1. J.T. Woody

    J.T. Woody Senior Member

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    Identity Crisis!

    Discussion in 'By Writing Form' started by J.T. Woody, Oct 19, 2018.

    I'd never thought of this until I started working at a public library and I was given the African American Fiction collection to manage....

    Who am I as a writer? Am a an "African American Writer" or a "Writer who is African American?"
    Mainly, does an author go into the AAF section because they are black or because they write about the black experience?
    We have some writers who write sci fi, urban fantasy, and dramas such as LA Banks (her vampire huntress series that has a black MC), Octavia Butler's dystopian futurism novels, and Beverly Jenkin's historical romances..... They are all in our AAF section. However, NK Jemisin who writes in the sci-fi/fantasy genre wrote in her blog that she never wants to be boxed in as an "African American Writer." She says why is it not good enough to be a writer who is African American? That she never wants to see her books in the AAF section of book stores and libraries.

    You have writers like Brandon Massey who writes crime thrillers in AAF but then there is James Patterson's Alex Cross series which is an urban thriller series with a black MC and thats in general fiction... and writers like Helen Oyeyemi is a "Fiction writer" and not "African American Fiction Writer" even though she is black....?

    I'm confused and this is confusing. I guess what I'm saying, if I write something, regardless of what its about, will I go to the AAF section?

    (ps. I dont know what forum to post this to)
     
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  2. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Senior Member

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    I would think that's a question only you can answer.
    The trouble is sections like romance, fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, etc, are genres of fiction. They help describe the content and character of the book. Whereas AAF (from my understanding) is collected by a shared characteristic of its authors.

    If I were in your shoes I would want my books shelved wherever the majority of my target audience shops.
     
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  3. J.T. Woody

    J.T. Woody Senior Member

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    The problem with this is that, lots of people can read Beverly Jenkin's historical romances. Yes, they have black characters, but it is still historical romance. LA Bank's paranormal/fantasy fiction is a friggin vampire series (among others) but has a black MC. Just because they have black MC doe not mean they are written specifically for black people. It could easily be shelved with Twilight or Patricia Briggs (obvious not side by side because alphabet...).

    NK Jimisin wrote in her blog that being shelved in the AAF section would narrow her audience and she isnt writing specifically for AA. She's writing for anyone who is interested in science fiction and her work. This is how I feel. And i think, unless and author specifically says "My work is AA" or specifically markets their work as such, then why is almost everything written by a black person with a black MC suddenly AAF?

    Exceptions (that I've seen) are writers who are not native to America... like Helen Oyeyemi, chimamanda ngozi adichie, Chinua Achebe, Patrick Chamoiseau, Zadie Smith.
    Then, of course, its a personal things as well.... whoever had the collection before me decided these certain books and authors belonged there.
     
  4. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Senior Member

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    It sounds to me like you're answering your own question. If you're writing for a larger audience then you should try and get your books shelved under the appropriate genre.
     
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2018
  5. izzybot

    izzybot Transhuman Autophage Contributor

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    I relate to this, albeit coming from the angle of 'queer writer' or 'writer who is also queer' instead. It's something I've mulled over too but I don't really have an answer.

    If you want widespread appeal/success, then I think it's important to lobby for your identity as 'writer who is [x]', but personally, I'm kind of fine with being considered '[x] writer'. I wasn't always and I might change my mind again at some point, though. But widespread success is so unlikely, anyway, that I've decided I'm okay with being successful in my circles, and fuck the rest.
     
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  6. Wreybies

    Wreybies Arroz Con Admin Operations Manager Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Just my 2p, fwiw...

    Perhaps because "we're not there yet", or we perceive that "we're not there yet". You're posting from the U.S.A., so that's what I'm going off of. There are still sociocultural dynamics in play that make the blackness of writers like the ones you mention - and even more-so earlier writers like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany - a thing that we engage as important, as an initial filter through which we engage their work. In Butler's Xenogenesis series, Lilith Iyapo's (the MC) blackness is not the core feature of the book or its driving force. She just happens to be black. In her book Wild Seed, Anyanwu's Africanness is more central to the book, but still... the book is not Afrocentric. In all cases for Butler, her unforgettable black female protagonists seem more a product of the writer projecting herself, or facets of herself, into the story. But her stories are first and foremost Science Fiction and Fantasy books.

    If we slip out of North American culture for a moment and slide into a more tropical skin (mine own), Butler's blackness evaporates. In my culture (Caribbean), she's still most certainly a female writer of Science Fiction, but she's no longer a black writer of Science Fiction because here her blackness is not a thing. Does that make sense? We would not consider the color of her skin to be a filter through which to engage her work because here her skin color isn't something that directs our engagement of her in a real-world, day-to-day basis. Her femaleness, yes, unfortunately, that still serves as a filter we would note given that my culture holds to a different, more deeply entrenched sense of machismo (which doesn't mean quite the same thing for me in Spanish as maybe it does for you as a loan word in English).

    If you've not guessed yet, I don't have any sort of answer for you. I am not African American, though my skin is sufficiently swarthy and my features are sufficiently Caribbean to make me wish to avoid border states right now, in this political climate.

    @izzybot just posted while I was writing this answer and I second Izzy's sentiment. I'm sure that anything I ever manage to publish will eventually get tagged as LGBTQ+ writing because my characters and my content are unabashedly queer.

    A while back we had a heated thread concerning black representation in Fantasy, and the thread ran all over the place, and one thing that I did notice in that thread (I'm putting on my flame-retardant suit as we speak, so forgive the pauses) was that the conversation, on the whole, suffered from a kind of sampling error. It seemed that the majority of the participants were looking for work that still looked and felt classically, typically High Fantasy, but with a more diverse cast of characters. And I have to say that for me this feels like not a positive thing. That doesn't feel like representation to me. It feels like tokenism. I don't want a Fantasy baddass warrior woman who is exactly the same as other Fantasy baddass warrior women, but just painted black. What purpose does that serve? To me, none. I want a Fantasy baddass warrior woman whose blackness is integral to who she is, whose blackness brings something new to the story, something different, takes it out of the Holy Fantasy Zone of Faux-Northern Europe, and propels me instead into Kush, Ghana, Mali or Songhai, and oh my god, what new things could we find and explore there?! And if that happens, if I get that awesome new, fresh, delicious perspective of Fantasy (and it does exist), then maybe there is a good reason for it (and its writer) to be given a different spotlight, a different shelf, one where I can more easily find it and learn of it and enjoy it, because if that thread I mentioned had anything to say to me, it's that readers aren't finding this work, aren't discovering it.

    ETA: Again, just to emphasise, the takeaway from the above paragraph is that a huge, endless thread was blazing away about this kind of work not existing, and I was giving examples of works that most certainly do exist, that are excellent reads, one of which had a recommendation on the cover from none other than the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin (may she rest in peace), and the whole thing blazed on past me because the participants in the thread were unfamiliar with the work.

    I ran across Octavia Butler by accident, in a used bookstore. There was nothig leading me to her.

    I ran across Samuel R. Delany after a conversation wherein I was kvetching about never finding Science Fiction with a queer bent, and this led someone to point me in the right direction.

    So, again, I don't pretend to have a clear answer, but I do see some of the benefit in having a spot for work that's maybe, perhaps, possibly different from the rest.
     
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  7. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    It's a tricky one... I understand where you're coming from. I'm British Chinese and cultural identity is a major issue with me lol. Whatever gets your books read is fine, but I understand the resentment at being defined solely by your skin colour. That because you're black, you cannot simply be an author, you have to be a black author. I was just told by some ignorant jerk on Facebook that because I have an English-Chinese-Czech name (married to a Czech), that I can't possibly be an English native speaker :bigmeh: (he has no idea of who I am or my background, so he really is basing his claim and amusement on my name and skin colour) It does define us in some way but it's not the only thing that defines us. And when people categorise me this way, it makes me feel like they're trying to erase everything that I am, trying to reduce the complexity because it's beyond their grasp and in doing so reduce who I am too. Saying it's offensive would be an understatement. I didn't respond to the jerk online purely because the admin had already stepped in by that point calling him out and apologising to me. Being a mod myself, albeit elsewhere, I decided to let the flame die.

    Most people read books for genres and stories they're interested in, so by grouping authors into an ethnicity group, I believe it would reduce your readership. If you're writing sci-fi and your book ended up in the AAF section, a sci-fi reader is not gonna intuitively go to the AAF section - he's gonna go to the sci-fi section and basically never ever see your book. Whereas those interested in the authors themselves are probably more likely to be interested in cultural and identity and historical issues, honestly, and interested readers would not specifically be sci-fi readers, meaning your book has a lower chance of getting a reader.

    I'd say AAF sections should really be for stories dealing with AAF issues or written for that audience. It should never be about the author's ethnicity - it should be about the book.
     
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  8. Lifeline

    Lifeline Going South. Supporter Contributor

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    I am interested in stories that let me explore places I've never been to before, be that a physical location or a frame of mind. Slipping into the skin of a different ethnicity, sharing the fictional life of this one MC sure is one way to accomplish that goal—but it needs a story that focus on experiences that can only be lived by sharing this ethnicity. Do I make sense?

    I read for learning, for widening my world. If I stay within the confines of the environment I know, I will never grow. I will never know the frame of mind a child faces, who ostensibly got sent to school in a different country and found himself in the clutches of the RUF. Revolutionary United Front, Sierra Leone. This is just a reference to the book I'm reading at the moment (Emmanuel Jal, 'War Child'), and yes, it's non-fiction but no, the principle stays the same for fiction as well.

    This sums up my view as well. Thanks for saying it!
     
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  9. Carriage Return

    Carriage Return Member

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    Last edited: Dec 31, 2018
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  10. Alan Aspie

    Alan Aspie Senior Member

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    Is this serious or is this some kind of joke that I don't get?

    Racial segregation in book stores? Among books?

    Where is that? Apartheid time South Africa? USA when slavery was legal? Nazi Germany?

    What's next? Concentration camps and passports with race printed in them?

    And if this is not any kind of sick joke I must ask if there are Autism-HFA-Asperger -sections, ADHD -sections or...
     
  11. Alan Aspie

    Alan Aspie Senior Member

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    If there were sections labelled "Books from white authors" I would avoid them and the shop. I would avoid them because of all that kind of segregation has so strong smell of racism that it would disgust me.

    If there were sections labelled "Books from black authors" I would avoid them and the shop. I would avoid them because of all that kind of segregation has so strong smell of racism that it would disgust me.

    "Books about this and that" -that is totally different thing.

    "Books in this language" - also something else.
     
  12. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    It might be interesting to ask the library or a bookstore how they make these decisions to shelve these things. Aren't they the ones doing such? I can understand not wanting to be boxed in. I fit into one of those calls for diversity, but I'm not really sure what that means if anything. The places I have published don't know this and it didn't make a difference. The places I have mentioned it in a cover letter all rejected me. I'm not saying one has anything to do with the other. All I'm saying is I understand wanting to be a writer regardless of and/or beyond the diversity factor. But if there's a call and a place for such voices, it's not a bad thing. It's just a little hard for me personally to figure out.
     
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  13. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I understand your sentiment regarding the categorisation feeling very racist. However, it's not the author's fault they're being marketed this way and sectioned this way in a book shop. Would you not just be penalising the authors rather than the system?
     
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  14. Alan Aspie

    Alan Aspie Senior Member

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    You are partly right about punishing but my feelings are too strong to agree.

    I withhold a right to use my wallet as a machine of influence.

    If I see some kind of segregation, antisemitism, support for totalitarian ideologies or practices, intellectual and/or moral dishonesty... I will not fund them and I will warn other people about them.

    I am poor. I don't have much money. I don't use it to help making world totalitarian hell even if some small minority of supporters of totalitarian movements could - at least in theory - be decent and good people.

    If I want to support something, I know one small orphanage in India. 90-100% of help finds the orphan kids. If I have anything I can give away, it goes there - not to any SJW-totalitarianism or racist segregation.

    Never. Never. Never.

    And this can't be "penalising authors" because they just don't have any saying to my wallet as long as it is my money and my decision.

    Penalising includes some kind of negative influence. If I don't give them what is not their, it is neutral, not negative. So it can't be penalising. Or if someone thinks that it is, then he/she is penalising me by not giving his/her money to me.
     
  15. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I think the drive behind having separate sections for AAF or other identity-based subcategories is that people from these subgroups sometimes want to read books about people who share an identifying feature with them. The AAF section isn't there so white people can avoid it, it's there so black people can seek it out. (And quite possibly @Wreybies is right that this drive to seek out "matching" skin tones is a symptom of the current disease rather than something inherent to the human condition, but even if that's true... there's nothing wrong with treating the symptoms while we're working to cure the larger illness.)

    I think these sorts of categories are one reason I prefer on-line book sellers and on-line libraries - it's so much easier to give a book multiple classifications when you're dealing with a digital catalogue. On-line, books can show up as SF and AAF and YA. Not so easy with physical copies. Even if the library or store is willing to shelve multiple copies, it might not be a good idea to split the copies between two or more collections, as often having more than one copy lined up attract my attention as a browser. Losing that marketing tool would be a shame.

    I used to work in a library and we generally classified books based on where we thought interested patrons would be most likely to find them. We might have guessed wrong sometimes and we were aware that the system wasn't perfect, but there was no hatefulness or urge to discriminate behind our decisions. We had a World Fiction section that was for authors not from North America... it wasn't because we wanted to discriminate against non-North-American authors, it was because people would come to us looking for more diversity in their reading and we wanted somewhere to direct them. We had an Indigenous Authors section because it made it easier to lead patrons to this collection of work and easier to find books for our Indigenous Authors display, which we kept up for a full month every year.

    If one of those authors had wandered into our little library and said she didn't think of herself as an Indigenous author and would prefer to be shelved elsewhere, I think I'd have respected her wishes and moved the book. But I guess I also wouldn't have included her in the annual Indigenous Authors promotion...
     
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  16. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'm curious about the World Fiction section. Is that for translated works, or would British English authors be there too? Likewise for other authors from English-speaking countries like, say, Canada?
     
  17. J.T. Woody

    J.T. Woody Senior Member

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    I just started working here, but I was told that the AAF section had been integrated back into the general fiction section, save for a label that identified it as AAF. I was told that patrons complained and raised such a stink, that they separated it out again.
     
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  18. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    My library was IN Canada, so... we didn't consider ourselves World Fiction! Anything Canadian or American was shelved by genre, and, really, lots of other fiction was shelved by genre as well - Sherlock Holmes and Girl With A Dragon Tattoo were shelved under Mystery and Adventure, Tolkien was in SF/F, etc. So I guess the World Fiction category was mostly for literary or general fiction. Some in translation, some was already in English. Isabel Allende, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Haruki Murakami, etc.

    We had little Canadian flag stickers that we stuck on the spines of the Canadian books we shelved in the genre categories, but not a separate section for Canadian authors.
     
    Last edited: Oct 24, 2018
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  19. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    And I assume the stink was raised by patrons looking to find AAF, rather than by anyone trying to avoid it.

    Obviously we could have computerized lists and do searches for books that meet certain criteria, but there's something to be said for just browsing and getting a feel for different books before deciding which ones to read. It's a lot harder to browse when you have to track books down using a list that sends you to all the different parts of the library...
     
  20. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Haha I'm sorry, I forgot you were Canadian! My bad. Would be funny though if you did consider yourselves world fiction.

    I guess I'm just curious when something becomes "World fiction" or, in other words, foreign works. Because technically, British and even American works should have been under World Fiction, but they weren't, presumably because its original language was English. Or is it just a matter of how famous you were that got you into the mainstream sections - 'cause Sherlock, Dragon Tattoo and Tolkien are all considered literary phenomena, right?

    Or maybe it's got nothing to do with any of that?

    I guess to some extent, the categorisation is natural. After all, no one's saying one category is inherently better or worse than another - it's just a neutral category.
     
  21. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    It was quite arbitrary - we just tried to decide where someone who would want to read that sort of book would LOOK for that sort of book.
     
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  22. JLT

    JLT Contributor Contributor

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    What a great thread!

    If the purpose of such a classification is to steer an African-American (or any reader, really) to books that have a strong element of African-American culture, then it would be a Good Thing, IMO. Does it matter if the author is African- American, if the author presents the culture honestly? I would say not, but there's the feeling that someone who is raised in that culture is better equipped to portray it, and that the author who's from that culture would serve as in inspiration to others in that culture who want to tell their stories. In that case, rather than having a shelf of books dedicated to a specific category, lists could be made on the basis of whatever criteria the librarian finds useful.

    Otherwise, it's rather pointless to try to brand fiction by culture or nationality.

    One more thing: I've been re-reading Thomas Berger's magnificent novel Little Big Man, the story of a white man's experience in being raised by the Cheyenne, and how he's constantly drifting between the worlds of his ancestral and adopted people. What makes this germane to this discussion is a review by a noted Native American activist: "Now here is a most amazing thing ... a book about Indians, written by a white man, and there's not a single lie in it."
     
  23. Carriage Return

    Carriage Return Member

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    Last edited: Dec 31, 2018
  24. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    What if instead of an AAF section, they let people search for AAF tagged books in the main list? That way people looking for AAF could see what is in stock, but those books still have a chance to sell to casual browsers.

    That's kinda how Amazon works, right?

    https://www.amazon.com/Parable-Sower-Octavia-Butler-ebook/dp/B008HALO4Q/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1540535387&sr=1-3&keywords=Octavia+E.+Butler

    This book is #4 in three categories and only one mentions the author is African American. She's killing it in Women's Religious Fiction.
     
    Last edited: Oct 26, 2018
  25. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I think buying a book from a list is a lot different than browsing and finding the book. If I want to buy a book of AAF, I don't want to have to look at a list, go and track down every title on the list in the main stacks to look at the cover and read the blurb and check out the first pages, etc... I want them all in one place.
     
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