About a week late, but at least it’s now the night of a new moon. While I’ll still be on my woo woo nonsense, I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about what summer meant to me as a child. So in between the woo woo, there’s a large block of music that reminds me of two staples of a Black girl’s summer: the rhythm of double dutch and skating rinks. Hopefully we can think of the good things we used to have along with a protective ozone layer.
Had some thinky thoughts while feeding my ancestors this Sunday morning. I really enjoyed the Gayl Jones symposium this weekend. It reminds me of what the best of academia can be. However, when I sat down to eat with my ancestors, I apologized to them for not completing that path. I simply said it wasn’t for me.
Now this is true. It’s also true that I sometimes have regrets about not getting my doctorate. Other times I just have regrets that I didn’t go into a different discipline. Mostly, I just regret I didn’t decide I could be a writer sooner because I had no faith in my own talent. (Sometimes still don’t but that’s a rant for another time.)
Anyway, while I’m listening to these panels discussing Jones’ work, I’m realizing two things: I no longer have the capacity for academic study if I ever truly did, and I also am very much not a writer of Jones’ stature. It’s this latter thought I would like to address.
I love Gayl Jones and listening to these panels have helped me realize that writers like her often go right over my head. I mean, I get the gist, I connect with it on some level, I fall in love with the work, but I miss out on a lot of the symbolic things they do in the writing. Perhaps it would come to me in time with multiple readings, but I’d feel completely inadequate giving close analytical readings to things anymore.
Somehow this makes me think about what type of writer I am, the way I approach it, and how that approach has changed over the years. With one of my first works, even though it was experimental to me, I was very intentional about wanting to be a writer like Jones, Toni Morrison, Lois Griffith, or Phyllis Alesia Perry but knew from the beginning I’d never be able to do it the way they did. So I worked on my own style and explored similar themes. My work was bleak to be honest, even when I wanted to move it away from the “pain porn” that’s expected of Black women writers, especially when it comes to the non-genre of literature. And quite frankly, I’m still proud of that book I wrote probably around ten years ago now and feel like in many ways it’s much stronger than anything I’ve written since. I took a risk and created my homage to those women I grew up reading before I screwed up my courage and went for it.
In all this time I’ve been shopping it, no one bit. I got an offer for the Kimbilio fellowship a few years ago but couldn’t attend due to financial constraints. In the meantime, I tried other genres that I thought were above me, particularly SFF and romance and have enjoyed the exercise writing for different genres and audiences, which like me overlap because we just love good stories and writers. However, it was around 2020 in the midst of the pandemic when I made a conscious attempt to lighten my content if not my style so that it didn’t feel as heavy, especially as heavy as my first effort at a literary novel. With that, I drafted a light women’s lit novel during NaNoWriMo, one that I’d initially intended to write as dystopian fiction. But I had no heart to write it this way as every piece of dystopia I’d already written or planned was now a reality.
I focused more on creating what I’d hoped to be a reality. Not hopepunk but still firmly in women’s fiction. I can’t really call it romance because romantic relationships are not the center and point of the story, but there’s hope in that I’m imagining more fulfilling lives for the Black women characters and their communities I create – what I’d like to see more in my life even as we live amid the -isms and -phobias I know will never fully leave us no matter where we are.
I owe a lot of this hope for light and love to the Black women in romance communities not only for their work as writers but also for the ways they fight to make these communities safe for Black readers and writers and fight to make sure our stories are told and show that as Black people, we are entitled to be subjects in love stories and we are worth loving. Even when I don’t write in that genre (trust me, I’m kinda bad at it), it’s this love for Black people and Blackness in all its forms and the belief that we deserve every kind of love that I’m hoping to center in my work.
It’s also how I realized I have lots of trouble following genre conventions even though I tend to love them.
Perhaps I’ll speak more about that some other time as well, but as I worked on a current WIP, I saw myself blending genres as the best way to tell the story of the character I decided to center. I began with the romance then realized I wanted to include the women’s literature with a touch of the dreamlike flights of fantasy where it made sense. The biggest issue I know will plague it is that I know this will make it difficult if not pretty much impossible to shop it to agents and publishers. Yet, I know I have to write it this way as I finally figured out I need to tell the story the way it wants to be told regardless of what genre it’ll find itself in. And sometimes the lines of those genres will be blurred.
So what has all this got to do with Gayl Jones? All I can say is she is still very much my favorite writer and the symposium only reinforced how much she will always remain above as a writing talent. I don’t expect to create a body of work that inspires so much analysis and devotion in avid readers such as myself. However, what I would like is to at least create work that reaches the right readers when they need it. I’d like to be the writer who sustains herself on her writing and let that be her vocation as capitalism allows since we can’t get away from it.
No matter what I end up writing, I am still very much inspired by Gayl Jones. I just accept that I will never be her. I will never be Nalo Hopkinson. I will never be Alice Randall. (For real, I was so jealous reading Pushkin and the Queen of Spades!) But I hope to be Inda Lauryn. I hope to give Black women readers the kind of escape we all look for when we read for pleasure and sometimes imagine better for ourselves. I’ll continue to work on my lighthearted work as much as I can until I’m called again to do something else. But until then, I can only look to these women I admire and continue to hope it’s finally my time.