The Greatest Hits from “The Double Whammy” Panel @ #Bindercon…AND THEN SOME

Kavita_Raquel_Ava

At #Bindercon, from left, Kavita Das, Raquel Cepeda, Ava Chin

Yesterday, I sat on a panel moderated by my new homie, writer Kavita Das, called The Double Whammy: Women Writers of Color Discuss Challenges and Strategies, as part of #Bindercon‘s two day symposium. The panel cleverly featured three writers including myself, memoirist Ava Chin (where have you been all my life?), and novelist Tayari Jones, literary agent Ayesha Pande (who happens to be my agent), and former Atria/Simon & Schuster editor Malaika Adero (who happens to be the editor of my book Bird of Paradise, and one of the .0001% of Black-American women in the publishing industry—until recently. I wonder what the numbers are now?). The panel went down at Tishman Auditorium at NYU’s Vanderbilt Hall: it was cold, damn cold in there!

I mostly dug the audience because, unlike most panels that are billed as focusing on the issues of women of color in publishing, there were women of all races and persuasions in the house. If only publishing were as diverse as the audience, I thought to myself, I wouldn’t have to try and convince so many editors that I exist, that my demo isn’t as niche (i.e. Latina-Americans, and more specifically, those that break away from the formulaic lost immigrant child+white savior English teacher + total assimilation = success and the realization of the American Dream) as they assume it is, and that my story and point of view is shared by many (you’d be surprised at how many white men get my work, ya’ll) Americans.

In other words: Latina-, Black-, Asian-, and Insert-your-fave-color-HERE- narratives are just as important to the social fabric of American Literature as those written by white women.

Ok, so as much as we tried, there was a lot we couldn’t cover in 45 minutes + 15 minutes for questions. I tried to run through my trajectory from disengaged parochial grammar school student, to disengaged high school student, to turned off college student (oh, the stories I could have shared about my university English professors), to circa early-mid ’90s poet, to journalist, editor, author, documentary filmmaker, blah, blah, blah, in a few minutes, but lots got lost in the sauce. I also have a hard time picking and choosing what to prioritize when asked to run through how I became a writer.

In a nutshell, I think I carried the gene, if you will, of a writer and storyteller, in my DNA. If you read my book, Bird…, you’ll understand what I mean (write me if you still don’t and we can discuss.) BUT I technically started writing by pretending I was a ghostwriter for my favorite mid-to-late ’80s emcees while my religion teacher was shoving all the tools for self-loathing down our throats. I was just not buying it.

Moving on, there were a few really poignant writing tips, jewels really, that everyone imparted that I think is important for sisterwriters of all ages and stages of their careers to keep in mind. I listed them in the following pages.

bioThe novelist Tayari Jones said two things in particular that stood out to me as invaluable: regardless of what is going on in your professional life—even when the naysayers are telling you that your career as a writer is over, you’re a has-been, etc.—keep going, keep moving, keep the faith, keep writing despite the sometimes negative influences threatening to oppress you. Finish whatever you are working on: that work may amplify and take your previous works to the next level. AND don’t be stingy with information, pay it forward. In other words, if you know of a grant or opportunity, post it on your social networks. Share the info. You never know. Someone who you help today may remember and come in clutch (my phrasing) in the future.

In a nutshell, food memoirist Ava Chin talked about the importance of putting in your dues (again, my phrasing). She wrote a column for The New York Times for free for quite some time before it paid off handsomely. I think that’s perhaps one of the most important

ac.200things said on the panel. Paying dues today is grossly underrated though a great way to meet potential mentors, be seen and heard, and develop your voice and craft.

malaika-adero-2Malaika Adero dropped numerous jewels on the audience. And, honestly, I think an hour devoted to just her and Ayesha Pande would have been invaluable for writers looking for straight talk and practical advice from an agent and editor. Malaika encouraged writers to challenge themselves, to ask themselves, “What is my motivation?” Is it to sell books and jump on trends or to write and document subjects you are passionate about? If it’s the former, then…

 

ap-with-glasses2-300x222That segues nicely into what (my) literary agent Ayesha Pande said about what moves her to take on a client: passion. Is the writer passionate about the subject he or she is writing about? When reading the nonfiction proposal or novel, does the writer arrest her attention from one page to the next? Is she still thinking about the work the next morning? If so, that’s when she feels like she can do the project justice, by selling the book with the same kind of respect and energy that the writer poured onto the page. The other thing Ayesha mentioned as being crucial to the process is being open to collaborate. I know this from personal experience. If it weren’t for me being open to her critique and suggestions, Bird of Paradise would have never been published. Writers are creative people, sensitive about our shit (to sample Badu), but I promise that being open to constructive criticism, improving your craft, and a little patience will go a long way.

Raquel Cepeda by Rob Northway

Photo credit: Rob Northway

Finally, there’s me. There are a couple of nuggets I threw out to the audience and some I couldn’t because of logistics:

  • I said to learn how to take a right/left hook to the face and counter. You have to learn how to take a blow, shake it off, learn from it, and move forward. I still remember, almost word for word, one of the worst professional conversations I’ve had to date with Ayesha (my agent). A couple weeks before my book was released, she relayed the disastrous news that Barnes & Noble cancelled every physical copy of my book nationwide. BACKSTORY HERE. Anyways, I remember imploding, sitting there and thinking about my ill-fated book. I decided, right there and then, to do everything I could to promote it, and I did just that. BUT…
  • Sometimes we make plans and the universe laughs. So what do you do when you’re on Melissa Harris-Perry and your book is illuminated and people want to go out and buy it and they run over to Barnes & Noble and then they tweet you and FB you and email you that they couldn’t find it and I respond by trying to explain the issue and pointing them to online outlets (I know what you are asking—What about indie bookstores?—but to keep it real most indies will order depending on how well it’s moving in the bigger stores)? People forget, they move on to the next thing, book, whatever is accessible and available now, now, and now! What do you do? What I did was keep trucking. AND…
  • Exercise is underrated. But, no joke, if it weren’t for boxing I don’t know that I would have had the energy to keep moving forward and getting up time and time again. The ability to exorcise the negativity that threatened to throw me in a hole at every turn was invaluable. Boxing fed my soul, my body, my spirit. It gave me an outlet and—I gave birth to my son Marceau six days before turning in my manuscript—my body back, and then some. Exercise is the gift that keeps on giving and a salve for the soul. Move, move, move. A static body = a static mind. Who wants that? SO…
  • With that said, you must do your part, your best, in putting your work out there. And that means learning all you can about the business of selling books. What do I mean? Here are a few things I’ve learned so far: fatten up your address book with editors and tastemakers; be present and spend some time each day social networking; don’t wait for your assigned book publicist to become motivated to pitch human interest stories and excerpts to media outlets. Provide the publicist with the tools she or he needs to pitch you like a list of 5-7 angles, names of editors you know personally (though that doesn’t insure coverage), and festivals you want to participate in. Trust me, just because a publicist has been assigned your book to work it doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she likes your work. And like Ayesha said, the only way to pitch a writer is to share their enthusiasm and passion (drinking word!) for their work so if your publicist isn’t riding for you, well, don’t fret. Come up with a game plan with your agent. SPEAKING OF WHICH…
  • It’s important—I can’t stress this enough—that you pick your agent as wisely as you would a life partner, wife, husband, etc. Not every agent and writer relationship is well-suited. Don’t be seduced by big names and fancy titles. Be with someone who wants to be with you, someone who shares your worldview and—DINGDINGDING, passion (are you drunk yet?)—for your work. Ideally, you want to grow old and wise with your agent. ALSO…
  • Read everything you can get your hands on. I’m currently re-reading (or just reading) books and authors that were assigned to me during college. I wasn’t into it back then but I am re-discovering authors (Kurt Vonnegut, Ibaye, I love you man) I hadn’t given much thought too back then. I learned how to develop my voice by seeing how others did it on the page (Currently, I’ve been looking through old issues of The Village Voice which I think had some of the best writing, especially about music and culture, throughout the ’90s-00s). FOR NOW…
  • I will leave you with this: Don’t be afraid of marginalization. If you are passionate (Ok, I hope you’re not driving…) about your mission work, your writing, developing your craft, taking chances, others will feel it. And if some don’t right now, who cares?

 

 

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