This past week has been both humbling and trying. Like many people of privilege, I have been reading, listening, conversing, and learning about the current state of racism, police brutality, and overall civil unrest. I silenced my published creative efforts unless they were to help raise the voices of the unheard. I sometimes consider my social media presence to be a thankless part of my “job,” and one that I do not always look forward to. That has been changing of late as I shift my focus to that which brings me joy; however, it was still surprisingly difficult to not share images from the beautiful world around me for a few days.
Even after all this reflection, it was not until yesterday evening that a thought occurred to me about my Afterworld series. Before you continue to read, be warned that the following will contain minor spoilers for my Afterworld novels. The following is also not seeking a pat on the back. Art is art and I stake no claim to the airy voices that come to me and demand to be heard through my words.
Minor book spoilers below.
I live in a little liberal bubble in my corner of California and I take a great many of the cultural conversations held in my community for granted; as I have now seen, many communities do not strive to address issues of race, inequality, privilege, etc. While my community is not perfect, at least there are many who have always spoken and even more willing to listen. This, however, can blind me to the world outside.
I write very quickly, without outlining, so as I stated above, I often only feel a conduit for story. It flows through me freely and if I try to place a bit in its mouth and guide it, the work suffers terribly. This may be the reason reviews of my work often say that just when they thought they knew where the story was going, it took an unpredictable turn. As a result of my little bubble and feeling as if my characters are speaking through me, rather than me cultivating their voices for them, I was naively unaware of the ways the content of Afterworld made it dangerous in the eyes of several traditional publishers until I was on a panel of female authors at Denver Comic Con.
There to represent the indies, I felt like a little kid in the big kid’s playground and was more excited to learn from them than to share my meager experience. An Indian American author shared the story of how her publisher asked her to change the race of her heroine because it would be too hard to sell a book about someone with brown skin – someone who reflected the author, mind you. Another woman was told to change the sexual orientation of her protagonist from gay to straight for essentially the same reason. My stomach grew cold. I am white. Ophelia, my main character, is not, and her best friend who shares much of the story is gay. At the time, I was still actively attempting to traditionally publish my novel. This news shocked and frightened me. Both of my fellow authors shared that they followed their publishers’ advice and altered their stories because, at the end of the day, they had mouths to feed and bills to pay.
This moment was pivotal, for it made me realize that I had written a story that, was not about, but included, two vastly underrepresented groups in our society, and that that fact would make it unpalatable to some, unsellable to others.
Ophelia, I realized after I finished her tale, represents the modern “everywoman.” Her skin is brown. In Ophelia, her heritage is part Trinidadian – chosen because it is akin to being American – no one race or group. Over the course of the series, her appearance helps her somewhat seamlessly blend in with several cultures on multiple continents. I didn’t want to include an image of her on the cover, because as the everywoman, the reader should be able to make up their own mind about her appearance. That was easier said than done, for it is a fact of our species that we respond more to faces than we do objects. As such, I drew an illustration of the character which I included on the cover. I did not mind because it was vague.
However, an independent author needs more than just one image when it comes to marketing. I decided to hunt through stock images in an attempt to find a woman who even remotely resembled my character. It was difficult, especially with no budget, but I eventually settled on a woman who was “good enough.” I used my limited photoshop skills to try to alter her appearance to better resemble my heroine, but even when I introduced her to the world, I made it clear that this was only an interpretation. Now I am left with some feelings of shame. Did I choose a woman whose features were too Caucasian? Was her skin too pale? Her eyes too wide? My focus in the selection was less on race, but more on the concept of the character having an “open face” – approachable, capable of both wonder and ferocity, and yet able to blend in to many different ethnic backgrounds. I do not think my end product ultimately achieved that, but it was the best I could do.
I will not say that I understand what it is to be a person of color or even a gay or trans person in our society, nor will I say that in any way did I attempt to speak for those groups with my books. Instead, the racial background and sexual orientation of two of my characters plays out as parts of their identity that contribute to but do not control the narrative, the same as Brennan’s eye color or upbringing in Ireland and Adam’s love of surfing. Now that I look at it through a racial lens, there are at least two interracial couples in the book.
None of this was intended as a means to be subversive to traditional publishing or storytelling. I was only the conduit and stake no claim over the characters being who they are. To me, they are real, breathing people – a reflection of the world around me – and I am merely the artist who had the honor to pen their tale for them. That said, in light of the current cultural conversation, I am glad that it never once occurred to me to change the race or orientation of either Ophelia or Alex before submitting to publishers, even after learning of the risk.
As artists, we imbue our art with our values. I am still waiting for Ophelia to blink, step out of the page, and walk out into the world on her own with all her stature, cunning, wit, and vulnerability. Her journey reflects that of all woman, and I am honored to be her friend.
The above photo was taken in May of 2016 by a newspaper photographer as they opened the gates to a Bernie Sanders rally in San Jose, CA. The temperature was already in the 80s early in the morning. It reached the high 90 if not 100s. While I am sweating in this photo, I soon ran out of liquids in my body. Succumbing to heat exhaustion, sheltering under my sign with gooseflesh and a dazed mind made the whole experience feel as physically desperate as it did politically.
At this rally, a young woman approached me with wonder in her eyes and asked repeatedly who I was and who I was with. Not understanding what she was after, I eventually told her that I was an author, and she said, "What you're doing is very powerful. Archetypes are very powerful. Is there somewhere I can go to see your work?" Dressed as Katniss Everdeen from the dystopian novels The Hunger Games, I realized then that I never posted on my author social media about my political beliefs. At that moment, however, after seeing her response, I did. I unabashedly shared my political views. I volunteered for the campaign, I canvassed, and I marched. It took a thick skin that I didn't have going in, for to wear your heart on your sleeve is to open yourself to attack. I had volunteered in an attempt to pull myself out of my first real bout of clinical depression by fighting for something I believed in, and thankfully, it worked. My skin thickened, my heart softened, and with each new experience outside of my comfort zone, I grew.
2016 was a year of massive change both personally and politically. I lost my beloved aunt and my dog. I was cracked open by a mental illness I had never experienced so gravely, and I was remade all the more vibrantly. I traveled, I adventured, I advocated, and I met my current beau in a pub in Ireland. My energy was powerful. Change is a cataclysm for reforging identity.
We are going through that same experience now as a nation. These are birthing pains. We shall overcome and we shall emerge renewed.
My political views do not align with any one party. In some ways, I am a liberal redneck. There was a lot of hatred flung at me in 2016 for simply wearing a shirt, and no, it was not generally from Trump supporters. My mother, sister and I were shrieked at by another woman that we should all be guillotined for marching in the local Pride parade, holding a Bernie banner. This woman's partner was wearing a Hillary shirt. I won't list the rest of my experiences here, but pretending that I didn't see her rabid expression and the veins bulging in her neck as she shrieked hatred at us, continuing to smile and march on even though I was trembling inside, gave me a glimpse, just a glimpse, of what it is like to live without the protection of my privilege.
Where does such hatred come from that we neglect basic decency? That we can fling scornful words at each other? That we can harm one another? That we can kill?
When Bernie lost the nomination in the summer of 2016, I shared my belief that Donald Trump would be our next president. I was laughed at, mocked, and told that I was in with a "fringe group" and that I'd been brainwashed. Now, in 2020, I can say that I was right. I was on the streets. I was talking to locals. I knew how fierce the desire for radical change was, even back then. That desire in the general populace is far stronger now, and the people still are not being listened to.
I haven't posted anything about this election on my professional social media and hardly any on my private. I am in a different place in my life than I was in 2016. There are a lot of health issues going on with my loved ones, including my mother's cancer, and I knew I just didn't have the emotional bandwidth to expose myself to that hatred again and again.
That was a choice I made. Most people of color do not have that choice. They experience it every day. Every day.
The events unfolding in our nation have left me shocked and horrified. The murder of George Floyd should never have happened. Guns should never have been pulled on my friends based on the color of their skin. Even my brother has had a gun pulled on him my police because they decided he looked poor and assumed he had stolen the TV in the back of his truck. Racial and socio-economic profiling is a very real thing and it is getting out of hand.
The police brutality showcased in the past 48 hours turns my stomach. There is no excuse. However, we also ask an impossible thing of our police officers: to serve as soldiers with PTSD on the front line where the "enemy" is their fellow citizens. They should not be allowed to serve on the streets following a traumatic incident. Our force should be rotated regularly to give officers' minds a chance to heal so that their sources of trauma are not repeatedly reinforced.
I don't have the answers. I'm just a girl whistling a mockingjay tune. But I stand with my black brothers and sisters. I stand for the forging of a new America that does not turn a blind eye to corruption and hatred. I stand for our right to non-violently protest and to take to the streets when our voices go unheard.
I stand for justice and liberty for all.