Thursday, May 29, 2008

Interview with Kelli Martin, Part 2

Part two of my interview with Kelli Martin focuses less on Kimani and more about the state of multicultural fiction as a whole. Enjoy!

Tracy: A lot of writers seem to feel that shelving a book in an “ethnic” section of a bookstore, like the African-American section, limits its audience and its sales. Some authors have even used the shocking term, “literary segregation.” I know this is largely in the hands of bookstores, but as an editor, what are your thoughts on shelving by ethnicity and the use of the term “literary segregation?” Is it time to let this kind of shelving go, or does it serve an important purpose?

Kelli: I’ll tell you the truth: I fully support shelving and display tables by ethnicity. I know this is a big debate, and I understand both sides of it. At the end of the day, though, I believe that this type of shelving is how a lot of African-American readers buy their books.

To many readers it’s important to see books in a specific section to know what classic and current books are out there. Also, it’s a streamlined, more user-friendly way for bookstore staff to organize and shelve, and for readers to browse and buy.

In the African-American section, you have room to have more books face-out where the browser can the see the cover. This gives debut authors in particular a much larger chance of being picked up than if their book was spine-out on the shelf. And seeing that fabulous cover is crucial.

I pretty much shake my head at people who say “literary segregation.” Too much drama. Save it for the novel’s content!
Now in an ideal world, I would like to see this: within the African-American section, clearly label “Popular Fiction,” “Classic Literature,” “Urban Fiction,” and some general “Nonfiction” topics. If every store did, that would be amazing.

In the real world, I’ve seen several Borders stores in New York and Michigan have “African American” section, but label within it “Fiction/Literature”, “Urban Fiction”, “Non-Fiction.” And at some Barnes & Noble stores in New York, African-American fiction is shelved with all the other fiction authors in “Fiction/Literature.” So no “ghettoization” there. Their African-American section is for nonfiction only. And in the Romance section, there is a whole shelf for “African-American” with the rest of non-specific romance following.

I certainly understand writers not wanting be pigeon-holed. It’s a touchy subject. My bottom line, though, is that I believe it is psychologically empowering and comforting to see the African-American section, where many of the books covers are face-out. Writers end up selling a lot more this way. Especially first-time writers. If shelved in another section, there may only be the spine showing! And that’s no good for people just randomly browsing. With specific shelving, African-American readers wind up seeing all the facets of their lives right in front of their eyes.

Maybe it boils down to region. In bookstores with heavy African-American traffic, the African-American section would be more useful than if a store did not have a large Black clientele. But that’s impossible to pull off because the publisher and superstore category systems for where a book is shelved needs to be consistent from store to store. Or maybe it boils down to whose perspective we’re looking at it from: the writer or the reader.

Tracy: Some authors extend that criticism to cover art. They feel that making a book’s cover look too “ethnic” limits its audience and sales (i.e. putting Spanish in the title of a book by a Latina author). What are your feelings here—is it more effective to call out the ethnicity of the author/characters because it sets the book apart from the rest? Or is it more effective to make it look a little more vague and not-so-ethnic, and try to get it into the hands of EveryReader?

Kelli: I admit it; this is a hard one. In an ideal world, I wish the cover art were not as big a factor as it is. We see Black readers buying both ethnically-specific and ethnically-ambiguous books. But I don’t think you have as many non-Black readers buying race-specific books. Wish it wasn’t the case but it is.

Since our dreamworld isn’t here just quite yet, I believe putting visible cues to what to ethnicity is important. I think it’s very effective to call out the ethnicity of the author/characters because that way you’re speaking directly to your core audience. And no one wants to lose that. I also, though, believe that it does depend on the book’s content.

Now, don’t get me wrong; not every book needs to have an African-American woman with her hand on her hip; and a Spanish- or Punjabi-laced title should not be a prerequisite. Let’s not fall into stereotypes, please. And there are ways to soften racial markers.
Perhaps show a body part rather than the full body. Or have a cover show a culturally-meaningful object rather than Kente cloth background or an actual person. It takes a sensitive editor, marketing director, and art director/designer. But overall, I do believe at least hinting at the ethnicity is important, especially given the book’s content. Otherwise you’re losing your core audience. I edited a book called A Love Noire about a buppie-meets-boho literary love story in which the characters being African-American and Côte d’Ivoirean was very important. So we had a romantic, sexy, soft close-up photo of one brown clasping another brown hand on a bed sheet.

Tracy: There are myths that fiction by people of color is somehow highly politicized or so steeped in cultural identity that readers who don’t share that background can’t possibly relate. What do you say to that?

Kelli: I think that holds true for some books, but for the bulk of them I think that’s a pretty antiquated perspective. These days, young readers especially are so much less hung up on the issues the Civil Rights-, post-Civil Rights, X- and Y-generations were. Interracial romance and love stories are much more prevalent and accepted in real life now than they ever were, and bi- and multicultural families are the norm. And popular culture is so fervently embraced by just about all races and color. You even have the same phenomenon affecting all races! Like the color complex of light- and dark-skinnedness, which affects Americans of African, Indian, and Hispanic descent. Similarly, an Indian-Hispanic reader can certainly understand James McBride’s The Color of Water or Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father. So with some books, there may be a few cultural jokes or references that go over the reader’s head, but for the most part, I believe readers who don’t share a particular background still can relate to the book.

But even though they can relate, it’s a question of do they actually buy that book.

Tracy: How can we change that attitude? Should we even bother?

Kelli: I think with the power and prevalence of popular culture and interracial and multiracial families, love and romance, we’re headed in the right direction with attitude. Hopefully, more people will actually do it, though. I don’t believe we should force it too much. I think the core audience of a book has priority, and if other people come to it, then that’s the icing on the cake.

Tracy: Some of my friends who wrote “chick lit” with Latina characters say their agents and editors are now asking for bigger, “more literary” books. Does that, in your opinion, indicate that literary fiction readers are more open to a variety of cultures and worldviews? Are commercial fiction readers just not ready to stray outside of the (Anglo) box? Or could it be that we just haven’t figured out how to reach commercial fiction readers yet?

Kelli: Really? Agents are saying that? Wow, that’s news to me. Hmm, I’ll have to think more fully about that, but off the top of my head, I’d say that yes, the literary fiction marketplace does seem to have a place for a more open dialogue on a variety of cultures and worldviews. Literary novels like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Native Speaker and Aloft by Chang-rae Lee, Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, Caucasia by Danzy Senna, Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quinonez, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, What is the What by Dave Eggers, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, novels by Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Edwidge Danticat—oh, God, I could go on forever!—were all literary novels about growing up inside or outside the US as a cultural “other.” And these novels got amazing reviews, sold well, and were embraced by all kinds of people.

I think the reason for this, though, depends on the reader’s intent: If you’re reading a literary novel, you may be looking for enlightenment and to learn something. If you choose to read chick lit, you’re probably in it for entertainment, a good laugh, some good lovin’, some glam fashion tips, and an inside scoop. And probably for it to fit a certain type; not to necessarily learn anything.

Tracy: Some writers of color have been asked to make their books more ethnic—i.e. I know several Latinas who were told their stories weren’t “Latino enough.” What do you recommend a writer do when she hears something like that?

Kelli: Now, this I have heard. I think it’s an attempt to capitalize on how popular “ethnic-oriented fiction” is doing well these days (see books listed above) and to make the books more “authentic”, to identify and reach the core audience more fully—and to make it more “sell-able.”

If a writer hears this, I suggest to actually think about what the person is saying. Not to go off on them, not to immediately say yes or no, just think. Then ask the person why they are suggesting that. Then ask for that person to give examples of changes. That’ll reveal whether the person is suggesting that some stereotypical, copycat follywang go into the novel or if she is making a good point about drawing out personal experiences that are relevant to the novel. For example, if you’re writing a coming of age novel about leaving El Salvador and growing up in Colorado, then I would say yes, include aspects of El Salvadorean culture because that’s integral to that type of coming of age story.

But if you’re writing a love story set in the Victorian era or a modern day romance set in New York’s coldest winter ever and you’re asked to throw a few “chicas” and salsa or merengue dance lessons in the mix, just say no. (Or hell to the naw!)

Bottom line: figure out what the core story of your novel is and decide for yourself.

Tracy: Why is it important that we get books written by people of color and edited by people of color “out there?”

Kelli: So important because diversity just makes
reading, and the world, richer! It makes readers more compassionate, more accepting, more educated about various cultures and countries and time periods. And given some of the horrors of history (slavery, land-stealing, internment camps), it’s extremely important to make sure groups who have been historically silenced now have a strong voice. And strong listeners.


Michelle Monkou said...

Another slam dunk portion of this wonderful interview. Tracy, you need to write for the RWR - damn you're good.


Tracy Montoya said...

: ) Thanks, Michelle! Glad you liked it. Kelli was so generous with her answers--I learned a lot!

Cecelia Dowdy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cecelia Dowdy said...

Tracy, thanks so much for posting both parts of this interview! I learned TONS of insightful and useful information! :-)

Farrah Rochon said...

Very insightful interview, Tracy. I enjoyed your article in the May RWR, as well. Thanks for both!

Tracy Montoya said...

Cecilia and Farrah, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you liked it!

And Farrah, being a curious sort, I checked out your website, and I LOVE the cover of your upcoming anthology. I know Phyllis, and I'm thrilled to see that she's got a new release coming out!

Patricia W. said...

Very insightful. Appreciated the more thoughtful comments about some of the controversy about AA fiction and the publishing industry.

LaShaunda said...


Again, excellent interview.

Kelly thanks so much for sharing. I learned a few things, which is always good.


Noda said...

Tracy, you have done it again!! Thanks for Part 2 of the Kelli Martin interview. Girl you as such a good writer and ask such pertinent questions.

(I'm slowly figuiring out how to make comments on the blog).

Thanks again for all the info.


Tracy Montoya said...

Thanks for stopping by, Patricia and LaShaunda!

And thank you again, Noda. You're so sweet.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

Boy, you ask tough questions, Tracy. Awesome interview.
You really dug deep on this one.

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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