Building More Traction for #WeNeedDiverseCreators

This is a long overdue personal post about #WeNeedDiverseCreators and its relation to projects like Helen Wan’s novel “The Partner Track” and Beyond Press’ “Elements” anthology. I’ve always believed that more women of color should be folded into the mainstream American narrative, but for the longest time, felt hopeless about it. Many women of color and other marginalized folks will understand why, but for those who need context, read the next three paragraphs.

For six years, I’d worked consecutively at Marvel and DC Comics and learned quickly that, similar to other publishing and entertainment industries, most editors wouldn’t take a chance on someone without a proven track record (webcomics and zines didn’t count). It was a Catch-22 that was further complicated by fierce competition and scarce talent spots. So how were women of color ever going to get in? I complained to my friends, but was worried about speaking on record about my ideals and why they were important.

Part of that anxiety was rooted in the fact that PR departments for both DC and Marvel implied that expressing our personal opinions had the potential to misrepresent the company. I didn’t want to jeopardize my job or future prospects even remotely. Then DC moved its publishing operations to Burbank and I left the company to stay in New York.

I’m happy with the job I have now, but it’s taken me a while to simply blog about why #WeNeedDiverseCreators. Balancing a full-time job, life, finances, and self-care leaves little room for my more personal writing, but I don’t want to make excuses for myself anymore. I admire the creators of color who have always been outspoken and unapologetic advocates; people like my friend Wendy Xu, who’s been telling me for years to just put stuff out there and not worry about whether it’s “good” or not. Well, I finally feel confident and unafraid enough to add my voice, regardless of whether it’s a little late in the game.

Cover of "The Partner Track" by Helen Wan

Cover of "The Partner Track" by Helen Wan

Helen Wan’s The Partner Track is about Ingrid Yung, a Chinese-American lawyer who endures and battles racism and sexism at a prestigious law firm in New York City. Some of it was based on Helen’s personal experiences as a corporate attorney. Even though I gave up my interest in law when I got to college, I still had an exhilarating experience reading her book. Simply seeing through the eyes of a character, who, in an alternate universe, could have been myself, was not only validating, but exciting. It’s the same thrill I got while seeing the new Ghostbusters movie.

It’s not enough for the main character to be a strong Asian American woman, though. No one but Helen could have written The Partner Track, because, like it or not, living through something is going to give you more insight into that experience. You can conduct research and interviews, even hire sensitivity readers, but a method-acting approach to writing will still be colored by your own life. And that’s OK. That’s why #WeNeedDiverseCreators, because a large pool of perspectives can more powerfully enable the empathy that’s essential to diminishing the hate and misrepresentation in this world.

In the light of Black Lives Matter, I think diverse creators are more important than ever. Because reading is essentially listening, and that’s something that the majority of this country (e.g. Trump supporters) has blatantly rejected for far too long. Listening to a story is the first step to understanding it, and understanding leads to empathy, openness, and kindness. It’s something marginalized people have to fight for, through marches, through angry tweets, through yelling in the streets. That may sound counterintuitive, but when you demand to be treated equally by the willfully deaf, it’s the only option.

Helen was featured in the Washington Post back in 2014.

The importance of speaking out about the need for diverse creators was magnified when I took a novel writing class with Helen Wan at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop. I found her journey through publishing provoking, yet simultaneously illuminating and unsurprising. She told us about people who advised her (prior to finally finding the book's agent and publisher) to change Ingrid’s race so the novel would be more marketable, implying that an Asian American protagonist wouldn’t be able to turn a profit. Racism is alive and well in America, folks, but many of us already knew that.

Helen also let us in on a little secret. Those Amazon reviews? They help measure the success of a book and the subsequent bankability of an author. If we want to sway publishers into opening their doors to more diverse writers, we have to go beyond buying diverse books, we have to rate them also. I never expected a marketplace review to accomplish much. I’d always thought that reviews needed to come from The New York Times or The New Yorker to be considered worthwhile. But like Helen’s character, Ingrid, we women of color may not have a lot of friends in high places, but we have the numbers and we have community.

I always go back to the Audre Lorde speech that was quoted ubiquitously in my Barnard classes: “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.” And while Amazon couldn't be more representative of "The Master" in that it's a corporate behemoth, our reviews, our words are our own tools and that's something they can't take away. That's something we can use to carve out our own space. Ingrid Yung goes through a moment like this in The Partner Track: “I was never going to win as long as I continued to play by other people’s rules. Instead, more of us needed to get into the business of making them up for ourselves.” And that’s exactly what indie publishers like Beyond Press accomplished for their creators and readership.

Cover art for Beyond Press' "Elements Anthology" by Chrystin Garland.

Cover art for Beyond Press' "Elements Anthology" by Chrystin Garland.

Beyond Press’ Elements anthology Kickstarter has already exceeded its goal of $30K by almost $15K, and, as of today, still has five days to go (back it now to unlock the $45K stretch goal reward!). The indie publisher had built up steam from their first self-titled anthology, which editor Sfé R. Monster got traction for from their Twitter community. In a 2015 interview with Steve Morris of Comicsalliance Sfé said, “The anthology was actually inspired by an idle tweet I made back in 2013. I was joking that I wanted to be part of a comic anthology with a queer sci-fi/fantasy focus and that somebody should make that. That off-the-cuff comment got a lot of positive response, and a lot of people whose work I respect and admire said they’d like to be involved.”

Their current Kickstarter’s success is proof that there is strength in community and that we don’t have to play by the rules of big publishers who won’t give our work a second glance. Taneka Stotts, co-founder of Beyond Press, said as much in an interview with Black Comics Month earlier this year: “I feel there is a stigma that has existed in comics for a long time that has left all people of color feeling unwelcome within the community. However, we have now changed that by literally not caring, entering all spaces (regardless of welcome) and enjoying ourselves. We are carving out our own spaces where we can share our stories, and speak in our own unedited voices.”

The Kickstarter I was recently a part of depends on the values that Stotts and Monster champion. My short story is being featured in “Hidden Youth”, an anthology by indie publisher Crossed Genres. “Hidden Youth” will be a collection of speculative historical fiction about marginalized teens and children. The Kickstarter got successfully funded, but it was nerve wracking right to the very last minute. I reached out to everyone I knew, their mothers, and their mother’s friends. I was embarrassed to ask for help, but friends everywhere told me that this was how it was done and that it was OK to call upon your community for support. This was part of using my own tools to take down the master’s house.

"Mooncakes." Art by Wendy Xu. Writing by Suzanne Walker.

"Mooncakes." Art by Wendy Xu. Writing by Suzanne Walker.

Another key tool for playing by our own rules is Patreon. Wendy Xu told me about it a few years ago and now, nearly every indie comics creator I know has one. (Go support her Patreon, by the way, especially if you like witch stories!) This is probably already old news to many, but it bears a reiteration, especially for people like me, people who rarely use social media. For the longest time, I was out of touch. Sure, I backed a few Kickstarters and used the pre-populated tweet about backing them, but I wasn’t using my own voice enough. And I wasn’t keyed into Twitter enough. As you can tell, I’m more of a long-form kind of gal.

A lot of my friends aren’t very “plugged in.” Perhaps it’s because we were born on the cusp of the Millennial generation. We lived our childhood without computers and smartphones. But that may just be another excuse. I now more deeply understand that whether you are a marginalized person or an “ally,” if you want to change the world for the better, you have to go beyond buying a book or supporting a Kickstarter, you have to join in on the conversation.

But enough self-deprecation. What I’m trying to say is, while social media can be exhausting, while hearing about the news can bring up anger and pain, and while taking the time to write an Amazon review can feel like a burden on top of all the other life shit we have to deal with, it’s worth it. Change is work. I have to remind myself of that constantly.

My hero, may she rest in power, Grace Lee Boggs, said that “we are the leaders we’ve been looking for” and it’s so easy to lose sight of that. To be sure, everyone is entitled to take time for self care, but only we can put in the hours. To help diverse creators get more of their work out there, we need to be a part of the news that matters to us. These are not new ideas or insights. Much like the power of a single Amazon review, this is another voice that will help amplify the chorus and hopefully inspire others to do the same.