In 1928 Zora Neale Hurston published a provocative essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” In it she describes her childhood in racially segregated Florida and the moment when she left the African-American town of Eatonville and went from being a beloved, recognized member of her community to being an anonymous, insignificant member of a marginalized and despised race. “It seemed that I had suffered a sea change,” she writes before assuring the reader, “But I am not tragically colored.”
Last month I recalled Hurston’s essay and thought to myself, “I am not tragically self-published.” After all, I was heading to UConn to give two (paid) presentations and I later received a similar invitation from a professor at Harvard. When I presented at a school in the Bronx recently, my former student (who had arranged the free visit) thanked me for inspiring the children. Her closing remarks touched and surprised me: “You were so radiant,” she wrote, “I am so glad you've found such happiness, purpose, and much deserved success as an author.”
Part of me wanted to correct her assertion that I have found “success” as an author. Like Hurston, I remember the moment I went from being an admired, multi-award-winning debut picture book author to a largely unknown, ignored, and even pitied self-published author. In the past two years I have published sixteen books for young readers, but my books are not eligible for review in the major outlets, public libraries refuse to acquire them for their collections, and major awards are no longer a possibility. Despite the many voices clamoring for books that better reflect the nation’s diverse population, my indie titles that center on marginalized children are summarily dismissed. And there is little I can do about this marginalization; there are no penalties when gatekeepers reject books simply because they don’t come from a system that’s rigged against writers of color. So have I really found the success I deserve?
If Hurston felt “most colored” when she was “thrown against a sharp white background,” then I feel “most self-published” when I gather with other writers of color who only publish traditionally. I have little to contribute to the conversation, and find it hard to congratulate a friend on the sale of her novel when the publication date is two or three years away. We both know that the kids of color in our communities need diverse books NOW. But the urgency we feel is not shared by the overwhelmingly white publishing industry.
When I set the objectives for my Rosetta Press imprint, I made it clear that I want to operate at the pace of the 21st century. I sold a manuscript to a small press in 2014 and that book, Melena’s Jubilee, is scheduled for release in 2016 or 2017. Yet in that time I have self-published more than a dozen titles—most of them illustrated—and I had two of the books translated into Spanish. A friend quipped that I “drop books the way Prince drops albums.” My goal is to produce a steady supply of compelling, diverse stories that will nourish the imagination and excite even reluctant readers, so I choose not to ration my books. I still have over a dozen unpublished manuscripts on my hard drive and just hired an illustrator to work on a picture book that will come out next month.
Most people know that an indie author is a writer who has decided to publish her work without the help of an agent or editor employed at a publishing house. But many people don’t know that indie authors often come from minority groups that are chronically underrepresented in the publishing industry and have only limited access to the traditional system. Print-on-demand technology makes it possible for these writers to inexpensively produce books that can circulate in limited but also unexpected ways.
I urge readers to consider the value of organic writing: stories genuinely reflect the values, cultural practices, and histories of a particular community. Organic writing originates within specific communities and recognizes that culturally-specific narratives affirm the realities of marginalized children who rarely see themselves (accurately) depicted. Community-based publishing supports organic writing by prioritizing the welfare of community members over commercial success (look at the amazing, important books we can create when we put people ahead of profit). But perhaps the greatest benefit of community-based publishing is that it can respond rapidly to events transpiring at a local, national, or global level. My latest picture book, Let the Faithful Come, is a nativity story that reflects the plight of refugees in the U.S. and abroad. It’s a topical, timely book that resonates with immigrants like me and those who believe compassion should be shown to all—all year round.
Hurston’s response to racial discrimination was astonishment rather than anger (“How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?”), and I am learning to shift my righteous indignation toward a more self-affirming attitude. In the New Year, I will continue to urge others to find their authentic voice (or as the late poet Jayne Cortez wrote, “Find your own voice & use it, use your own voice & find it”). I’ll keep directing aspiring writers of all ages to sites like WriteNowMakeBooks.com, which guides writers through the self-publishing process. And instead of despairing at the persistent lack of traditionally published diverse books, I will focus on the many untold stories just waiting to find their way into the world.