Evangeline Holland

Sweeping Drama ⚜ Larger than Life History ⚜ Exquisite Romance ⚜ Diverse Perspectives
February 7th, 2016

On Black Art, Beyonce, and Diversity in Publishing

Beyoncé Formation

I’m forming a knee-jerk reaction against the word “diversity.” At this point it’s like saying Beetlejuice three times, and then a serious debate/rant/conversation will materialize, and then die down until the word is chanted in the mirror again. And the word/conversation keeps being framed as though ~diverse~ authors, editors, agents, other industry professionals, and readers only came into existence once mainstream audiences and media began to discuss the issue.

(But, if you want to read the latest pithy and amazing testimonies, I point you to Piper Huguley, Christina C. Jones, India Valentin, and the hashtag #WritersofColor)

Which brings me to the topic of this post.

One of the academic points I love love love to read about and discuss is African-American performance and identity via the arts. Two “soundbites” from Du Bois converge here: the concept of Double Consciousness and his criteria for Negro art.

When I opened my Instagram app and saw a post from Beyoncé’s account, I mosied on over to Tidal to see what she was up to. A caveat: I’m not a member of the Beyhive (cue gasps of shock), but I respect her longevity, work ethic, and the way she can put on one helluva show. But as I watched Formation, I was speechless in shock and awe. The melody is kind of throwaway, but the lyrics and accompanying music video leapt out to me as completely fulfilling Du Bois’s criteria. The Veil was ripped off.

I closed the Tidal app after watching the video twice and bemusedly anticipated the onslaught of yaaas, slay, and queen to fill social media and my favorite pop culture sites, as well as a gazillion thinkpieces on every single media website in existence. So my eyebrows rose considerably when so many other people got it and called for the thinkpieces to be written by black women.

Later on, as I began to formulate this post, I mused over Beyoncé dropping this overtly black female political music video into the mainstream. Granted, Beyonce hasn’t ever not celebrated her black womanhood or the black womanhood of her audience, and videos like Bootylicious, or Déjà Vu have head-nodded to black icons—yet, they’ve never as blatantly talking to the black community only as the lyrics and video for Formation.

I’ve been having lots of thoughts about “diversity in publishing,” but they didn’t snap until this video. In a nutshell, I feel the topic is flattening and compressing into an eventually generic conversation the more it spirals into mainstream circles.

The conversation assumes that black (or other POC) art should be fully accessible to the mainstream to be ~marketable~ and enjoyable.

(I find this is probably where the pearl-clutching over “quality” comes into play–the book reads “poor” because it’s not written for you; it’s not written in the same voice and vernacular to which you’ve grown accustomed after years of reading canonical literature and A-List genre fiction writers).

It assumes that diverse voices must be packaged exactly like mainstream work to succesfully reach mainstream readers.

It assumes that diverse voices need mainstream attention to pull them into the spotlight–that the diverse writer’s core audience isn’t enough to declare said writer successful.

Last year, British writer and Man Booker winner Marlon James caused an uproar when he stated that “writers of colour pander to the white woman.” Somewhat around the same time, an older Pew Report about college-educated black women being the most likely to read a book popped back up. And then there’s the Lee & Low survey, which clearly shows that the gatekeepers in publishing are mostly white women.

But all of this is to say that the push to normalize diversity risks erasing the nuances. It chances pushing the intra-community dialogue between the writer and his/her readers out of focus. It may do the opposite of what the campaign intends, which is to nurture and nourish diverse voices.

Space needs to be made for all, but if the book is fulfilling Du Bois’s criteria, it should still have the same shot at similar shelf placement, advance, and marketing dollars as a more mainstream novel (and POC authors ought to have the ability to shift back and forth between audiences—like Beyonce).

May 14th, 2015

On Using Public History to Restore Forgotten Voices in Historical Romance

T'Chin Quan Chan Family, ca. 1911

RS 27464, Chin Quan Chan; Seattle District, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files, Applications to Reenter, c. 1892-1900]: Chin Quan Chan Family, Chinese Exclusion Act Case File, circa 1911

As some may know, I’ve recently returned to school for a double degree in Public History and American Studies. Where I once had a vague sense of history and historical fiction/romance existing on somewhat different planes, I now have a strong sense of this theoretical statement. And each day, each quarter, spent in various courses in both disciplines expands my vision of what history (and memory and place and literature and identity) actually is, and how it can be applied to writing historical fiction.

In a nutshell, Public History takes history out of the ivory tower of academia and is also an act of social justice. It is the process of engaging the public with history–museums, historical societies, cultural events, all the way down to a monument or plaque to a public hero/ine. If you take a look around your city, you will likely find evidence of public history at work.

Public History also works to address memory and the meaning of place, particularly with regards to those whose history has been destroyed or hidden or misinterpreted. American Studies seems pretty self-explanatory, but where it was once the creation of “myths” about American identity, it has transformed over the past few decades into an interrogation of these myths and the various facets of what it means to be “American” (United States).

Over the past few months I’ve worked on a project focused on a local Chinatown, whose site has been reclaimed after decades of legal wrangling. Over the past four months, I–and others–have been holed up in the nearest branch of the National Archives and Records Administration, combing through boxes and boxes of files dedicated to the Chinese Exclusion Act in search of the people who lived in this Chinatown and other Chinatowns in the region. Needless to say, this research has been illuminating.

Each file I’ve opened has sparked so many thoughts and ideas–academic and for fiction–and increased my awareness of the stories untold. It has increased my awareness of the people wedged in the crevices of what we think we know and what we produce from that “knowledge.” My research for this project has made it impossible to not see this story from the inside out, to hear the story of this period in US history through the voices of the local Chinese-American population of the early 20th century.

At the beginning of my involvement, the files meant little to me; the photographs of the Chinese immigrants placed on their certificates were just men from long ago, and their lives were filled in with my vague knowledge of Chinese-American culture based on trawling through San Francisco’s Chinatown. This four month project also yanked other stories into the picture: white Americans who were against the Exclusion Act, who vouched for immigrants; kinship; entrepreneurship; marriage and gender; education; religion; legal history.

There is public history theory, of course, but I spend most of my courses doing public history, whether it be speaking to the city government about historic preservation, or observing community activism, or attending historical events (and speaking there too–eek!). And when I forge connections with other public historians and integral voices in the community, I get chills over the history out there locked in someone’s attic or in their mind.

As I stated in my previous post, this is not easy history to find. You can’t walk into B&N and easily find a shelf groaning with books on Chinese American history the way you can about the Kennedys. You can’t type a few words into Google and come up with tons of websites and blogs about daily life for African Americans in Los Angeles the way you can for daily life in, say, Victorian London (and that is problematic in and of itself, since these sites usually erase Brits of color from the landscape). What you can do is look in the margins:

1) Oral history projects and transcripts.
2) Special collections at a local library.
3) Visit a branch of the National Archives to use their access to Ancestry.com and newspaper archives.
4) Historical societies and niche museums.
5) Veterans groups.
6) Check the schedule at the local university’s history department for talks by visiting historians–believe me, they welcome the public.
7) JSTOR if you have access–and some articles are free.
8) Conduct your own oral history projects with family and friends.
9) Research for whom buildings in your city are named and why.
10) Email historians in your topic of interest! They love discussing their work and field.