a series at Gawker called True Stories. What is your experience of digital media as an editor and a writer?
Kiese Laymon: My whole thing with that series is just to try and get lots of black and brown young folks out there. Some of the people who run in that space have gotten enough traction that people have wanted to sign them to contracts or give them their own series. I mean, it’s first-person writing, so it’s probably going to be annoying 50 to 60 percent of the time. But the thing is, it doesn’t have to be that great to be published.
Laymon: Publishing industries across the board show us you don’t have to be great to be published. You just have to be kinda sorta interesting to somebody.
So you don’t have to be great, but apparently you do have to be white.
What did it feel like when you were starting out to encounter that—to be like, “I’m entering into a business that is not particularly welcoming to me. How do I do that?”
Harmony Holiday: I don’t think you can go about it thinking like that. For me, what’s worked is just literally not thinking about it at all. Putting on some sort of blinders, so you’re not always working with that anxiety. That essay Langston [Hughes] wrote, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”—I’m thinking of both sides of his argument in that. One is that obviously you’re always a black writer, but also you have to work with your gifts first and shut that out when you’re actually composing. What do you guys think? That’s how I approach it, but it might be naïve.
Laymon: I have hoped when I’m doing my work that I approach it that way. I mostly just try to make sure that the characters I’m writing to and through would want to read the work that I’m writing.
Holiday: Being black in America, you kind of grow up knowing from the beginning what about you sells, or what is fetishized about you. So on some level you have an advantage. It’s just somewhere in your subconscious at all times as a sort of protective evolutionary device. You know how your “brand” is. My first book was blatantly called Negro League Baseball. Not because it was pandering to that; because that’s what it needed to be called. But I do think being that flamboyant about something, if it’s in your personality, that’s maybe what sells, besides the quality of the work.
With the archival stuff I do [reading deeper into Amiri Baraka’s archive at Columbia], I see he was really keen on that. He knew that Dutchman, for example, was really the work that made him crossover famous—it’s the story of a black man and a white woman.
Ghansah: For me—on a editorial, sentence/ideas level—I just try to maintain a sense of control.
Let’s go back to some of those stats that Chris was throwing out. Do publishers just not think there’s an audience for work by writers of color?
Jackson: No, I don’t think that’s true. I would say what’s happening in some of the larger publishing companies is that they’re publishing fewer books generally than they have in the past, and so they’re trying to publish those to audiences that they think they have mastered, they’ve already identified. And there’s a lot of data now in the way there wasn’t in the past, which can cut two ways. The olden days of “gut feelings” is passing away, and that’s not such a bad thing—gut feelings are often laced with implicit and untested biases. But my fear about more data-driven publishing is that it leads to companies engineered to sell books to people they’ve already identified.
And that means that it’s almost like, if you got on the boat already, you’re in. But if you’re not on the boat already…then the boat’s gone, and you’re not getting in. So lots of audiences that haven’t been as identifiable or easy to reach, or whatever, I think you have a lot more trouble with those kinds of books.
The good thing is that there are a lot of writers who are finding ways to get themselves out there without needing a publishing machine the way that they did in the past.
Some of the traditional ways of getting your name out—like barnstorming, doing a million events, that kind of stuff—still work, especially for independent publishers. It creates an audience. And because of things like digital and social media, those kinds of efforts can be amplified—so writers have more tools at their disposal to make a name for themselves, to build an audience. Even if a book publishing company has no clue how to find an audience, the writer can find and quantify that audience.
I think that was true for Kiese.
Kiese, can you speak a bit to your experience of bringing your novel, Long Division, to publication? You eventually went with an independent press.
Laymon: It took a long time. I think it took a long time firstly because the book wasn’t ready. I had it with two different publishing houses (it was the same editor), and she wanted to address the quality of the book, which is what editors should do. And at some point in the process she started to tell me she didn’t think that my audience—the audience I thought was going to read the book—was going to move the needle. She started to say that we needed to take some of the racial politics out of the book. She started to say that we needed to sell this book to school boards in Kansas. She said, this book isn’t gonna sell unless it wins lots of awards … things like that. And this was a person who loved the book, who was invested in it. And I said, I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to take the racial politics out of my book. I’m not gonna change some of the language the way you told me to.
Remember: I wasn’t married, I didn’t have kids, I had this job at Vassar. So I could say that. And like Chris said, I knew there were communities that were really going to go for what I was trying to do with that book. But you have to come up with a plan.
What was your plan?
Laymon: I knew I had these essays that people were going to click on. And I knew I had these essays people were gonna share. So my question was, do I put these essays out one at a time, or do I put these out as a book? And partially because I went with an independent press, the press was like, just do whatever you want to do to get this shit sold. So I kinda borrowed some of these techniques from rappers. I was like, I’m just going to put a lot of these essays out online to create a buzz or interest or whatever—some people call it “brand”—and then I’m going to sell that book full of essays that are going to be slightly different, but the main thing I’m going to be selling is this novel. And it worked.
Is that like a literary equivalent of giving your mix tape out on the subway? Like, here, have some free stuff and then buy some stuff?
Laymon: Sort of. But really it’s this: because so many of these entities are so white, when they see a black person getting lots of clicks—and it literally comes down to clicks … I put out this essay for Gawker a year and a half ago, and it went viral. After that, I get a call from ESPN, and I get calls from all these other places that would normally never mess with me. And I can use that to help me create a buzz. ESPN pays crazy amounts of money, so I’m like, now you’re going to pay me, and I’m just going to give you articles that are kinda sorta about sports so I can build an audience. So I think the racism of this shit sometimes works in your favor, if you can get that one foot in the door.
But the key, once you get that black or brown foot in the door, is to really open that shit up so other black and brown folk can get in. I don’t think that means having people come in the same way you do. If you do something that works in this business, the idea should not be to make other black and brown folks go through the same kind of tired, soul-crushing shit you went through.
I do find that sometimes from older black writers and other writers who have had not such great publishing experiences. They’re like, I had to be the goddamn slave opening the back door for writers who were worse than me, so you should have to do that same thing. And I’m like, no, not really. I think once someone does get a foot in, you’ve got to open it more. Encourage more.
How does mentorship come in to your careers, either as a teacher or mentor, or as someone who has role models who came before you?
Ghansah: I look at it as a chain of identity-building, community-building, and independence. My mentor was a guy named Richard Nichols [the manager of The Roots], and he wasn’t a writer at all. He was someone in the music industry who was incredibly supportive and important to me. This guy was so savvy, he outgunned all the big record labels; he got them to come to him, and let him do what he wanted—black music that spoke to self-defined black life. That, of course, was deeply informative for me.
The people that I mentor in my own life sometimes aren’t writers at all. I taught high school freshmen or college freshmen for most of my life up until a few years ago. So I have a lot of former students in my life who I’m really close to, and they’re really important to me. I like to cook them good food and have them over. Help them find gigs, or whatnot. Because when you’re younger, it’s just nice to know that someone has your back. I remember that when I was twenty and I didn’t have my life together I had people who were always really helpful. I try to pay that forward. Mentoring can’t be underestimated. But it’s also organic for me. It’s not like I’ve had anyone particularly in writing who was a mentor, or that I’m really in the position to mentor anyone other than the people I’ve met organically in my life.
Laymon: I like that.
Ghansah: I actually don’t talk about my work a lot with my friends. It seems self-indulgent. But I think that’s also cultural. Because if I talked to my mom about it, she’d be like, “Please, shut up.”
Holiday: It can just get petty talking too much about your work. I trust people who are working and constantly producing and not necessarily always talking about it. But it’s still good to have writers in your life who you know are doing that.
Jackson: When I was young and I first started in book publishing, there was definitely an active, constantly checking-in-with-each-other community of people who were the book and magazine (and digital) editors and writers of my generation. We all felt like we were part of the community and had kind of a common cause. And there was an older cohort of people who were very interested in cultivating that, in formal and informal ways.
There’s this agent, Marie Brown, who at the time was one of the few black literary agents. She would have gatherings with young people in her offices in the Village. In the same building there was a black-owned publishing company, Writers and Readers, and the Quarterly Black Review. There was a sense of young people being invited into those spaces to learn, and to get themselves prepared to take on the responsibility of bringing our culture and literature into a new generation.
PEN USA also had a group of editors who met regularly, which is where I found a group of older editors—Carole Hall, the late Manie Baron, Janet Hill, and others—who made it clear that I wasn’t alone, but was part of a tradition and a kind of family. It was hugely important in my career. And a lot of that was the result of work that was done by older people to bring us together. So I do think it’s important to try and figure out formal ways to do that in addition to doing the informal thing.
Holiday: Are black writers and editors starting our own publishing houses and magazines at all? If we own our own rights/publishing houses, we have a lot more creative and financial freedom. That’s something I learned from watching my father [Jimmy Holiday]’s career as a black musician who owned his publishing, and the leverage that rare position gave him.
Laymon: I just want to say, I didn’t really have any mentors. I went to Indiana University for my undergraduate work. Indiana prides itself on having a lot of black and brown young writers, and my program was mostly black and brown, but the teachers weren’t. And the teachers didn’t even really do work in the areas I was interested in. So I didn’t really have any mentors there. I still feel like the teachers I had thought I was “great for a black guy.” I had that feeling.
But my grandmother—she’s read the Bible a lot of times. And that’s the only book she reads, but that’s a pretty tough book to read. She was sort of my mentor.
Laymon: And also in the absence of mentors, and in the absence of what Chris is talking about that he experienced early in his career, you just have to ask a lot of direct questions of folks in the know. When I started to actually move books, I fired both of my agents (I had two) and then, after I sold a decent number of books, I didn’t know what I should do. Should I keep doing it this way; should I get an agent? And I called Chris and I just asked him. I felt weird because I didn’t want him to think I was trying to create a relationship between us that wasn’t there. But I was like, I need to ask. To a lot of us, Chris is the black editor, he is black editing. So I was just like, “I don’t know anybody else, bruh, let me know what I should do.” And he gave me advice. He said some things that were sane and thoughtful, and I went from there.
Jackson: You know, you see these little scenes develop sometimes among white writers, often white male writers. And they’re able to somehow attract all this attention that is completely out of proportion to how many people are actually interested in what they’re doing. And I feel like, with us, there’s a sense that we’re like these isolated nodes that have to somehow exist in competition with these larger groups and larger forces, but we’re alone. So for me it was really important that I was constantly being reminded, even just as a reader, that there were people who were reading the same things I was reading and who were interested in the same kinds of voices and perspectives. To know that there was this other kind of rich universe, and a great power there to be tapped, an energy to channel. Talking to other writers and editors helped convince me—in a kind of anecdotal, circumstantial way—that there were people doing the work I wanted to be a part of, and that there was an audience for the kinds of books I wanted to put out in the world. So when I talk to someone like Rachel, the great thing about it is not that she’s telling me about her work, although her work is really interesting. It’s a way of bolstering confidence in what kinds of things I can represent as an editor. To know I’m not alone, even if 90% of the people in my work environment are white.
Rachel, in an interview you did with Gawker, you had this lovely quote about the cost of working and being successful as a writer. You said there’s always a lingering question in your head: “How did I get over, and at what cost?” Can you answer that question here?
Ghansah: I know I got over because my grandfather and my mother are and were super brave people. And then I spent my formative years sitting next to someone [my mentor] who did it his way. So I knew early on, if I was going to do it, I would only do it my way. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to listen to my editor. But the primary thing I learned was that you can’t lose yourself. That’s how you get over: you’re very brave.
And the cost?
Ghansah: The costs are innumerable and real. But to me it’s worth it. I feel very lucky to write. I love researching, writing, and reporting and there is nothing that I’d rather be doing.
Thank you. Quickly, what are you each reading right now?
Holiday: The poet Ai. I love her work. She takes on a lot of male personas, which is something I work on doing. I’m reading Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides’s book about Martin Luther King’s assassin, which is research for another thing I’m working on. And Derek Walcott.
Laymon: I’m teaching This Ain’t Chicago by Zandria Robinson. It’s about race, gender, class, and regional identity in post-soul south. And I’m partnering that book with Shana Redmond’s Anthem, which is about the music of the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. So that’s what I’m reading this week.
Jackson: I’m reading Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, and I just stumbled upon a galley the other day and picked it up and got into it. We just did an event for this little literary group I’m part of with four writers, and I tried to read all their books before I interviewed them and I failed to do so.
So I’m still reading them. Right now I’m finishing Saeed Jones’s Prelude to a Bruise, which is beautiful and powerful.
Ghansah: I’m doing some political reporting, so I’m reading Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate, about LBJ. I’m just looking structurally at what he’s doing. And the other book is Henry Dumas’s Rope of Wind. I really want to read this writer Jean Love Cush, who I’m hearing great things about, so I just ordered her novel, Endangered. I also read and love so many writers and thinkers that I’ve discovered via Twitter—that place is like an incredible digital writing workshop for us: Vimbai Dzimwasha, Alexis Okeowo, Gene Demby, Daniel José Older, Nina Yeboah, Kima Jones, and Kameelah Rasheed.
RACHEL KAADZI GHANSAH’s essays and criticism have appeared in the Believer, the Paris Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Transition, and Rolling Stone. Her Believer essay, “If He Hollers Let Him Go,” was a finalist for the 2014 National Magazine Award.
HARMONY HOLIDAY is the author of Negro League Baseball (Fence, 2011), Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues (Ricochet, 2014), and Hollywood Forever, forthcoming from Fence in Spring 2015. She was the winner of the 2013 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Holiday curates the Afrosonics archive, a collection of rare and out-of-print LPs and soundbites featuring poetry and poetics from throughout the African Diaspora, in both analog at Columbia University’s music library and digitally as a Tumblr site. Her record label, Mythscience Records, will soon reissue Amiri Baraka’s LP Black Spirits: Festival of New Black Poets in America.
CHRISTOPHER JACKSON is executive editor at Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House.
KIESE LAYMON is the author of the novel Long Division (Agate Bolden, 2013) and a collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (Agate Bolden, 2013). Long Division won the 2014 William Saroyan Prize for International Writing and was named one of the best books of 2013 by a number of publications, including Buzzfeed, The Believer, Salon, Guernica, Mosaic Magazine, Chicago Tribune, The Morning News, MSNBC, Library Journal, Contemporary Literature, and the Crunk Feminist Collective. Laymon has written essays and stories for numerous publications including Esquire, ESPN, Colorlines, NPR, Gawker, Truthout, Longman’s Hip Hop Reader, The Best American Non-required Reading, Guernica, Mythium, and Politics and Culture. Laymon is currently at work on a new novel, And So On…, and a memoir called 309: A Fat Black Memoir. He is an Associate Professor of English at Vassar College.
Moderator MANJULA MARTIN is the editor and co-founder of Scratch. Her writing has appeared in Nieman Storyboard, Longform, Virginia Quarterly Review online, The Awl, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She makes a living as a freelance editor and copywriter.
Scratch is a digital magazine of information and ideas about the relationship between writing and money. Read more at scratchmag.net.