Suzanne Brockmann’s Lifetime Achievement Award speech from the Romance Writers of America (RWA) Annual Conference spoke of inclusion and diversity in the publishing industry. Her speech can be seen or read online. Go to minute 56 of the video. You can see Kristan Higgins’ RITA acceptance speech at 1 hour 53 minutes. Sonali Dev’s speech is also available.
The words of these women have angered some writers and made others evaluate our place in this story.
Dear Ms. Brockmann,
Writing is my greatest joy. I wish it wasn’t. I wish I was better at running. I wish I enjoyed cooking. I wish I was good with my hands so I could make a quilt or crochet pink hats. Instead, stories and words come to me. I like to be around other writers because they understand this. I write to create happiness. I write to find answers. I write to right the world’s wrongs.
In college, I studied English and creative writing. I attended Stanford University. I wrote poetry and short stories. We learned workshop style. I thought I knew something about writing, but academic writing is nothing like the art of writing popular fiction. I wrote my first book 15 years ago and didn’t know what to do with it, so I joined RWA.
I wrote another book and another. My first few books weren’t good. I’ll admit that. I continued to study the craft and write and revise and write. Eventually I got to the point where my writing was better and my stories were better.
I started submitting my manuscripts to agents and publishers. For those not in the industry, rejection is a sign of success. At some point, we must put our writing into the world. We must be willing to revise and resubmit. I did these things.
My manuscripts moved further along. My manuscripts won contests. But something wasn’t quite right. I went back and started reviewing all of the rejection letters and critiques I’d received over the years. It was then that I noticed an interesting trend. Much of the feedback on my books was related to race. There weren’t comments on plot or pacing. No issues with dialogue or themes. The feedback was:
“We don’t have an African-American imprint at this time…”
“Your manuscript might find a better home with [insert publisher of Black books in completely unrelated genre]…”
“Are your main characters Black?” [I pondered this for a long time before responding and decided to say yes. I did not get another response.]
“I find your main character completely unbelievable…” [She was Black from an affluent family]
“We don’t know where to shelve your book in the store…” [With fiction? Or maybe romance? Just a guess…Or somewhere near the Colored People’s water fountain?]
This happened with several different books. I kept writing thinking that I could fix my stories. I worked on pacing. I worked on character. I failed to see the biggest problem with my characters. They were Black. Like me.
I am Black and a woman. I have a professional job by day. I write at night. I have four kids. Each born since I first joined RWA. I have a husband who makes me smile. I am an immigrant. I have spent my whole life having other people tell me what I am and am not. The simple truth is that I am only one thing. Surviving.
I decided to write a manuscript to symbolize my feelings about my writing journey. I wrote a Beauty and the Beast story. My heroine, a Black woman, was the beast. She was rich. The hero was white, but not the “white savior” trope. I created reversals of expectations in relation to race and gender stereotypes. A lot of the publishing process left me feeling unwanted. I carried the scars. I was the beast.
In 2011, I entered RWA’s Golden Heart Contest with this manuscript called “All Beautiful Things.” When the scores were tallied, my manuscript was in the bottom 25%. The judges hated my Beauty and the Beast story. I wish I could say I was surprised. But I wasn’t.
I decided to test my RWA “sisters” and revised my manuscript. In 2012, I took the same story and removed all references to race in the novel. I did not revise or alter my manuscript in any other substantive way. All I did was make the main character “not Black.”
In 2012, that same manuscript became a Golden Heart Finalist. I wish I could say I was surprised. But I wasn’t.
I submitted my manuscript for the final round of judging and included my characters as I intended. Black, brown, and white. At the RWA National Conference, I sat in an appointment with an editor from a Big 5 publisher. She was a final round judge for the Golden Heart Contest. “I read your manuscript,” she said. “I hated it.” This is a direct quote. This happened just days before the ceremony where the winners would be announced.
I’m sure there were better ways for this to be communicated to me. I should have reported this interaction to RWA. I did not. I left the appointment with tears in my eyes. I rarely cry. I stumbled into the mass of writers at RWA, and two women pulled me aside. They’d never met me before and dried my tears.
I will never forget their kindness. I will never forget the anger that I held back. I tried not to assign racism as an excuse for her actions toward me. I told myself it was possible that same type of dismissive disrespect would have happened to a white writer. I hoped not. I hoped no editor or agent would speak to any writer the way this editor spoke to me.
Her comment wasn’t, “I prefer stories that XYZ” or “You could improve your story by PDQ.” It was simply, “I hated it.” I hate you. You are hated.
I sat through the Golden Heart ceremony knowing I would not receive the prize. I had, after all, submitted a book with people who looked like me. Who sounded like me. And they were hated.
My Beauty and the Beast story came out in 2014 thanks to Belle Books. My editor picked me up when I felt defeated and let my story “All Beautiful Things” go into the world. And then I stopped writing fiction.
Rejection comes with writing and many authors face it regardless of their race, gender, orientation, or labels. I have written mainstream fiction. I have written romance. I do not mind rejection. Last year, I sent out dozens of queries letters for a children’s book series. They have all been rejected.
I still get the question: “Are the characters black?” Translated to “We want diverse books, but written by white authors.” I don’t always explicitly state the race of my characters. I shouldn’t have to. I am writing stories for all people. I don’t know why my book has to say “African-American Fiction” on the spine to warn white people away. I don’t know why I have to tell people it is okay to read books by different kinds of people.
I spent the last 4 years experimenting with narrative non-fiction and journalism. It was good to take a break, but I miss fiction. I thought this was a good time to come back, so I rejoined RWA after a long absence. I was embraced by many old friends. This writing community is so good when it is at its best. I tried to ignore the bruises of the past. Until you took the stage.
As you gave your acceptance speech for the RWA Lifetime Achievement Award, the ballroom became polarized with different reactions.
There were the people cheering you on. Many, if not most, of the audience stood up and applauded you throughout your speech. Rightfully so. You passionately laid your heart before us. A person who wanted to tell stories. A mother who wanted her son to be seen.
There were writers who felt uncomfortable. Some felt attacked. Some left the room.
And then there was me. I listened with my heart in your hands. My heart was crushed by your words. You did not intend to hurt me, but every word you spoke seemed like a terrible truth I’d been trying to deny.
The publishing industry creates an illusion of the world. It is often devoid of marginalized voices. As writers, we must acknowledge the progress achieved and also the work to be done.
As you spoke at RWA, your words made me relive my publishing journey. Very few people knew what I’d done to my manuscript to make it “acceptable” to the judges, the writers who are supposed to be my peers.
All these years, I thought my anger was unfounded. I thought it was just my imagination. I thought I was mistaken. Every word you said knocked a bit of breath from me. This is why I could not cheer. Your words hurt. I’ve been walking around with unshed tears in my eyes for a long time. Maybe years. I know what it is like to be hated. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Not your son. Not my characters.
I shy away from controversy. I am a safe Black friend to have. My love is not dependent on who you voted for and who you love. It is based on how willing you are to see the world and want to share that world with everyone. It isn’t always white, but it is always beautiful.
I am writing this letter to tell you thank you. I am writing this letter to me to say it is okay to throw away all the words I’ve ever written and start new. I am writing this letter to the writers who felt disenfranchised after hearing your speech. I have lived a lifetime feeling disenfranchised.
Some of my white writer friends have approached me privately about the topics you addressed in your speech. They felt threatened when you and others made a call-to-action to increase diversity in the publishing industry.
My first friend said, “If we don’t add gay people to our books or read gay books, they’re going to call us homophobic.”
I told her, “People are asking for a chance to tell their stories. You do not have to read anything you don’t want. Absolutely do not add characters to your story who don’t belong. But please be a friend and ally to writers who represent marginalized voices.”
My second friend wanted to know what I thought about the push for diversity. It made her feel uncomfortable. I told her there is a problem in the publishing industry. I did not tell her about my Golden Heart entry. I did not tell about the years of abusive comments I’ve received about my manuscripts.
I appreciated her candor. These are important conversations. I would like to ask her so many questions.
Why do you feel uncomfortable? Are your own stories the only stories you want to read? Do you feel threatened by the presence of other types of writers? What do you wish for my writing career? For me? Not an abstract marginalized writer. A friend you’ve shared a room with. A friend whose life you know about. Where should my stories be told? Next to yours or not at all? How often should I be told I am not Black enough, white enough, woman or man enough to be heard? At what point should I scream? At what point should I be silent?
Publishing is like a long relay race. Everyone can move ahead. There is room for everyone to hold the baton. Our stories should be like a chorus. Everyone should be heard. The quiet voices and the voices strong.
I worry about people who are quick to fear and slow to listen. Fear leads to hate. I am telling my story so that someone might listen. We are asking for room. We are asking for change. A chance. We are asking them to read our stories. We are asking for books that reflect all of us.
Dear Suz, maybe I came back to writing at just the right moment. I saw you on the stage and remembered why our stories are important. I am going to start writing again. Thanks to you.