UPDATE: California Coldblood, publisher of Tynes' novel They Called Me Wyatt, announced they are canceling its publication after an incident on Twitter on May 10th, a few days after this article originally published. As several links to this post were part of the incident coming to light, we've decided to leave it published with an update for context, but have closed comments.
A writer of color is the label that currently defines my literary persona. Whether I like it or not, that’s who I am in the eyes of many in the writing community. Am I a writer of color? What color exactly?
Born in Amman, Jordan, a fairly homogeneous city where we called ourselves Jordanians, Arabs, I never thought of myself as any color. I’m not white, brown or black. I was what I was. I had to fly thousands of miles to the U.S. to discover my brownness. To describe my skin color as olive, and my eyes as almond. To explain my ethnicity every time I opened my mouth and people heard my accent.
As I embarked on writing They Called Me Wyatt, a novel set between Jordan and the U.S., which explores societal challenges faced by women and what it means to defy your cultural norms, I slowly started to embrace my label as a writer of color.
I was encouraged to tell my story. There are grants and awards dedicated to us, the minority authors. There are special groups for people with our background: books by writers of color, mystery writers of color. There are hashtags to encourage us to publish our stories: #ownvoices, #divpit.
We are told we are marginalized. A minority. We need to make ourselves heard. But what happens after we tell our stories? Does our journey, our responsibility to capture our #ownvoices end here? Nope. A happily-ever-after situation is far from reality.
The heroine of my novel is Siwar, a Jordanian woman rebelling against the rules imposed on her by the society. As a young adult, she vocally criticizes her community’s focus on women’s purity, their intact hymens.
Some early reviewers of my novel on Goodreads (I know, I know I m not supposed to read Goodreads reviews. But can you really help it when you are a debut author?), didn’t appreciate the candid representation of their society.
When I read some of those reviews, I remember leaving the house to calm down. I was livid (yet another reason to stay away from Goodreads when you are a debut author).
I questioned myself. I questioned my judgment. I questioned whether I was worthy of a being a storyteller, if I made a sound choice by being a writer in the first place. Did I take one side? Did I cause more harm than good? Was I supposed to present all sides of the story like a piece of investigative journalism? Does my fictional work about my hometown have to read like a tourism book? Come visit our town where everything is great! What about the part of my story that is based on my true experience, the one that I lived and breathed? The one that I should remain true to? Am I not allowed as an author to zone in on the messy and the complicated just like what other mainstream authors do?
My anger subsided when I received another review from someone with a similar ethnic background who indicated that they related to the main character in my novel. “Siwar’s thoughts, words, views on the society we live in, hopes, dreams, feelings, everything in her found its echo in me.”
Maybe I’m doing something right after all.
As minority writer, I feel damned if I do damned if I don’t. We’re encouraged to share a different perspective, but when we do, the mainstream rules don’t apply to us. We are judged by different sets of standards. Do we have to map our novels like an objective documentary? Is that what is required from us to achieve the impossible task of satisfying readers across the board?
I’m not alone in my struggle. Arab-American author Etaf Rum, whose novel A Woman Is No Man about a Palestinian-American community in Brooklyn, New York, was published in March, addressed a similar concern in an eloquently written piece in Literary Hub:
One of my greatest fears in writing this novel has been that my story would be taken as the only story about Arab-Americans. ... Arabs are already stereotyped by a single-story narrative of war, violence, poverty, and extremism. And there I was telling a story that only added to these stereotypes. Why had I done that? Why had I told the story of the woman who’d been abused her entire marriage and ignored the story of the woman, like one of my friends, whose parents had pushed her to go to college, to study abroad, and who is now a doctor in her thirties, unmarried, with all the freedom in the world?
My response to Etaf would be the same response I give myself. We must tell the tales inside of us that need to be told.
Airing our dirty laundry (if that’s what you want to call it) doesn’t make us less Arabs; in fact it makes us true Arabs. We are passionate about a positive change in our own societies, the societies that shaped us, molded us and made us the people we are now.
I owe it to my society share their truths, to bring their experiences to the mainstream, to realize that only good comes when we speak out, when we discuss our issues and work together to find a common ground. I also owe it to myself to ignore the stifling noise outside, for what am I as an author if I was not genuine? I am a writer of color. Hear me out!