Carleen Brice is the author of the novels Orange Mint and Honey and Children of the Waters as well as the nonfiction books Lead Me Home: An African American's Guide Through the Grief Journey and Walk Tall: Affirmations for People of Color. She's edited the anthology Age Ain't Nothing But A Number: Black Women Explore Midlife. In 2008, she won the Breakout Author of the Year Award from the African American Literary Awards Show, and in 2009 she received the First Novel Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. She's also the genius mastermind behind the blog White Readers Meet Black Authors, where her posts are sometimes serious, sometimes hilarious, and always thoughtful and incredibly smart.
Please tell everyone a little bit about who you are and what you do.
I’m a writer, with 2 novels published. While promoting my first book I realized that there’s some kind of disconnect with fiction in which books with black characters and/or written by black authors are considered as “black books,” i.e. only for black readers. There are some exceptions—particularly when you look at literary fiction. But the truth is that even though I and many of my writer-friends have a spectrum of readers, our books haven’t truly crossed over.
In conversations online with friends I jokingly threw out the idea that somebody should start a Buy a Book by Somebody Black and Give it to Somebody White Day to get white people to read more black authors, and somebody should start a web site that introduced books by black authors to a wider readership. I got lots of positive emails from the people following the thread, and it dawned on me that maybe I was that somebody. After all, you don’t have to be a web master to start a web page or a blog. So I did. Last November I launched the site White Readers Meet Black Authors and designated December as National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month.
I usually post on Tuesdays. I post lists of books for gift ideas (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.), book reviews, and commentary. My aim is to spread the word about the good books that maybe people aren’t hearing about and to raise awareness about the particular issues black American writers face.
Publishing has historically marginalized writers of color as either genre writers of "urban fiction" or literary writers of "ethnic" fiction. In other words, books by people of color can only be about slaves, gangsters, or people living in other countries (with the underlying assumption being that "regular" books are written for, by, and about white folks). Do you see any signs of hope that that's changing?
I look hard for signs of hope because I need hope to keep going. So yes I see them. But only because I look really hard for them. If I didn’t look hard, I would be enormously discouraged. The author Bernice McFadden published an essay on her blog that Zora Neale Hurston wrote in 1950. It pretty much still applies today. Especially when authors Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant have recently written an essay called Writing White about crossing over. But if I focus too much on that I’ll just go to bed forever, and that wouldn’t really help anything.
Since I started the blog, I’ve received many positive comments and emails from every kind of reader. I think I’ve helped sell a few books, and that makes me happy. In essence I’m a bookseller (I even worked at two bookstores and in libraries)—I like matching people with books. So I focus on how we can do more of that. I also get some negative comments from people who don’t agree with the points I’m making or don’t get my sense of humor. To each his own.
It’s only been a year or so since I’ve been publishing fiction myself and blogging about it, so I can’t say that I’ve seen any major changes in publishing about how they position books by black authors. As you know, everybody’s hurting and everybody’s scrambling. It’s tough out there for people who care about books and stories right now no matter what their race. Galleycat started their “People of Color” feature and a few people in the biz have admitted in blogs that race/racism does play a role in how publishing works. That’s very validating. Some people tend to believe if a book is good it will be on the bestseller lists and if it’s bad it won’t get published or it will flop and that is so not all there is to it!
What would you like to see shift within the industry to make it more inclusive of/welcoming to readers and writers of color, and to reflect the diversity of the reading public?
I would love to see books treated as books. So if a book is women’s fiction, I’d love to see it marketed broadly to women, not only black women. What tends to happen is that my books and books like mine have to become popular with black audiences and then cross over. And it’s maddening! It’s maddening to see a book like The Help get marketed to all readers and a book like The Air Between Us get lost in the shuffle. Similar subject matter. One author is white; one is black. Is that the reason why one took off and one didn’t…? Probably not the only reason, but it’s hard to believe it’s not part of the reason. I’d love to see L.A. Banks’ vampire books shoot up the bestseller lists like Charlaine Harris’ books. I’d like to see HBO or some other channel turn them into a series like True Blood.
I’d love to see a white writer called “the new Pearl Cleage” or "the new Attica Locke” instead of always vice versa. I’d love to see book reviewers compare books by genre and subject matter instead of by authors’ ethnicity.
What are some specific things that readers and industry people can do to be better allies? Resources for allies (i.e. websites, books) that you like?
Editors, when you get a book by a black author, think of it as a book. If you love the story and you think others will love the story, tell everybody about it, not just black people. If The Kite Runner, Shanghai Girls and Best Friends Forever can be considered universal stories, why can’t Before I Forget, What Doesn’t Kill You and Third Girl From the Left ?
Inviting me to do this interview helps get the word out. I was on a panel at BEA last year. That helps.
I hear from so many white people who say they never look at the picture on a book and therefore have no idea whether the author is white, Latino or whatever. I believe that’s true. I doubt that most people go into a store and decide "I only want books by white authors." However, I can guarantee you that if you don’t make an effort to look around and find books by a variety of writers, the vast majority, over 95% of the books you’ll read, will be by white authors.
That decision is being made for you by editors, marketers, booksellers at every point along the way. If you’re okay with that, then cool. But if you’re not, if you don’t like the idea that the powers that be are limiting what you’re exposed to, make the small effort to find more. I feel that way about books by Latino, Native American and Asian authors (again except for a lucky handful). If I don’t make the effort to read them, I probably won’t because I won’t be exposed to them. I won’t be considered their audience.
And finally: What’s up with assuming that if a black person is on the cover it’s not for you? Come on now, black people have been selling Pampers and Campbell’s Soup and lots of other things for years that aren’t just for us.
I have more links on my site.
Some books you've read recently that pleased you?
I just loved Before I Forget by Leonard Pitts Jr. It made me cry. So did The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow (coming in Feb.). Feminista by Erica Kennedy and Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead made me laugh. Big Machine by Victor LaValle made me laugh, cry, wince, wonder and more.