Trajectories of belonging

“My father used to complain that he “couldn’t get anything started” in Canada. The United States, by contrast, stuck in his memory as the land of opportunity where a hard-working black man of humble origin could aspire to almost anything…” Zetta Elliott on her choice to live in America, rather than in Canada (where she was born).

“I am an immigrant. I was born in Canada, which means that I grew up “resisting Americanization;” in school I was taught to embrace the “tossed salad” metaphor rather than the “melting pot”—Canada was presented as a multicultural “mosaic,” a nation where all kinds of differences were not only celebrated but protected. Canadians often define themselves in opposition to Americans; they pride themselves on being quiet, polite, and progressive—the antithesis of their loud, boorish, bigoted neighbors. I learned at an early age to look down my nose at the United States; it’s something of a national pastime and a legacy of Canada’s colonial past. Of course, it didn’t help that my father used to slip across the border whenever life in “the Great White North” became unbearable. He would eventually return, bearing wondrous gifts (like a black Barbie doll) and for months we’d have to listen to him rhapsodizing about the US. As an adolescent, I disdained the United States yet still elected to study American History in high school, perhaps as a way of connecting with my father. I could not deny that the US had a certain allure—all the pop stars and television shows I admired were American—but I also understood that a fascination with “that country” could and would disrupt my life.

Although he came to Canada from the Caribbean as a teenager, my father spoke without an accent and felt perfectly at ease around whites. I never wondered why. Indeed, I grew up thinking of my father as a “generic” black man with no fixed ethnicity, and I was myself a young adult before I understood how the United States had shaped his identity—and mine. When my father arrived in Toronto at age 15, his stepmother indicated that he was not welcome in her home. Desperate to keep the peace, my grandfather tried to enlist my father in the army, but when that scheme failed, my great-aunt instead enrolled my father in a Christian high school—in Allentown, PA. Her conservative church handled everything; my father was sent to the United States where he finished high school and then entered Eastern Pilgrim Bible College. He was one of only two black male students on campus and in the spirit of Christian fellowship, was strictly forbidden from dating the white co-eds.

My father returned to Canada after graduation and married my mother—the white daughter of a United Church minister. Despite being groomed for the ministry, my father chose to teach rather than preach. He ran for public office—and lost. He tried to add a Black Heritage component to the Toronto public school curriculum—and failed. He had an affair with a black woman he once knew back in Allentown—and my mother divorced him. My father grew out his Afro and became something of a black militant. But there wasn’t much tolerance for militancy in Toronto in 1980. Within a few years, my father settled down, started a new family, and learned to accept the status quo. Or so I thought.

The year before I graduated from high school, my father disappeared. We all knew he’d gone to the United States again and we all assumed he’d eventually return. We were wrong. I started college in Quebec and received a letter from my father telling me he was now remarried and living in Brooklyn, NY. Not yet certified to teach there, he drove a gypsy cab along the bus route and would occasionally send me three or four crumpled dollar bills. When I graduated from college, my father invited me to spend the summer with him in Brooklyn and before long I moved all my belongings across the border. His stated goal was to have all four of his children living in the United States. But my father died of cancer in 2004, and I am the only one of my siblings who chose to pursue my own “American Dream.”

I begin with this summary of my father’s life because I see evidence in his narrative of the many forces that operate upon the immigrant generally and upon the black immigrant to (North) America specifically—forces which shaped my own life story and my young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight. My father used to complain that he “couldn’t get anything started” in Canada. The United States, by contrast, stuck in his memory as the land of opportunity where a hard-working black man of humble origin could aspire to almost anything, despite the pressure he once felt in the 1960s to lose his Caribbean accent, keep to his side of the color line, and not join the Civil Rights Movement. Though my father cautioned me against a life as a writer (and wished I had chosen a practical profession like law rather than academia), it is as a storyteller and scholar that I have learned to detect, embrace—and mount my own resistance against—the processes of Americanization.”

This is an excerpt from Zetta’s paper “The Bottom of the Pot: Blackness and Be/longing in A Wish After Midnight. Read the rest of the post on Zetta’s blog here.

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).