In a genre that has historically lacked diversity, six writers of color discuss overcoming the challenge of breaking in and the current climate for crime, mystery and thriller fiction.
“It can be lonely. … And there have been times when I’ve retreated to my hotel room, emotionally exhausted from being visibly invisible all day.”
That’s a line from Rachel Howzell Hall’s 2015 essay, “Colored and Invisible”—the inspiration for this article. In the piece, Hall discusses her experience being one of only a few black writers at annual mystery conferences.
An assortment of other essays provide powerful insight: Sarah Weinman’s “The Case of the Disappearing Black Detective” (The New Republic), which addresses the frequent appearance and all-too-predictable disappearance of black heroes and writers in the crime/mystery/thriller genre; Aya de Leon’s “The Black Detective in the White Mind” (The Armchair Detective); and Frederick Chan’s “Charlie Chan, a Hero of Sorts” (California Literary Review). These pieces remind one that racial and ethnic misunderstanding—not to mention indifference and outright hostility—remain all too common in the literary world. I reached out to six acclaimed writers I know and admire in the genre—Danny Gardner, Kellye Garrett, Gar Anthony Haywood, Naomi Hirahara, Gary Phillips and Rachel Howzell Hall herself—for a roundtable discussion on their impressions on where we’ve been, where we are and where we might be headed.
Is it really true that the crime/mystery/thriller genre is overwhelmingly white, or is it rather that writers of color generally turn to outlets that have a more clearly receptive audience?
HALL: Alas, it’s true—I’ve seen it firsthand (unlike the Yeti, Santa Claus and Indiana). I’ve observed it at Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Writers Police Academy—during board meetings, panels, readings, luncheons. And because of that, I think some writers move into “safer” spaces, the same way we sat with each other in the college dining hall. Some will say, “Screw it,” and leave the field. But there are those of us who still harbor a twisted desire to stake our claim in a genre that often capitalizes on our neighborhoods.
HAYWOOD: It’s not an “audience” problem. Too many editors and publishers have a misguided perception that the market will only bear a small number of books featuring non-white characters—a theory that’s never been adequately tested, let alone proven.
HIRAHARA: I would say that writers of color until maybe several years ago were writing more literary fiction than genre, specifically crime. The large publishing houses connect with mystery readers through conventions and other activities that skew older and white. That’s made it difficult to mobilize younger and more diverse readers—and writers. They’re out there; it’s just that they come to the genre in different ways than in the past.
PHILLIPS: For every Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime, there’s the National Black Book Club Festival and the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color conference. Sure, the genre is mostly white; so, too, is the readership. But it’s a readership that, from what I can tell, is broad in its tastes.
Certainly there are more writers of color plying their trade in the mainstream of mysteries these days, and they’re writing a range of material. To me, it’s not that the black or Asian or Latino detective has disappeared; they are being published by small, medium and even to some extent big houses. They’re scrambling to find their audience among a plethora of available titles.
An interesting aside: when I was looking up some of the current Street Lit titles, I received one of those emails you get from Amazon’s mighty algorithms queued to your recent searches. The subject line read, and I kid you not—Mesmerized by A Gutta N*gga … the title of said book. How many people got that, I wonder.
GARRETT: There are just as many talented writers of color as there are white writers. They just don’t get the same opportunities. It does seem that even those authors who do break in tend to move on to other arenas. Valerie Wilson Wesley and Kyra Davis, two amazing black women writers who started in mystery, moved on to romance and other genres. It becomes a catch-22. If marginalized writers don’t see people who look like them on the bookshelves, they don’t automatically think that they should write in that genre.
GARDNER: We haven’t ghettoized ourselves. Great authors of color are looking beyond crime/mystery/thriller because, while the face of crime in America is a face of color, the face of crime fiction is kept white—aggressively so. Folks have bills to pay. Why waste time on a genre that wants us to stay away?
What was the greatest obstacle you personally had to overcome in establishing yourself? What has been the most gratifying experience of your career so far?
HIRAHARA: The biggest hurdle was getting my first novel published. Since my protagonist was an elderly Japanese-American and atomic bomb survivor, a character modeled after my father, it wasn’t an easy sell. He didn’t quite fit in the amateur sleuth slot; he wasn’t motivated to solve crimes like Miss Marple. I wanted to create him as an authentic man of his age, ethnicity and experience, and still place him in a mystery. In terms of gratifying experiences, I would say winning the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original in 2007 was a highpoint, especially after someone pointed out that I was the first woman of color to win an Edgar.
Some publishers may feel they already have your ethnic box checked. Certainly when I was looking for an agent, I felt that I encountered that kind of resistance, whether it was true or not. Some of it is also looking at your book and clearly seeing its appeal. For instance, I learned my first book, Summer of the Big Bachi, had a lot more in common with African-American Barbara Neely’s writings than Amy Tan’s.
Once I was published, I actually felt quite embraced by certain mystery circles. But since there weren’t many writers like me, I had to deal with a lot of micro-aggressions. People are well-meaning, but when you are being pricked with a needle several times during a certain event, it’s irritating and it hurts.
In terms of gratifying experiences, I would say having some of my Mas Arai mysteries published in Japanese, Korean, French and now audiobooks in the Japanese language. To be named a guest of honor at a regional conference, Left Coast Crime, was also a thrill. Lastly, I’ll be leaving my handprints in concrete in front of my local bookstore, Vroman’s, the oldest and largest independent bookstore in Southern California in November. To be invited to leave a mark at such a great literary institution in a very tangible way is amazing.
HALL: The greatest obstacle I’ve had to overcome? I’m still trying to overcome it—to be recognized and to internally believe that my career is as solid as the rest of the people in the room. It’s discouraging when the “lists” come out with things like “Books to Read About Los Angeles,” only to see I’m not included—and not seeing any other black writers writing about L.A. included … except for Walter Mosley. Those lists always trot out the one incredible black mystery writer they know and then just move on.
Agents turned down my first novel on the grounds they doubted it could find an audience. Come on. Is there an audience for Richard Price and George Pelecanos? Michael Connelly and Robert Crais? Dennis Lehane? If so, then, um, yes there is an audience. The most gratifying aspect of my career so far is the ability to expose readers to the Los Angeles south of the I-10 Freeway—and the fact booksellers are out there hand-selling my stories.
GARDNER: Readers in the genre want what I and other authors of color have to give. But my agent has heard from publishers—on more than one occasion—that they’d be willing to read other [black authors] if their books weren’t as black as mine. Does anyone’s crime really look like Raymond Chandler? Or is it more Wu Tang Clan?
HAYWOOD: I’ve found two things, in particular, difficult to overcome: the preconceived notions some readers have about what a “black” crime novel is, and senseless comparisons to Walter Mosley. I don’t do what Mosley does, and that’s often disappointed editors looking more to publish a Mosley replicate than a similarly talented author of color. As for the most gratifying moment, I can’t single out just one. There have been many. On their own, they’re relatively small—signs of recognition and affirmation from readers and peers—but together, they amount to a great deal.
There are dedicated readers of crime fiction who will never read a novel featuring a non-white protagonist, or written by an author of color, simply because they think they know what such fiction—all such fiction—must read like, and they aren’t interested. Secondly, while Walter Mosley’s well-deserved success shattered publishing’s glass ceiling for black authors like myself, it also created a model for the black mystery novel others have been widely expected to follow.
As for the “We Already Have One” syndrome, there are two ways to respond to that: Keep doing what you’re doing differently and hope the market swings your way, or adapt your work to meet current demands and look for a home with a publisher that doesn’t yet have “one.” I can’t comment on the success rate of the latter approach as I’ve never tried it, but I can tell you that the former approach, while personally gratifying, is a roller-coaster thrill ride straight out of hell.
Here’s the reality: fiction about people of color, like the people themselves, is always going to lack interest for some readers at best, and turn them off at worst. The more your work challenges the misconceptions these readers (and editors and agents and reviewers) have about people unlike themselves, the less willing they’re going to be to accept it. So rejection of an authentic black/female/gay voice in some circles will always come with the territory. I don’t like it, but I’ve learned to live with it.
PHILLIPS: As I’ve come full circle, the greatest obstacle, notwithstanding getting and staying published, is finding the elusive audience for my work—and building it. Fortunately, I’ve become much more zen about this. Do the work, that’s the gratifying part.
I have heard that back in the early ’90s as the third wave of black mystery writers were coming on the scene, an editor at a major house said in effect, “Well, we already have one black mystery writer,” and therefore they weren’t interested in reading material from another black writer, as if their work and subject matter were interchangeable. One would like to think that was an apocryphal story.
Now, like any writer, I continue to struggle to get my work out there. Is the resistance to any given storyline and set of characters the cold objective eye of the editor? Does the particular setting or racial make-up of the characters play a role? Previous sales figures? Sure, all that’s in the mix. And all the more reason to push back and keep hammering away at the doors of the institutions to further broaden the genre.
GARRETT: [My debut novel] Hollywood Homicide won the Agatha, Anthony, Lefty and IPPY awards for Best First Novel and was nominated for the Barry and Macavity awards. It also got starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, which named it Debut of the Month. But here’s the thing: My book barely changed from what my agent shopped to publishers and the book that won four awards. I’m happy that Midnight Ink was brave enough to take a chance on my funny, #blackgirlmagic mystery, and that the public has been way more open-minded than publishers were a few years ago.
When I started writing that book, there truly wasn’t anything of its kind out there. My editor, Terri Bischoff, even commented how she couldn’t find any comps for cozy mysteries with a black woman protagonist. It was only after I sold the book that Alexia Gordon and VM Burns came out with their own books.
Passionate debate continues about whether writers of one ethnicity have a right to portray characters of another—and how convincingly they succeed (or not) when they try. What are your thoughts?
GARRETT: I get this question a lot. I always tell people to write your truth. If you have a book and you truly feel like your character needs to be black, queer, etc., then write it. But if you’re going to be brave enough to write outside your own experience, then you need to be brave enough if people in that group get upset. Seek out beta readers from the group to make sure you’re doing an authentic portrayal. Take their feedback to heart. You’ll still get things wrong. That’s OK. Be open when you’re told that. Don’t get defensive. Listen.
PHILLIPS: A writer can write anything they can get away with. But you will be judged. I’ve only been asked once to specifically include [white characters]. Funny enough, it was in comics, not prose. I was asked by my editor on a black private eye miniseries if I could make sure to have a white character among the others to draw in more of the typical fanboys.
A writer can write anything they can get away with. Mind you, if I’m going to write a trans character who is white or of color, I damn sure will have made it my business to have talked to some trans folk so I feel comfortable in setting such down on paper. You will be judged.
Decades ago, writer of color Frank Yerby, who was mixed race, emerged with other black writers during the Harlem Renaissance. In the ’40s he sold his potboilers, like Foxes of Harrow and Saracen Blade, with white main characters to Hollywood. Yerby did not set foot on the grounds of those studios personally (though in my version he disguises himself as a janitor to eavesdrop on the suits as they discuss his work), and only his white agent knew he was black. Years later, Frank “crossed” back over, and his novels Speak Now and The Dahomean featured black leading characters.
James Patterson has sold millions of thrillers with a well-developed black protagonist. Dr. Tess Gerritsen, who is Asian-American, has sold big time as well, including the book that became the film Gravity, with mostly white characters in the lead. This changed with her introducing Johnny Tam in a “Rizzoli & Isles” tie-in book, The Silent Girl.
Gerritsen said in an interview on this, “Yes. You know, I have hidden my race for 22 books. I have hidden behind my married name, which is very Caucasian, because I didn’t feel safe coming out with it. I didn’t feel that the market would really accept me.”
Pamela Samuels Young, who is African-American, does well self-publishing thrillers with a black female lead. Japanese-American Joe Ide won an Edgar writing a novel about a twenty-something black unlicensed P.I. And in the Gerritsen vein, given I have a “white-bread” name, I have a novel, Warlord of Willow Ridge, in which the main character’s race is not revealed. He’s identified only as an aging professional thief named O’Conner (“just call me Connie”). The race and or ethnicity of the other characters around him is disclosed, however, the question being: Does the reader then default and perceive him as white?
HIRAHARA: I edited a special Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award banquet book on the topic of inclusion and representation. Talk about conflicting emotions. The issue of censorship came up often, as if people are being actively prevented from writing things from a racial/ethnic point of view other than their own. Nothing could be further from the truth. But authenticity matters.
I know some, specifically Native-American writers who feel that their experience has been appropriated without they themselves having a chance to fully explore their ethnic identity within this popular subgenre. There have been a lot of writers of color who have created characters of another race and ethnicity. There are certain minefields out there and if you don’t do it right, you are going to hear about it. I guess that’s the main thing—do you know enough to do it right?
GARDNER: Firstly, the marketplace will tell someone sooner than I could they’re a culture vulture. I will remark, I find it absurd we have miscegenated since the Mayflower, yet pretend to not understand each other. We’re all cousins in the same criminal family. Write your truth. Take your lumps. Get better. Somewhere in there, get to know people who don’t look like you and when you write them, they won’t feel wack.
The question conflates two different issues. Racism and colonialism have ensured greater access to publishing institutions for white writers. The right to portray is less a matter of correcting depictions and more a matter of recognizing the stakes for authors of color, who must compete far beyond what’s required to establish and maintain a career. This is the born-on-third-base part for successful white male authors. When the industry thinks an author shouldn’t look like you, the rest of the game is rigged. When we’re ready to deal with that, I’ll be there.
HAYWOOD: What rankles is not that non-POCs write crime novels about non-white characters, but that they seem to be singled out for success when they do. It’s as if their being white lends a gravitas to the material that the work of a POC author somehow lacks.
I don’t think any writer should be bound by their gender or the color of their skin to write only within their specific realm of experience. What rankles is, to name just one example, something like what happened with Bill Beverly’s Dodgers. Beverly received great critical acclaim and significant marketing support from Broadway, his publisher, for this terrific book about a black Los Angeles gangbanger making a cross-country road trip to commit a murder-for-hire. But is he the first published author to tell such a story in so compelling a manner? Would reviewers have been as impressed with Beverly’s book were he black? Would Broadway have bought it and invested as many dollars in its promotion? History suggests not.
HALL: Oh my god, just thinking about it … white writers create these worlds they have no clue about—where all the black characters speak jive and live hardscrabble lives. It drives me crazy. And then they’re rewarded for their grittiness, their ear for dialogue. What makes it worse is being told your voice isn’t urban and black enough. This happened to me a lot, especially when “ghetto lit” was big. That said, I think writers of color actually have an edge. We’ve all grown up being told white is the default, from “nude” pantyhose to dolls, etc. Because of that, we know how to white-speak. In the [Detective Elouise] Norton series, Lou’s partner is a white boy from the Midwest. I haven’t dated Midwesterners, but I’ve dated white boys and so I’ve had first-hand experience on how ridiculous they can be.
Write whoever the hell you want to write—it’s America. But you better do it well because if not, be prepared for pushback and criticism. Again, my gripe is the, “Let’s celebrate the white author for writing this thing,” while ignoring black authors who are writing that story with an authentic voice.
Oddly enough, it was my portrayal of black characters that got pushback. I had editors back in the early-mid 2000s tell me that my voice wasn’t urban and black enough. Which is offensive to me—so “inside my realm” I wasn’t enough-enough. While my characters were black, and some were middle-class and poor, they weren’t dysfunctional enough, there was no snow [cocaine], no tenements … I think part of that was an East Coast thing. East Coast people can’t understand that L.A. can be downtrodden even with blue skies and palm trees.
Here’s a quote from an agent in those You’re Not Black Enough days:
I represent an author whose memoir is forthcoming from XXX, and she grew up right by The Jungle. She was (is) a Blood, and she and I have had countless conversations about what it was like for her. I was just in L.A. and spent most of the time with her in South Central, so much of your book had a special relevance to me. Unfortunately however, I’’s been a struggle for XXX to convince booksellers that there is an audience for a story about this life, and we have the hook of nonfiction. I worry that it would be an even greater struggle with fiction.
This author was a white woman … WHO LIED ABOUT EVERYTHING IN HER MEMOIR!!! But my fiction, which was based on very real life in this part of the city, was cast aside. This, I know, is not a unique thing. There are countless writers with something genuine to say but I’m sorry, GTFO with this Is there an audience? thing.
For those who have been writing in the genre for 15 years or more, what changes—if any—have you observed in the number of writers of color, their visibility, their acceptance by publishers and readers, and their overall success?
HAYWOOD: This is a much different—and infinitely better—world for crime writers of color than the one I entered back in 1987. It’s all good to see, and it’s generally encouraging. But the old struggles against marginalization remain. We can’t reach a significant readership if our books are relegated to the “African-American” section way in the back corner of the store.
The old struggles against marginalization by all the powers that be along the food chain—readers, editors, agents and booksellers—remain. Where do we belong and how large a slice of the readership pie do we deserve? Off with “Cookbooks” and “Military History,” and a piece just shy of a sliver, is not the right answer.
PHILLIPS: If anything, the hustle for visibility is more intense than ever. More material is getting out there. A wellspring of small to medium presses have come on the scene, in addition to online sites for short stories, innovations in graphic apps, self-publishing, all of which provide additional opportunities to reach readers.
For sure there are more writers of color in the genre these days, and more outlets for their work. Sort of like with the explosion of media outlets like Hulu and Netflix, more prose material is getting out there and clearly some of that is resonating with readers across the spectrum, or at least segments of that readership.
HIRAHARA: I feel that openness to diversity in our genre comes in waves. When I was unpublished, I was encouraged by articles in Los Angeles publications about African-Americans finding a place in the genre, such as Gar, Gary and Paula Woods. Then, when I finally got published in 2004, there seemed to be less of a commitment to diverse mysteries. Now, probably because of outside pressure from #OscarsSoWhite and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, I see more mysteries written by people of color being published. But it’s still a very low percentage.
I know that Kellye has described the recent embrace of marginalized writers as a “trend” and not “status quo.” I agree with her.
For those of you newer to the genre, what sense do you have that new opportunities are opening up?
GARRETT: I actually think this is probably the best time ever to be a marginalized mystery writer. Publishing is finally realizing that there is an audience for our books and are seeking us out. We’re “trendy.” However, trends come and go. Diverse mysteries need to become a permanent fixture for publishers and readers. It’s still way too early to tell if this change is permanent or will just be a repeat of the 1990s.
HALL: Call me a cynic, but I don’t trust that we’ve learned that quickly. I fear that now that the box has been checked—Attica [Locke], Tayari [Jones] and Kellye have been recognized and awarded—too many people will think, “Whew, that’s over, now we can move on.” Sometimes, I get frustrated enough that I consider putting down the pen. But then, that day passes and I’m back at it. I’m a writer. I write crime and mystery. I can’t help myself.
I think the problems are the same—do we have enough readers to justify our existence? My series, while lauded and “critically acclaimed,” is not a bestseller, and my publisher, of course, wants bestsellers.
GARDNER: I’m uncomfortable with concepts like opportunity and visibility. We commoditize opportunity as if it were some special currency that publishers sprinkle on diversity problems. The crime/mystery/thriller genre should be at least as colorful as the NFL. The whiteness feels artificial. Crime hasn’t looked like Al Capone since he went to Alcatraz, but I’m the one who has to stand in line to tell my stories. That said, simply adding more writers of color will just create racial morass. All cultural output trends black/ethnic as it evolves to serve the wider marketplace. Country music sounds like ’90s R&B. I wonder if we have trouble selling books because there are some who don’t want black folk selling books, much in the way, in the early days of the NBA, nobody wanted black folks dribbling basketballs.
At a time when the biggest news in mystery is an annotated edition of The Big Sleep, I’m not seeing much opportunity for anyone with a new voice in our genre. Everyone knows the entire industry is worried about its future, while at the same time there is demand for new voices from authors of color. My own career validates this, yet publishing won’t invest money in authors of color, even to improve its fortunes in order to stave off disaster. The genre’s whiteness feels artificial. I find that bizarre. Market forces are not keeping it that way. I sell books.
In what ways have the crime writers of color been reaching out to help aspiring authors to make the genre more diverse? What else can or should be done?
HALL: It’s not just the community’s job. Publishers need to recognize that writers of color have an additional obstacle to push past, and to protect their investment they should make an extra effort to inspire readers to pay attention. Also, writers of color should be included on panels at conferences—and not just panels about diversity. I know a lot of stuff beyond my demographic, so ask me to share my thoughts on everything. Yes, I’m a black woman, but I’m also many other things with a career outside of crime writing. I’m a gamer, a mother, an English/American lit major. I played in a hand-bell choir and Mohammed Ali kissed my cheek once. Ask me about that.
GARRETT: Give out scholarships for writers of color, especially those starting out, so they can benefit from amazing (and expensive) conferences like ThrillerFest. Most important: Listen to the few of us who are in this community. There are too many instances, when we do speak up, where we’re immediately dismissed. Race is always going to be a painful conversation. We can’t be scared to talk about it and listen when those most affected have something to say.
Anything that can boost diverse voices and those traditionally on the margins. Encourage writers of color to come to conferences and don’t just delegate us to the diverse panels or the social issues panels.
PHILLIPS: Sisters in Crime offers a modest scholarship for burgeoning writers of color. I also think one-day registrations and stipends to attend gatherings like Left Coast Crime would help, coupled with outreach to writing programs in high schools, junior colleges and universities.
I once chaired the Bland Award, and we reached out to writing groups of color and others not in the traditional mystery orbits.
I note, too, that Left Coast Crime for next year is offering scholarships to attend. More of that, more casting the net wider, or maybe a scholarship set aside for someone not in the usual circle, to better reach those we’re not currently reaching. Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime could recruit members to staff booths at non-traditional venues like the Harlem Book Fair or pay to have brochures of the organizations—given there are associate memberships for the fans—placed in the goodie bags at gatherings like the Cavalcade of Authors, which takes place in the Bahamas and brings together readers from black book clubs. The MWA and SinC speakers bureaus could also have members go out and talk to local book clubs—and I’m betting there are some organized around LGBTQ literature, older protagonists, etc., and grassroots writers groups.
HAYWOOD: I think support for writers of color starts with promoting crime fiction to young readers of color at an early age. Minority readers of crime fiction tend to discover us almost by accident, after years of reading white authors exclusively, and this is a missed opportunity.
HIRAHARA: Kellye is a newcomer to the genre but she’s been able to mobilize mystery writers of color in a way that I haven’t seen before. Due to her and Gigi Pandian and Walter Mosley, we have a safe place to share information, specifically on injustices or micro-aggressions we’ve experienced or witnessed. I know individually I’ve tried to reach out to writers of color, the same way Dale Furutani and Paula Woods did for me. Sometimes it only takes the affirmation of one or two people to help you deal emotionally with the hardships.
The thing is, we aren’t the Other. Since the beginning of this nation’s development, we’ve been hauling railroad ties, farming produce, working on plantations. We’ve been here. Our stories in the past have been sung, written in other languages on the walls of immigration detention centers or dug into the ground. The mystery genre—where we ask what is justice, who makes the laws and how do we live together—is a perfect vehicle for our stories. My hope is that many more can see the light of day.
During the Essentials of Mystery Writing workshop, you’ll have the choice of creating a brand new mystery story from scratch or working with a story you already have in progress. Learn more and register.