Some thoughts on self-publishing

Till quite recently, I regarded self-published work with Wodehouse-like scorn; it was synonymous with slim volumes of verse (never chunky novels) printed at a rich aunt’s expense and then pressed into the indignant hands of friends and family on Christmas morning. Of course there were exceptions (Leaves of Grass!), but like most readers, I made two assumptions about the practice: one, that authors resorted to self-publication when rejected by more ‘legitimate’ presses, and two, that the rejectors–the agents and editors and publishers and store owners who act as the gatekeepers of publishing–knew what they were doing. Over the past five years, though, my second assumption has been repeatedly challenged, thanks to the trash that many mainstream publishing houses shove our way, and, more importantly, because so much self-published work comes from the margins; as a resident of these margins, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to believe that rejection is based solely on the marketability and/or quality of a manuscript. While I do think the chaff currently overshadows  the grain in self-publishing, I also view it as an organic, technology-enabled response to the systemic exclusion of certain types of writing (and writers) by mainstream publishing.

It was in this spirit that I attended a talk on self-publishing last Thursday at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. The event featured three authors. Neesha Meminger‘s first YA novel Shine, Coconut Moon was published by Simon and Schuster; she then self-published her second YA novel, Jazz in Love (links go to my reviews on this site). Musician-writer Vivek Shraya self-published a  collection of illustrated short stories titled God Loves Hair, which was recently nominated for a Lambda Award.  Zetta Elliott is a traditionally published poet and playwright who self-published a YA novel A Wish After Midnight. I’ve read work by two of the three and had very fruitful interactions with them in the virtual world (check out Zetta’s great essay on Women Doing Literary Things here), and I was keen to hear them in person.

Zetta, Neesha, Vivek, and host Annemarie (Pic credit: Victoria Moreno of TWB)

The talk, titled Changing the Face of Publishing, was excellent; I have no plans to publish a book but found myself intensely invested in the authors’ journeys to publication. I was particularly struck by two issues. First, the past proven successes of these writers meant little to the publishers they queried. Zetta, for instance, has a PhD from NYU, teaches African American literature at Hunter College, and is a very successful playwright and poet, and yet, she couldn’t get a foot into the door when it came to mainstream publishing (I was truly chilled to hear of her ten-year long rejection period). You really have to wonder what’s going on with the publishing industry here. And second, publishing and writing books wasn’t an end in itself for these writers. All of them had a bigger vision, an agenda if you will, and they believed it was important for younger readers to have access to their (sort of) work–Neesha’s writing deals with South Asian immigrants, Zetta’s with African American narratives, and Vivek’s with queerness and immigrant identity. In the greater scheme of things, the method of publishing did not matter to these writers as much as their writing being  available to those seeking, and, in a sense, needing such alternative stories.

So, knowing what sort of place you’re writing from seems to be critical when evaluating whether or not to self-publish. I also think self-publishing seems ideally suited to foster two sorts of writing in particular–genre fiction, where markets are very crowded and competitive and pricing is key, and writing dealing with historically marginalized topics/groups. It makes perfect sense that these extremes met in self-publishing; these are the two areas where the obvious penalties of non-traditional publishing–mainstream reviewers ignoring such books, and the ineligibility of such books for many awards–do not have as much significance.

The audience questions at the event came from aspiring writers, and consisted of hard-edged queries about the business–e-books versus hard copies, profit margins, print run sizes, returnability clauses and the like. If you are interested in self-publishing, you must check out the video of the talk. And even if you aren’t, do spend a few minutes watching some intelligent, informed, articulate, and um, very good-looking writers talk with passion and generosity about their work.  You can view the video of the talk and the subsequent Q&A here (link credit: Facing Out).

Jazz in Love by Neesha Meminger

It’s always interesting to see patterns emerge in a writer’s work. Neesha Meminger’s debut novel Shine, Coconut Moon offered a nuanced account of a seventeen-year-old Indian Sikh girl’s exploration of her identity; the catalyst for  Samar’s journey was post 9/11 America’s reaction to her color, race, ethnicity, and religion. In Jazz in Love, seventeen-year-old Jazz is figuring out who she is, but this time, the catalyst is her inner world–first, her hormones, and then, her (Indian Sikh) family. Jazz’s story is hence more universal and simultaneously, more particular than Samar’s.

Jazz, who’s formulated her romantic philosophy from the bodice-rippers she hides from her parents, is curious and a little scared when it comes to love. All she really wants is to experiment a bit to see what works for her, before she settles down. And every seventeen-year-old can relate to that. But Jazz’s conservative parents want to pair her up with a suitable boy so as to remove any opportunities for experimentation. Their respect for tradition runs very deep, and not just in opposition to American ways; I saw the central conflict more in terms of generational differences than immigrant-versus-American culture. This book could, with a few changes, have been set in modern-day India, for there isn’t really an “American” angle to the plot, other than the fact that “modern” is so often conflated with “westernized”.

The story is simple. When her parents catch Jazz hugging Jeeves, her best-friend-from-kindergarten-who-happens-to-be-male, they quickly fix her up with a “suitable” boy so as to pre-empt any romantic forays. But the suitable boy has a secret which makes him unsuitable–and which leaves Jazz free to sigh over Tyler, the one who makes her hormones froth and buzz. And Jeeves, meanwhile, morphs into hotness too.

It’s the standard love triangle, but the issues herein are quite particularly Sikh/Indian. Jeeves is Indian and Sikh too, but unsuitable because he’s not of Jazz’s caste; quelle horreur! Tyler is Indian, but from the Caribbean, so he’s apparently not considered “Indian” Indian by some. Meminger balances this emphasis on ethnic specifics with vivid details of Jazz’s emotional and sensual experiences. We’re with Jazz as she tries to fathom her impulses, and we’re there as she figures out that with freedom comes the possibility–no, certainty– of making mistakes.

Meminger is very good indeed at describing the madness of seventeen; she had me alternately wishing I were young and hot again, and then, thanking the pantheon that I’ll never have to revisit this part of my life. She’s also scarily at ease with teenspeak, and I had several LOL moments (see, I’m learning!), as when I read about bindi-bos (bindi-sporting bimbos), and when Jeeves suggests that a thirty-something man is old, and hence “not good with the internet.” Damn, is that what they think of us?

Jazz… isn’t quite as accomplished as Shine— some of the scenes had an explaining note to them, and, as might be expected from this genre, the plot follows a predictable path.  The ending, though, was entirely satisfactory, avoiding a neat resolution (and perhaps, in the process, setting up the possibility of a sequel?) And props to Jazz… for providing me a longed-for break from the self-conscious gravitas of much contemporary South Asian literature. This book rejoices in the sensual, it’s light-hearted and witty, and you can tell that the author had fun writing it. Not as much fun as I did reading it, Neesha!

Note: Neesha self-identifies as Canadian, so I’m counting this one towards the Canadian Book Challenge.

Seventeen and Sikh after 9/11: Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

Buy now from Amazon!Seventeen-year-old Samar has never thought about “Isms,” but 9/11 changes all that. When Samar’s long-lost uncle visits her New Jersey home a few days after the attacks, the two are pursued by racist taunts and shouts of “Osama” from boys who’ve known Samar since kindergarten. For Samar is Sikh, from an Indian community whose religion (Sikhism) requires its followers to not cut their hair; Samar’s uncle hence wears a turban.

Samar’s mom Sharan, an atheist who has long been estranged from her family, has always taught Samar that race and religion are inconsequential—good grades and good decisions lead to success in America. But 9/11 rams Samar’s “happily assimilated Indian-American butt… into the cold seat of reality.” Samar no longer believes Sharan’s wisdom, but wonders about her too-convenient ignorance of her roots. Is she a coconut—a wannabe white person, brown on the outside but white inside?

As Samar tries to explore her Sikh heritage, her social circles come undone. Mother, BFF, boyfriend—every relationship seems to sour as Samar wonders what her ethnicity could mean to her. Samar’s boyfriend Mike, for instance, pretty much tells her to pass as Hispanic:

“When I first met you, I thought you were Mexican.”

My voice comes out as a gravelly whisper. “But I’m not. I’m Indian-American, just like my mom… and Sikh, like my uncle.”

“Who has to know?” he says.

I look out the window on my side.

“Me. I know.”

What is the cost of assimilation? What are the penalties for not conforming with the norms of the majority culture? Is there more than one way to be American? Meminger spells these questions out in as many words, and her clean prose and unfussy approach are perfect for Shine, Coconut Moon’s weighty themes. When Samar decides to learn more about her religion, she doesn’t go to some generic wise crone, but Google. She finds answers to her questions about Sikhism in a chatroom (her handle is JerseyCoconut). I can hear hundreds of Indian-American teens sighing in gratitude as they read this book. Someone out there actually understands! All adults aren’t idiots!

Meminger’s agenda for her work is evident from about the fifth page. In no way is my observation a criticism—I’m glad, glad, glad to see a YA novel tackling this topic head-on. And for all its apparent simplicity, this tale is beautifully nuanced. Sharan is a single mom, a self-confident rebel who turned her back on her heritage for understandable reasons—uber-controlling, parochial parents. When Samar starts looking to her past, Sharan is bewildered, and cannot help viewing her daughter’s actions as a betrayal of her hard-won independence. (Yay, an Asian mother who isn’t an arranged marriage-promoting kitchen goddess of spice!)

The novel has too many layers to unpeel in this review, but I must mention the author’s quiet rebuke of those who refuse to ‘see’ racism because they consider themselves color-blind. Shine also has many interesting subtexts. For instance Samar’s class is reading The Great Gatsby, and the reader can’t help but compare that story of the failure of the American dream against the present moment, notably Samar’s realization that her own American dream—the assumption that race does not matter—may not be completely true.

I cannot stress strongly enough that Meminger never champions the primacy of religious identity over other loyalties or affiliations. Sharan’s rejection of her heritage is presented as a reasoned and hence valid decision; Samar is now making a similar informed choice. Meminger’s ultimate vision is for Samar to possess the knowledge and the courage to choose her identity—whatever shape that might take.

And what could be more American than that?

(This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica magazine.)