“Hello, [a mispronounced version of your name], pleased to meet you.”
bold, daring, fierce yet tender, searing
a sprawling, genre-subversive tale about a lesbian scarecrow who battles with love and loss. [Insert the name of your novel] echoes the powerful voices of Ben Okri, John Updike, Rudyard Kipling, and John Berger.
genre-subversiveechoes the voices of Octavia Butler, Lesley Nneka Arimah, and N. K. Jemisin
genre-subversive amplify its literary meritso you won’t miss out on major book prizes.
a giant pile
“Hello [Insert your name], congratulations! Your novel is selling out really fast. We’re ready to go in for the second printing,” she pauses to catch her breath. “You’ve also been invited to a public reading at the Stone Public Library. I’ve sent you the details via email.”
You stare long hard at your laptop screen, the white walls of your apartment stark behind you as if they have grown eyes which are staring at the screen with you. The email is perfect. The public reading has a roomy budget. They are paying for your flight from Atlanta to New York, business class, as well as a wardrobe allowance and a speaking fee, which is almost twice of what Nicole got when her debut collection of personal essays came out.
But you do not like public readings. You never have.
You were a member of a writing group during your undergrad in Nigeria, and when you read a story at one of their meetings under the gazebo beside the university’s Children’s Library (the first and the last time you would read for that group) everyone was all Huh? Why do the characters have to peel off their skin and hang them on the roof rafters at night? Does the skin-peeling have a literary significance? I mean, I love the language, but it reads like you’re playing, come on, man! As you think of it now, you realize that you cannot make out the faces of who said what.
At your MFA program, one of your professors told you that you do have a “fascinating narrative voice,” but you need to write more about “topical issues that affect Africa”: war, terrorism, corrupt government, homophobia, female genital mutilation, class, poverty, hunger, polio, illiteracy rate. You know, things that carry weight. So the night before any reading, you would whip up a story about a boy watching his mother die of cholera because a politician in Abuja misappropriated the funds for a community borehole project, or a story about people fleeing Boko Haram. Your classmates and professors were always on the brink of tears by the time you were done reading.
But on the weekends, the boy, the dying mother, the corrupt politicians, and the fleeing people become witches, dragons, robots, and centaurs caught between worlds, and you showed these transformations to Nicole because you had enjoyed the essay she wrote about Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and knew she would totally get your writing.
It was not a tad surprising for you that you finished writing a whole novel a month after you completed the MFA program (those weekends writing what you actually cared about helped.) One hundred and twenty thousand words. All that pent-up energy from three years of pretending to be someone else.
On the flight from Atlanta, you practice adjusting your glasses along the narrow bridge of your nose, so you could appear more intellectual. Though, you don’t even need the glasses to read. You also close all the tabs for “Ways to Conceal Pimples” on your iPhone’s browser when you land. Nicole told you this morning, when you WhatsApped her a selfie, that the red, swollen lumps spritzed along your left cheek aren’t that bad and people will probably not notice it.
When you get to New York, your publisher picks you from the airport and drives you to the library.
“You look so amazing, [Insert your name],” your publisher says before squishing you into a hug. “As amazing as your book.”
You are wearing an adire-print shirt, blue jeans, and white sneakers. The adire is yellow and contrasts with your skin. You intentionally did not comb your hair, so your afro will look more artsy.
“Thanks so much, Claire.”
“Oh my gosh! The event sold out. People really want to see you.”
“Yeah!” You say and rustle up a smile as if you are not freaking out inside.
When the car pulls up at the library’s parking lot, you feel pee push into your bladder. Strange, since you have peed twice this morning. The nerves are getting to you.
The library has four peeling columns, freshly polished stairs, and a revolving door that groans like it’s tired of everyone touching it. A smiling usher shows you and your publisher into the event space. You moon over how the shelves of books seem to go on forever, winding from one end of the library to the other. And there is even a coffee shop and gift shop.
The event starts with you reading the first three pages of your book, followed by a conversation with a professor from [insert name of prestigious college] who is more interested in knowing your opinion on Noam Chomsky’s Transformational Generative Grammar Theory than anything you’ve written. You are so glad when the organizers signal the professor that it is time for audience questions.
“We can’t take everybody’s question,” the presenter says. “We can only take five questions because of our time. [Insert your name] will also be available after the event for book signing. Thank you.”
The mic is passed to a white man. He is wearing a #BlackLivesMatter T-shirt, and he keeps smoothing its invisible creases as he introduces himself. You couldn’t help but notice how he was on his phone throughout your reading, and only started paying attention when the professor mentioned Noam Chomsky.
“Name’s Bob,” he begins. “I love to see black authors do their thain, and I’m very vocal about diversity, so this comment is from a good place.” He smoothens more invisible creases. “I just want to say that I felt alienated reading your novel—especially your refusal to explain some words you wrote in the character’s vernacular. Do you have readers like me in mind? Do you plan to make your work more accessible to readers like me in future?”
“Would you have said the same if those words were in French or Spanish or German or any other sexy international language?” you ask, trying to still your shaking legs.
His brow furrows. “What?”
You repeat the question.
“No, I mean, I think, those languages, due to years of being written and the wide range of people who speak them, have earned the right to be written untranslated and unexplained.”
“And Igbo hasn’t earned that right?”
“And Igbo hasn’t earned that right?”
“The language the unexplained words are written in,” a woman sitting at the end of the second row answers.
For a half second, you imagine Bob something really nasty but, instead, his shoulder droops as he sits down. The next morning, when you receive an email that reads You’re a fucking diversity hire, mediocre jackass, you will be certain it is from Bob.
Next the mic goes to the woman who just answered Bob’s question. She is black, and her thick, curly hair springs from the opening of her scarf.
“Hi, my name is Yasmin.”
“Hello, Yasmin.” You beam a warm smile at her.
“I’m in awe of your book. My question is, how do you write realistic and fascinating women characters, considering the fact that you’re a cis man?”
The question catches you off guard. You and Nicole have mused over the possibility of someone asking this question but never gave it much thought. You clear your throat to give you a bit more time to think.
“A good writer is basically trying to wear the skins of their characters in the most convincing way. Ummm, writing female characters . . . well, the thing is, I grew up around women, and I listened to their stories, so what I do is try to replicate the women I know on paper. But of course, I don’t write female characters in isolation. I give it to female writer friends, and I also hire a sensitivity reader. They help tell me when I’m sounding offbeat.”
The audience laughs. You look around the room and notice that Bob is laughing too.
“So, I think if anybody who isn’t a woman wants to write female characters,they should be listening to the people they’re writing about.”
Members of the audience nod in agreement. One or two people clap, which is a much-needed morale boost for you. You take a breath. The worst of it must be over. Then the mic is passed to a woman in the middle of the hall. She is white and middle-aged, her hair braided in thin, loose cornrows. “Hello, [a mispronounced version of your name], pleased to meet you.”
“Thanks so much.”
“So, my name is Elizabeth. Elizabeth Bernard. I flew in all the way from London to be here.”
The audience applauds.
“My question is, why can you write female characters and not be accused of appropriation, but my third novel was pulled out of publication because it told the story of a Muslim girl, Ailsha . . .”
“Aisha,” you correct her.
“ . . . yes, Ailsha, who is fleeing a Boko Haram territory in Nigeria? If I was accused of cultural appropriation, why are you not being accused of gender appropriation.”
A murmur spreads across the room.
“I’m so sorry about your novel,” you say. “I mean, not all of us can be Kathryn Stockett.”
The audience laughs, you think, mostly to ease the tension in the room.
“I mean, Toni Morrison, Sarah Hall, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, J.K. Rowling, Lionel Shriver, Jhumpa Lahiri, Adelle Waldman, and Doris Lessing have written phenomenal male characters,” you continue.
“Leo Tolstoy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Ian McEwan have written compelling female characters as well,” the professor cuts in. You almost forgot that he is sitting beside you.
“And that too.” You give the professor a nod of acknowledgment. “But then writing across cultures is a tricky territory. Will you be doing too much or too little? And how do you own a story that isn’t yours, especially when the people who own the story may not have the same opportunities as you to publish their stories?”
She hesitates, like she wants to say something but cannot mouth the words, before handing over the mic to one of the organizers. The mic goes to a man wearing a Kente up-and-down.
“My name is Kwame, and I’m studying political science and international relations at [insert name of prestigious college]. Do you think people write about LGBTQ characters because it’s the trend now? Is your centering of LGBTQ characters political?”
A lump begins to form in your throat.
“First of all, it’s not a trend. People write stories with LGBTQ characters simply because queer folks are real people who deserve to see themselves in books. Would you ask anyone if their inclusion of non-LGBTQ characters is political?”
Your mouth is dry now, your chest hurts a little and your neck is stiffening from being cocked at the same angle for too long. The next two hours are spent signing books and pretending to be polite when questions like What lesbian porn inspired that sex scene? come up when all you want to do is to tell them to piss off.
The queue stretches past the auditorium’s hallway, and edges to the peeling wall where a sign marked RESTRICTED AREA is hanging loose on a lone, worn-out screw. You try your best to commit each face to memory after you look up from signing a book. You want to remember at least a face from your first book reading. But the sea of faces bleed into each other, all smiling and cradling their copies of your book.
The tip of your fingers ache, and your back is sore when you go back to your hotel room in the evening. Out of habit, you check your email, and there is one from your publisher:
Hey, great turnout today. You totally crushed it. Someone from Boston Public Library was in the audience and they would like to schedule a public reading.
You head to the bathroom and put your head under the running sink. This reading was not that bad, you guess. But some of those questions rattled you. One thing is sure, you are glad it is over. You make a mental note to call Nicole in the morning to tell her everything, especially Bob with the #BlackLivesMatter T-shirt.
Then the thought of Boston crawls up your throat. As excited as you are about Boston, you are also scared. What if it goes badly, like in a you-burst-into-tears-on-stage kind of bad (this has happened before)? What if the breakout on your face does not clear before then? What if you run out of answers to questions? What about the next one after Boston, and all the other ones that will come after it?
You turn off the tap and take in as much air as you can.