Celebrating Black History Month
One of the true joys of working in publishing is getting to see the work of a diverse range of writers, and what their interests and perspectives bring to the page. We hope, that in our working of making this writing public, that we pass that joy along to you–as well as helping you find books that better you, that expand possibilities and broaden your own perspective, and remind us all always to carry our history into our shared future.
We want to start off our celebration of Black History Month by returning to Vanessa Baden Kelly’s intimate & thoughtful essay collection FAR AWAY FROM CLOSE TO HOME, which we were so proud to publish last year. If you have not yet had the chance to pick it up, it is an extraordinary read; Baden Kelly’s essays explore just how complicated the concept of “home” can be for millennial Black women when faced with inherited traumas, violent police intrusions, historic gatekeeping of wealth, and modern gentrification. I offer you, at the start of this February, an excerpt from her essay “Unreliable Narrator,” an intimate portrait of a woman finding her literary voice when her very perspective is presumed suspect and “unreliable” within a predominantly white male narrative of the world.
by Vanessa Baden Kelly, from FAR AWAY FROM CLOSE TO HOME
I sat in a sterile, white room where fluorescent lights highlighted the paneled ceiling. It felt more like an operating room than a classroom. When I decided to do this, to bet on myself and become a better writer, I had imagined the red-orange brick and open courtyards of my undergraduate degree. I thought there would be intellectual conversations abounding, book recommendations among milling creatives eager to share their “journey” and “voice” and every other buzz word that came with being a writer. Zora Neale Hurston would probably be there. And a young Baldwin. I would lap up their knowledge through spirited discourse with young Faulkners and Hemingways.
Instead I was in a corporate building converted into a university on the corner of Slauson and the 405 in Culver City. Brilliant writers were undoubtedly among us, but they were like me. They were too something to be in the brick and columned buildings that hosted the schools I dreamed of: too old or too Black or too poor to have devoted extra years and loans to a program that may never pay their bills. Writing was not terminal. We could not guarantee its promise of fame or fortune, let alone a paycheck. So to take this chance for us meant to do so economically if we wanted to do it at all. This was the place that “real” people came to learn to write. So the sterile wall and fluorescent lights should not have been my focus. My focus should have been the opportunity in front of me—the chance to earn a graduate degree with a one year old in my own city. The right to speak with authority in the writer’s rooms where I worked and found myself so constantly behind the curve as they mentioned books and articles I had never heard of. The focus should have been my first workshopped piece, sitting in front of all of us. My first attempt at being a better writer—and human—than I was before I came. Fifteen months prior I had become a mother for the first time. Eight months prior to that my uterus had almost exploded from an undetected post-labor injury. I was working a dream job where I was the only person like me and felt both welcome and unqualified. I needed this space as much as I wanted it. But I was staring at the surgically bland walls, wondering what the hell I was doing here.
“Do you know what an unreliable narrator is?” he asked me.
“Yes.” I replied.
“Do you understand what it means in the world of literature?”
I couldn’t lie. I didn’t want to lie. I didn’t understand that. I knew what the words meant. I learned them in my public high school in Central Florida. I was incredibly intelligent. For a long time I didn’t feel like I could even make that proclamation. If I said it around some folks they would think me a braggart—either because they knew themselves to be smarter because of the schools they attended or general conversations, or because they knew they weren’t for the same reasons. I was in an odd in-between space where my race and pedigree didn’t allow my person (so I felt) to speak for herself. My high school classmates went on to go to Harvard Law and NYU. I went to Florida State. Not for lack of brains or test scores, but because those schools are expensive and no one in my world had ever known someone to go off to school so far unless they were on athletic scholarship. I wouldn’t even be able to go to a private school in Florida because my state sponsored academic scholarship didn’t cover the entire tuition. I would go to the best (although University of Florida students may argue that point) public institution—the budget Ivy as we like to brag—and flourish there. I’d be brilliant there too. So smart and writing so much that I was often told to cut my work. “No one will read that much.” But being the brightest at a school not considered a place for bright minds wouldn’t earn me much by way of respect upon meeting new people or competing for jobs.
At Florida State, I fell in love with Toni Morrison. After reading Beloved in high school, I took a freshmen African American Literature course where I was asked to dissect Sula in an attempt to pass after missing too many classes (it was a 9am course and the professor ultimately passed me). Having to take apart those sentences, critique those characters, explore that world—one I actually knew intimately—I’d discover my voice. My voice was like Morrison. And Walker. And Lorde. And so many women I had never been shown or heard applauded. They spoke for me and the women and girls around me. I understood their syntax and cadences on a cellular level. They inspired me to tell my own stories. Those could be great. WE could be great and here lay proof. Chapters and chapters, volumes and volumes, Pulitzer Prize-sized proof. I quietly became a creative writing minor. Not a major because, obviously, people like me go to college to be able to work when they are done, and no one can ensure they will “work” in writing. But it was a small, rebellious move in following my heart and finding worth in my person, led by Ms. Morrison.
My first creative writing course, I arrived early. Other students had laptops; I had a bound composition book. But it was brand new. Purchased specifically for that course and for my future. The professor walked in after most of us, but not late. He was a short white man. A writer’s belly draped in a red Hawaiian-print shirt. He wore a baseball cap and glasses and seemed to purposefully exude “bohème.” I concluded this to be “writerly.” He asked us each our favorite author. My answer came somewhere in the middle. Most people answered with names I had never heard of. He would engage—his favorite piece they wrote, a time he had met them at a retreat—until he got to me. I never doubted my answer. This was Toni Morrison after all. There was no hesitation in my answer. No one in the classroom seemed to think it unfounded, maybe they found it obvious for the only Black person in the class. I was certain my professor would say something about her, probably something I didn’t know. I had readied myself to graciously accept all new information. My prepared answer was, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” I wanted to ingest every morsel of new information with no ego. No fear of not knowing. I was betting on myself here. I had to be okay being the novice. He looked at me over his bushy brown and grey mustache. I waited for my first taste of literary knowledge.
“Fun fact: Morrison is the most overrated author there is. She’s fine, but not that great. We say she is for a lot of political reasons”
A few other people chimed in both agreeing and disagreeing. I remember the ones who agreed were white boys who said they didn’t understand. A white girl defended her staunchly. She was revolutionary. I can’t remember those arguments because I knew I was transferring out of this class immediately. I had made a mistake. I wasn’t a good writer because I loved Morrison. But I couldn’t help that I loved her. Maybe modern literature was not what I loved. Maybe I loved swivel shelves at the end of the check-out aisle of the local grocery store or by the pharmacy at Walgreens. The literature that made you feel something but anyone with taste might know was a watery soup of words not worthy of study. If entering this world of creative writing meant I lost Toni Morrison, then maybe I didn’t want it. I switched my minor to journalism. Hated it, but had enough credits between the two to get out with a minor in English with no discernable purpose. The beginning of that journey had taught me literary definitions like “unreliable narrator” but, as it ended so abruptly, I had never had to use it in critique. I wasn’t sure I knew how to identify one in practice.
“No,” I replied when asked if I knew how to use the term. “Not in the context of literature.”
“I’ll explain,” he said. His voice seemed condescending to me. I pushed the thought down. I did not want to project on this white, graduate level professor and published author the same hurt that I felt in the undergraduate course years before. The truth was that the graduate professor in my new program was condescending, but not because he meant to be. I had seen him talking to people he actually liked and admired. He always spoke like that. He had resting bitch face of the larynx. There, of course, was the argument to be made that it was not just his voice but that he was condescending to everyone. I choose to believe the best of him. I had to. I couldn’t be run out of another program. Especially not this time. It was his voice.
“Being a reliable narrator in our profession is imperative to telling good stories. We establish the narrator—first person, third person, whatever—as someone who is honest, who their audience can trust. The problem with your entire piece is that you are discussing perceived racism as truth. You cannot prove that. You cannot prove that any of these things happened to you because you are Black or a woman. You are showing yourself an unreliable narrator and, as an audience member, I now don’t trust you. If you must write about this, you have to prove it. Otherwise, focus on the relationships. Make a scene….”
He continued, speaking for another five minutes or so. I tried to listen but found myself staring at the textured white of the walls. I listened to my thoughts instead. I didn’t discredit what he was saying. Far the opposite, I took it all to heart. I heard my ego try to make the argument that he was wrong. My brain argued that he was right. He knew so much more than I did. Published. A carrier of all the info I wished to know. I coerced myself into listening again, scared that this brash man who I would never have another thing in common with would have some tidbit of style or craft that was actually precisely what I needed but I was missing it because he had bristled me. Was this writing? Did being here mean unlearning the things that moved me or inspired me? All those things were extensions of my experience. Did that mean I shouldn’t be here? Had I made the same mistake again believing there was a space for a little Black girl—public school educated—in prose?
Vanessa Baden Kelly is an Emmy-winning actress, Emmy-nominated writer, and producer. She began her career as a child, starring on Nickelodeon’s Gullah Gullah Island and Kenan and Kel. After departing entertainment, she began organizing in college, co-founding the Student Coalition for Justice (later the base for the Dream Defenders) and continued working in the field. To date, she has led campaigns for The Trayvon Martin Foundation, Community Coalition South LA, and various political campaigns including Obama for America ’08 and the Ndoum Presidential Campaign in Accra, Ghana. Additionally, she is an Ambassador for the RuJohn Foundation. Upon her return to Hollywood, Vanessa has become a successful television writer and producer, writing for shows such as TNT’s Animal Kingdom and Mindy Kaling’s HBO Max series The Sex Lives of College Girls. Vanessa originated the role of Journee as writer/star of the Issa Rae digital series Giants, where she is four times Emmy-nominated and one time Emmy-winning for Best Actress in a Digital Drama. Vanessa is mother to a human son, Ryder, and a dog son named Dude.