By: Vanessa Garcia / January 20, 2016
I get called a lot of things. Sometimes, I get called a “writer of color,” for instance. Or, a “Latina writer.” As a writer of Cuban heritage, these labels have been thrown at me time and again. When it happens, sometimes I’m grateful, and sometimes I’m furious, but I always flinch — it’s complicated.
The main reason I flinch is that the terminology is extremely limiting. These words are the toughest of all gatekeepers guarding the mainstream. And, in the end, they hinder more than they rescue.
This past year, 2015, Shade Mountain Press, a wonderful small press, published my debut novel, White Light. I was lucky that the book had great critical acclaim and was named one of NPRs Best Books of 2015. The publication was both the fruit of a long effort, and the chance to look more deeply into the words we attach to our diverse voices.
The first moment, post-publication, that made me stop to think about this issue was during a Q&A at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. I had mentioned, at some point during the reading, that I felt a responsibility to write about Cuba as an American Born Cuban, particularly during this time of great change. As a result, an audience member asked, and I’m paraphrasing here: How long do you feel you need to carry that responsibility; how long are we were going to have to feel burdened by that kind of responsibility?
The woman who asked the question was a Black writer. At first I thought she meant “we” as in “we writers.” Eventually, I came to understand that she meant: “we writers of color.”
I think that what she was asking was pretty deep. She was asking how long we were supposed to carry this cloak of color with us. How long we were supposed to write about what others expected us to write about. And, how long we were going to have to explain ourselves to be heard?
The first problem, I thought, lay in the phrase: “writer of color.” Is Jonathan Franzen a writer of “non color?” A “pink writer?” Why then should I, and my Cuban American self, be a “writer of color?” Why should my Black friend be?
What if my Black writer friend in the audience with the instigating question wanted to write about an enlightening trip to Joshua Tree she took, or about backpacking through the Alps? What if she wanted to “eat, pray and love it,” instead of having to continuously point to the fact that she was a Black writer living a black experience in America? Why shouldn’t a Black writer in American find herself at a soccer match in Italy, cursing with the best of them; why shouldn’t she tell us about finding love in Bali? Why shouldn’t I?
When I apply this to my own book, my thoughts turn complex, quickly. On the one hand, I think: My novel isn’t “Latino Lit.” It is a book about a painter, who happens to be an American Born Cuban, who has a very particular American experience, an individual human experience — but one that can relate to other Americans as well, not to mention other humans. It is a book about loss and coming into ones own. It is a book about the great weight of mourning, the power of art, and the intensity of love. My audience is not limited to the Cuban-American community, or the “Latino” community.
On the other hand, the book’s character is absolutely an American Born Cuban, infused with the experience of having been raised by Cuban parents — a volatile Cuban father, who would have been a different person had he not been forced to migrate to America. But so what? This still does not limit my audience, it, in fact, should expand it. Because isn’t this why we read to begin with — to acquire new points of view? New angles from which to view the world?
Do you have to be Indian to read and relate to Salman Rushdie? British to read Jane Austen? Colombian to read García Márquez? Do you have to be Jamaican to devour Marlon James’ book A Brief History of Seven Killings, a book which was allegedly rejected 80 times? I think his sales have proven otherwise. More to the point, do you have to be an astronaut to read The Martian? Or, a porn star to watch Boogie Nights?
The problem, I want to say, is not who I am. The problem is rooted in the gulf between who I am and who the publishing industry insists that I am and how they should market me.
I was born to Cuban parents in Miami, I went to a private, Catholic, all-girls school, mostly on scholarship, followed by Barnard College. I have sliced deli meat at a café in New Orleans, and sheltered a stripper, also in that same crazy city. But, I have also traveled around the world from Ghana to Japan. I backpacked across Europe with my 80 year old Spanish grandfather (meaning from Spain, in case the labels are confusing you by now), when I was 24. I have worked as a translator, a playwright, a journalist, a professor, an artist. I have an MFA from the University of Miami, and a PhD from the University of California Irvine, in English. I have written about David Bowie and how he relates to 21st century literature, and I have written about my motherland, Cuba, all in the same week. My experiences are multiple. They are not solely made up of Cuban Coffee and Salsa music. Yes, Celia Cruz is one of my heroes, and I do love Cuban coffee, but I’m also — guess what — a terrible dancer, and some of the best writing experiences I’ve ever had were in places like Little Rock, Arkansas and North Carolina.
I am not always who you think I am, and I don’t want to write about what you think I should write about.
Another impulse follows, immediately on the heels of all this — and I realize it is a seemingly contradictory drive — it says: I am, like my novel’s character, also Cuban, and I still want you to understand what it is to be truly Cuban in America. Sometimes. Sometimes I want to do this, and sometimes I just want to write about David Bowie.
This seeming contradiction, however — not wanting to be pegged as a “Latina writer” and, yet, still wanting to tell my Cuban-American story — is not so much the inconsistency that it seems. Because, sure, of course some of the people I want to share this story with are those that have a similar experience. I want them to be able to see themselves in “Literature” and in the writing that’s put out into the world, in our American narrative. But, I also want, very much, to share it with non-Cubans, non-Latinos, with someone whose stereotypes might be shattered by reading and living with my character, Veronica Gonzalez, for 284 pages. This, in much the same way that someone outside the medical profession might read a novel narrated by a surgeon. There will be points of diversion, points of connection, and, all the while – learning.
Part of this conflict is an old story -- I have what we all know, thanks to W.E.B Du Bois, is called a “double consciousness.” Like so many other Americans, I live between worlds, I code-switch. I am hard pressed to walk down the street and find an American that does not have some kind of double consciousness. I’m hard pressed to walk down the street in Europe and find a European that lives in a singular world.
Whether you are living between two classes, two cultures, two identifying drives — two, or more, I should say — you are person in the 21st century and you are multiple, whether you like it or not. There is not such thing as “of color” anymore. We are all writers and people “of color.” We are all humans with multiple consciousnesses.
And yet… And here is where we enter further into the quagmire of my argument. It took me many years to sell my book, White Light. Much longer, I believe, than if I’d been a well-connected Lena Dunham, or, better yet, a white, male writer. Despite the fact that the book came with blurbs by Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka; Oprah book club pick A. Manette Ansay; Mary Gordon; and Jane Alison, the rejections still came pouring in, and not with the typical “no thanks we’ll pass,” but with something more… “We love this book, we really do, but…” The buts were always tinged with fear. One comment I got more than once was, “We already have a Cuban-American writer on our list.” So, you can only publish one Cuban-American writer? Because all Cuban-Americans are the same? Are you also only publishing one white writer? One male writer?
These kinds of responses forced me to understand that we do need different kinds of American experiences at the helm of the big 5 publishing houses, at the “gates,” to insist on the importance of these narratives, to validate them. In the end, the editor that chose my book, the brilliant Rosalie Morales Kearns, happens to be part Puerto Rican, and part Pennsylvania Dutch.
I wish VIDA stats weren’t what they are. I wish they didn’t tell us what a miserable rut the publishing industry is in regarding the publication of women, the reviewing of women. I wish that Roxane Gay hadn’t found the same exact thing to be true for “writers of color.”
I wish we were at the point where the big 5 understood the importance of our stories, and knew how to market them. But they don’t because they believe that only Hispanics will read my book. And they believe that Hispanics will only be attracted to a colorful cover with a pot of beans or sassy Latina on its face. I’ll be clear and say that my publisher is brilliant, for one, because she did not do any of this. She stayed true to the narrative of the novel itself, put a painting on the cover, took risk after risk.
And, yet, if the big houses aren’t doing the same, if those Latina gatekeepers are there to get our stories in, and then the marketing gets muffled along the way, it defeats the purpose of having a Latina gatekeeper in the first place. If you bring me into your house and then market me as the “spice” in this year’s list, I’m going to cringe, and so is most of America, believe it or not.
Because, newsflash: “Latina writers” aren’t made of bay leaves and dance, we don’t taste like cilantro when you bite into us. Our lips, when you kiss them, won’t make yours chip because of our innate Habanero pepper sauce.
During the New York City leg of the book tour, I attended the Comadres (and Compadres) Conference – a conference specializing in bringing to light the voices of Latina men and women, particularly women. Notice that there isn’t a female “Junot Diaz.” There are millions of her out there, of course, but we’re still working on getting her through the sometimes seemingly impenetrable gates that block her from the mainstream.
At the Comadres Conference, I listened to several panels wherein publishers expressed their distress at the inability to reach to the “Latino market.” But, that’s just it. In the expression of the problem, lies the problem itself. There’s a two-fold problem here, actually.
The first is a massive underestimation of readers with Spanish-speaking roots, and where we look for literature. We most definitely don’t look on the “Hispanic” and “Latino shelves” alone, we look to the good stuff, period. We look for books that ring true, books that are alive with voice. We look for stories, we look to connect, and to learn. We look for our stories, and we also look to understand the stories of others. Just as, I believe, most readers. Which means there is a massive underestimation of the American mainstream as a whole as well, of readers of literary fiction. Who told you they don’t want to read our stories?
Publishers are making a big blunder. It’s not that American readers don’t want to read Hispanic stories, or just one Hispanic story a year, it’s that you’re still telling them they don’t want to, just like you’re still telling us what you think we, as “Latinas” should be like. You’re pointing to the differences instead of similarities. In the end, the labeling is a mistake. I understand the inclination to “label” in order to survive, but only so as to eventually move away from such labeling. “Latino/a Lit” should not be labeled the way sci-fi or literary fiction are. We are not a genre, we are people, we are storytellers.
About Vanessa Garcia
Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist