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.