Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Alaya Dawn Johnson is a wonderful writer, whose short story in Zombies v Unicorns, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is jaw-droppingly good. Her next novel, Moonshine, out in May is my fave New York City vampire novel. I love it so much that it’s been killing me waiting for it to come out because I’ve been dying to rave about Moonshine to youse lot. Trust me, you want this book.
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Alaya Dawn Johnson dated a zombie once in high school, but it didn’t stick. Her first novel was Racing the Dark, the first in a trilogy she decided to call The Spirit Binders once her publisher told her trilogies needed names. The second book, The Burning City, is due out in June. She is also looking forward to the May 11 publication of Moonshine, her 1920s vampire novel set in the Lower East Side of New York City.
What My Dad Said
When I first showed my dad the new paperback cover of Racing the Dark, I was pretty proud of it. I thought that it evoked the book and was fairly striking. I won’t lie, I pretty much expected him to pat me on the head and say, “Looks great, honey.”
Instead, he picked it up and turned it over a few times. His face took on that serious, thinking expression I recognized meant he was considering how to phrase something important.
“Alaya,” he said, “the art is lovely. The image and everything is great. But are you sure you want to limit yourself like that with this cover?”
“Limit myself?” I asked.
“White people are going to be way less likely to pick up a book with a cover featuring a brown person. That’s just the way the world works.”
I told my dad (with some annoyance) that I didn’t think that was true, and anyway, my book is about a brown person, so these hypothetical white people would just have to suck it up.
Cut to this past Christmas, when my Dad, my sister, my brother and I were all last-minute shopping at the local mall. Like we do every Christmas, we all tromped through the local Borders, looking for presents. This time I was especially excited, because the store claimed to have a copy of my book.
My dad and I searched all through the fantasy section, just so I could experience hasn’t-gotten-old-yet zing of seeing my own work in a bookstore. But Racing the Dark wasn’t there. Finally, we went back to the computers to look for it again.
And we saw what we had missed the first time: though Racing the Dark is clearly labeled “fantasy” on its spine, the powers that be at Borders, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to shelve me in the “African American” section.
At least I was in good company. On the shelves surrounding my book were works by Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I’ve looked through this peculiar hybrid section before, and I’ve always been bewildered by the mish-mash of genres and writers all sandwiched together on two narrow shelves. Would someone like to tell me what on earth Zane and Toni Morrison have to do with each other?
Dad and I stared at the book in dismay. “I can’t believe they did this,” I said.
“Honey, I told you,” he said. “You should have had a more generic cover.”
I couldn’t really disagree with him, at that point.
So Dad picked up the book and we physically marched it over to the Fantasy section, where we left it, cover side out.
“Alaya,” my Dad said, later that day, over dinner, “you have to understand that you live in the world. You can’t mess around with the way you wish things would be. You have to deal with the way that they are. A black woman writing a book with a cover like that is going to get shoved in a category you might not want to be in.”
Considering that we had just seen the physical evidence of my being shoved into that category, I just nodded and went back to my food.
It stuck with me, though. And I realized that my dad’s point of view hasn’t really been in much of the ongoing discussion about cover art and whitewashing.
In a lot of discussions about race, my Dad and I suffer from a pretty profound generational gap. My dad is of the Old School, which we could call “determined pragmatism.” As far as my dad is concerned, he grew up in a world where he couldn’t sit down at half the lunch counters in Richmond, where he had to sit in the balcony of the theater, drink from labeled water fountains and sit on the black side of the court house.
Now, in his sixties, my dad owns a business that actually works with the same governments that supported Jim Crow laws. He’s moved into that small percentage of the black upper-middle class, and as far as he’s concerned, race is something you deal with and move on. If you have to change something because white people don’t like overt blackness, then you do that. It’s not that my dad doesn’t understand my points about how frustrating and degrading it can be to always have non-whiteness relegated to this unwanted subcategory (or, even worse, an exoticized one). He does. He just feels that if the world works this way and if I’m just a writer struggling to make a living, then I ought to find a way to help myself within that existing power structure.
Now, I still don’t think he’s right. I still like my cover and I’m still very happy that it very clearly features my non-white main character.
But I will say that it felt like a gut punch to see Racing the Dark shelved—with such a contemptuous lack of care for its content or its audience—in the African American section of Borders.