Last night, I walked into a mini-disaster. Or to be more precise, I stood on a chair in it.
A few weeks ago, when Publisher’s Weekly asked me to give the keynote speech in a night honoring the industry’s young publishing stars, I jumped at the chance. Talk about your last year, they told me. Talk about what it was like getting published.
My last year has been intense. My book The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing came out, I spent a few months touring internationally, and from a distance, it looked like one big party. Up close, it looked a bit different. This was something I really wanted to get into, as sometimes when we talk about the sad statistics facing writers of color in publishing, they become just that: statistics. I wanted to back that up by talking about what it actually looks like.
But fate wasn’t with me last night. The sound system at the event was terrible, which was a real problem. But even as I stood up on a chair and yelled to deliver my speech, half the room turned away and started talking over me. By the time I was done, I was talking to a very small ring of people, which felt, well, awful. More awful were the disappointed faces of the minorities in the crowd, the few who hugged me as I walked out and whispered, We wish they had heard it.
Well, I do, too. Anyone got a chair?
True story: A few months ago, a producer from a literary show on Boston Public Radio asked me to read a section of my book on air. I sent it to him and he said he would need to edit it down. I totally got it. Radio is a different medium. Stories need to change. Sure! Change away. Then I got the edits back. Some of them were normal cutting 300 words to 25, but there were others. My characters' names, he wrote, were confusing. There were three in the scene, could I cut them to two if I was going to stick with the unfamiliar names? And then there was this other note, even stranger. In a sentence setting the scene up, I had written "three East Indian teenagers, kids of immigrants, sit talking on the roof of the house." In his notes, the producer had crossed out East Indian and written "ASIAN INDIAN." Asian Indian. As if that is a thing that anyone has ever said to anyone else, excluding the sentence — “Not like American Indian, like Asian Indian.” And the note went on: "Alas!" — not kidding, he really said Alas! like he was some Victorian maiden — "Alas! Americans aren’t familiar with the term East Indian — it’s just not something we say over here."
This is when my soul kind of made a Chewbacca noise. That horrible howl.
I took a deep breath. Oh, who am I kidding? I took a shot of whiskey. Then I wrote back. "Alas!" I wrote — mainly because I wanted to see if it would turn me into a white lady in a petticoat — "Alas, Boston Public Radio Producer of Literary Shows — I am from America! I was born here, and have lived here many decades among other Americans, other East Indian Americans, even, which is what we are called, but if that makes you uncomfortable in some way we can always use the broader term South Asian."
We used South Asian.
I was not OK about this for days. Days. And why? It wasn’t such a big deal, compared to other discrimination I’ve faced in my life. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen on tour — like the time at a book festival party in Florida, when a donor I’d been talking to all night suddenly burst out with, “Your English is so good, I can barely hear your accent!” Or the Q&A after a reading in Massachusetts, when a guy in his sixties raised his hand and asked, “My son is dating an Indian woman?”
But this thing with the Boston radio producer really got under my skin in a way neither of those did. And I couldn’t figure out exactly why until I talked to my best friend, Alison, and she said, “I think it’s the way he cloaked his casual racism in his profession, like it was only professional to point out to you how confusing you are to his audience.”
Here is the thing about how discrimination works: No one ever comes right out and says, “We don’t want you.” In the publishing world, they don’t say, “We just don’t want your story.” They say, “We’re not sure you're relatable” and “You don’t want to exclude anyone with your work.” They say, “We’re not sure who your audience is.”
I believe that. I believe that there are still some people in this industry who are not sure who my audience is. But I do not for a minute believe that is because my audience doesn’t exist.
To be clear, I’m well aware that I had a great shake of things, an excellent year in which a book I wrote was shepherded through an enthusiastic and thoughtful house. The selling, the editing, all these things went well, and to pretend they didn’t would be misleading. But out in the world, in the marketing of the book, I was surprised by how repeatedly I was asked to whitewash the story, to make my book seem more relatable to audiences, as if none of those audiences had people like me in them. So I guess that is what I want to speak to here, tonight. This shadowy, persistent, pervasive idea that somehow, stories like the one I wrote are hard for average Americans to connect to, the assumption that the average American looks nothing like me.
And here’s the thing — my book isn’t actually about characters having unusual names or not knowing how to ethnically identify themselves! It’s about what happens to a family when one of its members starts to disappear right in front of them. It’s about how crazy we get trying to save each other, how love can both fuck you up and save the day at the exact same time.
So I will tell you something else that has happened since my book came out. The first time it happened, I was in New Mexico, with my hometown crowd. There was one woman in the front row and I remember her because she was wearing a green T-shirt and holding her hands in fists. She was white, maybe in her sixties. She looked scared. Afterward, when I was signing, she handed me her book and said quietly, “My husband died two months ago. My kids gave me your book. This is the first time I left my house since he died, but I wanted to thank you in person for writing about us.”
Oof. My heart. Even now, I think of this, and I want to do what I did then, which is hug her. Just, you know, that human thing, when you want to brace someone else’s bones with yours and say, "I got you."
So that was the first time, but really, it happened a lot. It happened with people of all ages, races, and genders. It happened at readings and it happened in emails and a lot of times it was just a thank you for writing this book — but just as often, it was someone commenting on the family dynamics. “I know you are Indian,” they would say, “but really, this is about my family, the Italians. My family, the Jews. My family, the Greeks. The Dominicans. The Koreans. The Irish.”
I’m not telling you guys this because I’m some kind of Pollyanna. I’m not looking to kumbaya the situation for writers of color away with you tonight. But you all, you young publishing stars, are my great hope. You are the ones who are already pushing the boundaries of what this industry takes on, you are the ones that need to know what I have found out again, and again and again, with every piece I publish: American audiences are capable of so much more than some in your industry imagine. And if we can break that down to what I really mean, I mean this: White Americans can care about more than just themselves. They really can. And the rest of us? We are DYING to see ourselves anywhere.
To be clear: I’m not asking for altruism here. I worked in corporate America for 20 years before I put my book out; I know the stakes, the economics. What I am saying makes solid, actual business sense: There is a vast, untapped audience out there. You need to get to us.
We are living in a time when what it means to be “other” is shifting dramatically. When my white best friend can and will help me unpack a racially fraught situation. When I can put a piece of a graphic memoir I’m working on now — this little thing about my son’s obsession with Michael Jackson and how it relates to everything from what happened in Ferguson to what happens in my marriage — and it goes viral within an hour. I looked at who was sharing that, and guess what? It wasn’t just the Asian Indians! It was everyone. Because all of us are so ready to talk about the world we live in. We are ready to have a publishing industry that is of that world.
Now, I know there are some of you right now thinking, “Oh my God, lady, I am doing all that I can about this every single day!” I get it. I know who you are, I feel what you are doing. But I also know there are those of you who haven’t done that yet — who maybe understand there’s a huge gap between the many American experiences and the books that speak to them, who cautiously scan the dialogue about this on your Twitter feed but have no idea how to engage with it, or if engaging with it is even your job. So I am telling you: It is your job. Get in here. Be a part of this. You will ignore us at your own peril — to the industry’s peril.
Because let’s face it, we’re all here because we love books, right? We love what books do in the world, how they breed introspection, compassion. In fact, every single person who is being honored tonight is being honored, at the root, for this really basic and lovely thing, which is doing the hard work of making sure humans understand each other. I mean, I know, you’re also sending specs out and coddling fragile writers and drinking too much on a Wednesday, but you’ve also taken the heart of this work on, and I’m guessing it wasn’t for the money. It was because you know it’s important. It matters. It changes things. So to all of you tonight, I say thank you. It’s not always an easy job, but you do it, and I see you doing it. I hope you see me, too.
Mira Jacob is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which was named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, Goodreads, Bustle, and The Millions. She is currently working on a graphic memoir called Good Talk: Conversations I'm Still Confused About. Follow her on Twitter: @mirajacob.