Quoted: On Being A ‘Real Black Writer’

Image from Flickr via Aftab Uzzaman

You got your first edit letter from Brandon Farley in July of 2012. In addition to telling you that the tone of the piece was far too dark and that you needed an obvious redemptive ending, Brandon wrote, “There’s way too much racial politics in this piece, bro. You’re writing to a multicultural society, but you’re not writing multiculturally.”

You wondered out loud what writing “multiculturally” actually meant and what kind of black man would write the word “bro” in an email.

“Bro, we need this book to come down from 284 pages to 150,” he said. “We’re going to have to push the pub date back again, too. I’m thinking June 2012. Remember,” he wrote, “It’s business. I think you should start from scratch but keep the spirit. Does the narrator really need to be a black boy? Does the story really need to take place in Mississippi? The Percy Jackson demographic,” he wrote. “That’s a big part of the audience for your novel. Read it over the weekend. Real black writers adjust to the market, bro, at least for their first novels.”

By the time you found out Percy Jackson wasn’t the name of a conflicted black boy from Birmingham, but a fake-ass Harry Potter who saved the gods of Mount Olympus, you were already broken. Someone you claimed to love told you that you were letting your publishing failure turn you into a monster. She said that you were becoming the kind of human being you always despised. You defended yourself against the truth and really against responsibility, as American monsters and American murderers tend to do, and you tried to make this person feel as absolutely worthless, confused, and malignant as you were. Later that night, you couldn’t sleep, and instead of diving back into the fiction, for the first time in my life, you wrote the sentence, “I’ve been slowly killing myself and others close to me just like my uncle.”

—Kiese Laymon, “You Are The Second Person”

Originally Published in Guernica Magazine, whose current issue is “Race in America”.