Image Credit: Gellinger at Pixabay
In Kirsten Imani Kasai’s eerily beautiful novel The House of Erzulie, a diary and a packet of letters are found under the floorboards of a run-down Louisiana plantation house. Lydia, an architectural historian, is the first person to read them in a hundred and fifty years.
The author had sent the manuscript to the small press I’d founded, in response to my submissions call for literary fiction by African American women. Her cover letter mentioned “gothic” and “supernatural” elements, and as I settled down to give it a read, “I doubt I’ll really like this” was my last conscious thought before I was plunged into the world of the novel.
I lost any sense of holding pages in my hand, sitting on a comfortable sofa with cats climbing on me, the sounds of an upstate New York summer evening wafting through the window. In my imagination I was in that dusty, abandoned mansion, poring over the tattered documents, sharing Lydia’s responses as she read: moved and enthralled, wiping away tears.
It was exhilarating to read such an unforgettable novel, but I was also gripped by a dismaying sense of isolation: No one else knows about this book, and I want everyone to read it.
A much more pragmatic question kept nagging at me too: Why the author was sending this brilliant work to an unknown, untried press with barely the hint of a track record. Why the gatekeepers—literary agents, editors at publishing houses—had turned her down.
I’m a writer myself, but I’ve never been represented by a literary agent. My novel and short story collection were published by extremely small presses, one of which is now defunct. I started Shade Mountain Press six years ago with $9,000 from a crowdfunding campaign, a lot of free in-kind help, and a willingness to learn as I went along about things like distribution and marketing. I’m not a publishing insider by any means.
From where I stand, the mainstream publishing industry looks like a smoothly running machine that’s designed to churn out bestsellers and has access to everything my own micro-press lacks: budget, staff, name recognition, connections.
With their resources, The House of Erzulie could have had the readership it deserves.
For millennia we humans have made gods out of those who guard the gates. For the ancient Romans, Janus was the god of doors. Elegua is the Afro-Caribbean orisha of thresholds and crossroads; in any ritual honoring the orisha, you start by invoking Elegua. You might think of the Christian saint Peter as an old man at a set of pearly gates in New Yorker cartoons, but Jesus called him the foundation of his church, gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
It’s a powerful place, that opening from one space to another. There’s strong energy there.
I wonder whether the average editor knows what a solemn, mysterious task they’ve been given, whether they feel the pressure of all those hopeful authors: Let me in.
And of course we can’t talk about gatekeeping in literature without talking about whiteness. Those keepers of standards, so lofty and mysterious as they hand down their momentous judgments—you will be published, you will not—are overwhelmingly white.
And that whiteness has a bearing on how these decisions get made, what’s said at meetings behind closed doors, and what’s left unsaid, who has a seat at the table and who doesn’t.
Publishing houses, floorboards and tables, doors and gates—I like these architectural metaphors. I for one don’t have a seat at the table. I can’t even see the table. My house is way over at the other end of town. It’s small, this house, and a bit dilapidated, but it’s comfortable and filled with books, and writers of all kinds are welcome.
As I relax into an armchair in my house-on-the-margins, I’m startled by a sudden flash of light. A formidable old woman appears before me, draped in gorgeously woven shawls. Some kind of primordial mother-deity, I suppose, with more than a dash of Baba Yaga.
“What sharp teeth you have,” I say.
“What are you sitting around for?” she says. “You have questions. Go find answers.” She makes shooing motions as if I’m an errant cat. “Off you go.”
The room gets blurry and I seem to be moving rapidly through a tunnel, before landing with a thunk in what looks like a beautifully furnished executive suite. From the nameplate on the door I realize I’m in the office of a well-known literary agent across town.
“I could have walked,” I mutter, and hear a distant cackling in response.
The agent, a white man, is reading queries from hundreds of authors. He reads a cover note with an interesting premise, takes a look at the first few pages of the attached manuscript. But his attention wanders, his fingers start drumming the desk beside the keyboard. He dashes off a quick email to the author, rejecting the manuscript, explaining that the characters “didn’t engage me.”
The next one shows similar initial promise, but becomes ho-hum. “The plot didn’t draw me in,” he writes.
I want to quietly back out of the room, but no sooner do I form the thought than I find myself in an even more imposing office. I think I recognize the white woman at the desk, a high-level publishing executive I’ve glimpsed in paparazzi-style photos attending galas, lunching with movie stars. She and others like her are profiled in glossy magazines and quoted in breezy write-ups where they brag about their vacations in the French Alps and the Cayman Islands.
Today she seems to be doing more prosaic work as she scrutinizes the manuscripts she’s getting from agents. But the gist of her responses is similar to the agent’s:
“Didn’t connect with the character.”
I try to imagine her reaction to The House of Erzulie, a book that I found riveting but no agent wanted.
I’ve always been fascinated by religion, including Afro-Caribbean spirituality, and The House of Erzulie is a panoply of competing belief systems: the Catholicism of the Creole slaveowning parents, the Spiritualism of their rebellious daughter, the rationalism of her biracial husband, the African diasporic spiritual practices of the enslaved Black people on the plantation and the free people of color in New Orleans.
I think about another book my press published, Yi Shun Lai’s novel Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, and how I chortled when the narrator’s mom switches from English to her native language, the better to scold her daughter. I know exactly what that’s like, though my mom’s first language was Spanish, not Taiwanese.
“What language did your mother use when she scolded you?” I start to say, but the editor, absorbed for a while in a new manuscript, has stopped reading. She flips back to the query letter, the author bio, then tells an assistant to send a rejection: “Own Voices, yes, great,” she says, “but the author has no platform.”
This is the kind of thing Vanessa Garcia used to hear before her novel White Light found a home at my press. “It’s gorgeously written,” one editor said of Vanessa’s manuscript, “but who is this woman? No one knows her.”
I check my Twitter account. In the last week or so I’ve started following three white writers with debut novels coming out at Big Five publishing imprints like St. Martin’s Press and William Morrow. Two of them had just over a thousand followers; the third had fewer than six hundred.
I’m about to point this out, but the editor has finished taking notes on another manuscript and is grabbing the phone. She tells the author’s agent how impressive the writing is, how it held her attention from start to finish. I get a peek at the title page and recognize the author’s name: a Black woman whose fiction I’ve seen in literary journals.
“But it just won’t sell,” the editor declares. Perhaps she means to sound apologetic, but I feel like I’m hearing a proclamation handed down from the mountain.
I go back outside, trudge back to the house-on-the-margins on my own two feet this time, pondering.
Writers of color have been hearing the “It won’t sell” excuse for decades.
We’ve been talking about this long before the advent of social media, to writer friends, to strangers in the corridors at writers’ conferences, to interviewers who ask about our journeys to publication. Some writers were told outright, “Black people don’t buy books,” or “We already have one title by an Asian [or Latino, or Black, or Native] author.”
More recently, folks like Latinx author Jennifer Givhan have shared details on social media of the responses to their submissions. Editors found Givhan’s writing “stunning,” “lyrical,” and “powerful,” and called her “a real talent and a bright star,” but ended up rejecting her work, citing “marketplace obstacles” or asserting that “this would be a very difficult book for us to bring readers to.”
I scan my bookcases for novels from earlier decades that stunned me with their brilliance and originality. They got through the gate, obviously, and made their way to me. Someone must have thought they would sell.
The first one that comes to hand is the novel Louisiana, by the Jamaican author Erna Brodber. This was assigned to me in a graduate-level class on literature of the Americas, and the first pages were so bewildering that initially I despaired of getting through the book. But at the time I read it, in 2004, I was steeped in readings on Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices. I’d just finished El Monte, by the Cuban ethnographer Lydia Cabrera, and Zora Neal Hurston’s ethnographies Mules and Men and Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. I was primed to recognize what Brodber was doing, evoking a Hurston-like protagonist who takes a dramatically different turn than the real-life Hurston.
The book made it into print in 1994, when it was picked up by a small British press called New Beacon Books, which describes itself on its website as “specialists in African and Caribbean literature since 1966.” A U.S. edition was brought out three years later by the University Press of Mississippi—again, far from the mainstream:.
But wait, here’s a book by Gayl Jones, another amazing, one-of-a-kind Black writer, and she seems to have the imprimatur of the mainstream publishing world: I first read her work in a one-volume edition of three of her novels (The Healing, Corregidora, and Eva’s Man) produced by the Quality Paperback Book Club in 1998. But a bit of research tells me that Jones’s talent was recognized by a faculty member at Brown University, where Jones was studying creative writing; this professor, the African American poet Michael S. Harper, introduced Jones to Toni Morrison when Morrison was an editor at Random House.
If it had been up to the leading lights of the publishing world, I probably would have been deprived of some of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life.
I take a look at the books by women of color that my press has published, all of them turned down by gatekeepers.
Reviewers liked them. Readers liked them.
The House of Erzulie was an Editors’ Choice at Historical Novels Review, praised by reviewers at Booklist, Library Journal, and other venues, and included in “must-read” lists at The Root, The Millions, Bitch Media, and Electric Literature.
Vanessa Garcia’s novel White Light was selected by Carmen Maria Machado for inclusion in NPR’s Best Books of 2015, and took first place in the International Latino Book Awards.
Yi Shun Lai’s novel Not a Self-Help Book was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
Stephanie Allen’s novel Tonic and Balm, our most recent title, has made the shortlist of the 2020 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and was included in the year-end “Hidden Gems of 2019” list at Ms. Magazine.
So on one side of the gate we have authors like Kirsten, Vanessa, Yi Shun, and Stephanie. On the other side are the readers who tell me they’re still haunted by the books long after finishing them (I am too), the awards judges who selected them, the reviewers who praised them. It’s a lively, cheerful crowd. They want more.
On one side: authors. On the other side: readers.
And in between: people who aren’t doing such a good job with that gate.
There should be a flow: books making their way from authors to grateful readers.
Instead, there’s a bottleneck.
We need a word for those who refuse to open the gate. Gate-lockers?
So we’ve got this extended analogy going: gates and meeting rooms and places at the table. Where’s white supremacy in this metaphor? Is it the table? The closed doors? The room itself?
I’m not so good at theorizing, but I do know how to tell a story. Here’s one:
Back in my twenties I was working in New York City. My boss—a white man whom I’ll call Ken—and I were meeting with an events planner, a blonde, glamorous woman hired by our employer at an exorbitant fee. A question arose about asking a staff member to take on a high-visibility role at an awards dinner. Ken suggested our colleague Gerri.
The consultant—let’s call her Darya—wrinkled up her nose. “Oh, no,” she said, giving us a meaningful look. “Not Gerri.”
We waited for her to say more. She didn’t.
Ken, bless him, said calmly, “Why not Gerri? Is it because she’s Black?”
I expected Darya to deny it, to backpedal. Instead she gave him a pained smile.
“Oh, Ken,” she said.
She was embarrassed for him, that he could be so gauche as to put that question into words when the three of us obviously knew the answer: A Black woman was simply not presentable. It wouldn’t do to give her such visibility.
“Millie would be perfect for this,” she continued briskly, naming a white woman who had been hired a few weeks before.
After thirty years the other details of the meeting are hazy, but what I won’t forget is Darya’s unctuous smile, with all it conveyed:
We know the rules. No need to talk about it, make each other uncomfortable.
We’re all on the same team.
Another thing I won’t forget: As she was turning to go, Darya looked at me and addressed me for the first time. “I’ve been admiring your complexion,” she said, briefly brushing her hand against my cheek. “Your skin is flawless.”
I’ve never been able to think of a good comeback when I need one. I looked back at her stone-faced, annoyed at myself for being tongue-tied.
Ken, who knew that I’m half Puerto Rican, was silent too.
My skin is white, my English accentless. My class privilege comes across in subtle ways that people pick up on subconsciously. Who knows, maybe this affluent white woman sensed the presence of my ancestors swirling around me—at least, the ones who came here from Europe before the Revolutionary War.
My ancestral spirits from the Caribbean, meanwhile, must have been savoring the irony of a white supremacist praising my color. Or else annoyed at me for not telling her off.
I remember that long-ago meeting when I consider the countless decisions that are made, the conversations that go on in the offices of agents, editors, marketing specialists, cover designers, at literary magazines and small presses as well as the major publishing houses. The things that go unsaid because they’re understood.
Recently I learned about a literary journal whose editors were considering devoting one issue to works by writers of color. It turned out that every single white member of the editorial board—well-meaning, liberal white folks—felt resentful and uncomfortable at the notion of having to turn down white writers, having to tell white writers that they weren’t welcome, that the gates were closed to them. One issue, of one journal.
White small-press publishers have asked me in private what my secret is, how I’ve managed to find such impressive writers of color. They want their lists to be more “diverse.” My answer is simple: put out a submissions call solely for Black writers, writers of color more generally, or writers from whatever underrepresented group they want to specify. I can sense these publishers’ reluctance upon hearing my suggestion, like the fellow in the Gospels who kept pressing Jesus about how to win eternal life, how to be perfect. Jesus finally tells him to give away everything he owns. At that draconian solution, the young man slinks away, mumbling. (Um, yeah, J.C., I don’t like you that much.)
We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland; we should not have had a centerpiece at our bookseller dinner last May that replicated the book jacket so tastelessly. We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them.
Note the language. He now sees the insensitivity of those decisions. The implication is: He did not see it at the time.
Bob, Bob, Bob.
In a completely unscientific survey in which the only respondent was my Puerto Rican significant other, I asked, “Do you believe that the editors at Flatiron didn’t know that barbed-wire centerpieces are offensive?”
I don’t recall whether the response was in Spanish or English, but either way it was unprintable here. I took it as a no. Bob Miller and his ilk knew, and didn’t care.
But then again, white privilege means not having to think about it. I find examples of this every day, without even having to look. Here’s one: in today’s New York Times, the reviewer of a Conde Nast editor’s tell-all memoir remarked that “when writing the book, [Dan] Peres said, it didn’t occur to him that he might be revealing … what a white man could get away with.”
“I haven’t had to think about that” works in every situation. When no “other” is around, you don’t have to think about uncomfortable questions. You can count on the silence in the room.
I’m tempted to write to Bob Miller. Not so much an open letter as perhaps a series of open Post-its. I’ll put them under the floorboards of an abandoned mansion.
I might have been inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt, except you also implied that angry brown people were threatening physical violence against the author. You later admitted that this was untrue.
I see you’ve promised the organizers of #DignidadLiteraria to “substantially increas[e] Latinx representation across Macmillan, including authors, titles, staff, and its overall literary ecosystem.” Surely you can hire editors/publishers/agents of color as consultants as you implement that plan. They can be your advisory board while you make staffing changes and consider submissions from writers of color.
You are going to have submissions calls specifically for writers of color, aren’t you? Surely you can do that. It’s easier than giving away everything you own.
I’d like to call together everyone in mainstream publishing—editors and agents, publicists and budget directors—and invite myself to sit down at the table.
There will be resistance, of course, to the idea that gatekeeping even occurs.
“Race doesn’t matter,” someone will proclaim in response to the idea that the publishing industry needs to hire more people of color. “All we care about is good writing.”
I’ll try to explain that even liberal, well-meaning white agents and editors have unconscious expectations about what people of color are supposed to be like. Authors are offering them depictions of Black characters, Latinx characters, other characters of color who aren’t abject, whose lives/plots don’t focus around drug addiction or crime, or who simply are complex and layered rather than easily understood. “Editors always wanted more suffering,” the Latinx author Natalia Sylvester noted of her own search for publication.
“In other words,” I’ll conclude, “When you think a manuscript’s not good enough, it could be that it just doesn’t reinforce your stereotypes.”
Inevitably someone at the meeting will be tapping a pen impatiently and ruffling a stack of spreadsheets. “All we care about,” they say, “is what sells.”
I’ll remind them that we’re talking about literary fiction here, not thrillers or romances or horror novels. Most literary fiction won’t sell well. The big publishers can afford this because they make respectable profits from other types of books.
It’s disingenuous to say to a superb writer of color that marketing or monetary issues are the deal-breaker. They weren’t the deal-breaker for all the white authors of literary fiction these same publishers took on.
The problem is, it’s hard to imagine how the meeting will progress, how people will respond to the points I raise. “Why are these floorboards all torn up?” they might say, or “What lovely skin you have.”
I’m as pale as they come. I look like a female version of my Euro-American father (half Pennsylvania Dutch and half Scottish). I’m a beneficiary of white privilege in countless ways.
But that, obviously, is not my whole story.
My mother was born and raised in Puerto Rico, as were her parents, and their parents, and so on (and yes, I’ve had to trace that long lineage for folks who questioned how I could be even half Puerto Rican). Throughout my childhood my family made frequent trips to Puerto Rico to stay with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in one of that city’s first integrated Black-white suburban neighborhoods.
And here I am, founder of a small press, a one-book-a-year, shoestring-budget labor of love.
The authors I’ve published probably hadn’t envisioned the turn their process would take, when they’d finally finished their novel and were ready to send it out into the world. Perhaps they thought their story would be: “I searched and searched for a publisher until one of the white gatekeepers let me in.”
Instead it wound up being: “I searched and searched until finally I found a half-Puerto Rican, half-Anglo woman who raved about what a genius I am.”
In her afterword to American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins noted that she “wished someone slightly browner” than her would have written the novel.
I look at the brilliant books by women of color published by my press, and wish someone slightly whiter than me had opened the gate for them.
Rosalie Morales Kearns (@RMoralesKearns), who founded Shade Mountain Press in 2014, is a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent. Her publications include the novel Kingdom of Women (Jaded Ibis, 2017), about a female Roman Catholic priest in a slightly alternate near-future; and the fabulist/absurdist story collection Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous, 2012). She also edited the short story anthology The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women (Shade Mountain, 2015). Her essays, poems, short fiction, and book reviews have appeared in Berfrois, Witness, and other journals.