“You bitches are lucky to have a health clinic,” one of the girls said.
“Hold up, ladies,” Marisol said. “Remember, you are not bitches,” she said. “You are hoes.”
The women laughed.
“Bitches are dogs,” Marisol said. “But whores are…?”
“Professionals who get paid,” they chorused back.
“Thank you,” Marisol said. “Show some respect for the trade.”
In fact, my forthcoming heist novel prominently features many trades, such as health services, sex work, and thievery. I love a good caper, but part of why I picked the heist genre is that it’s a nontraditional field for women. I was mad that Ocean’s Eleven became Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, and could well get to Ocean’s Thirty-Five without a woman expert on the heist team. I was mad that Set It Off ended in so much death. I was mad that Alicia Keys left her lesbian lover for Common in Smokin’ Aces. The heist tale is all about wealth redistribution. Where was the caper with the women of color who win for all the right reasons and get away with it? Clearly, I would have to write it.
After a decade of success as a spoken-word poet and hip hop theater artist, I returned to my first literary love—fiction. But the publishing industry is tough, especially for women of color creating tough female protagonists. I’ve been speaking with Sofia Quintero, the author of several novels and short stories that cross genres, about the industry for more than a year. Under the pen name Black Artemis, she wrote the hip hop novels Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’, and Burn. She’s contributed short stories to erotica collections: Juicy Mangos and Iridescence. In the genre known as “chick lit,” Quintero wrote the novel Divas Don’t Yield and contributed novellas to the anthologies Friday Night Chicas and Names I Call My Sister. Her first young-adult novel is called Efrain’s Secret, and her second, Show and Prove, will be published in 2015.
We are two Afro-Latina women, representing both the East and West coasts. Each with working-class roots and Ivy League college educations, we both made the decision to use our writing as a tool for activism as well as entertainment. Perhaps due to our similar backgrounds and commitments, we find ourselves with a similar set of writing goals: to infiltrate the mainstream of “women’s fiction” or “chick/chica lit” with subversive themes of race, class, gender, sexuality, and politics. Listen in:
Sofia Quintero: First of all, I can’t tell you how excited I am for your book. I already know it’s going to make me say, “Damn, I wish I had written that!” I didn’t start writing as Black Artemis to be the only one using commercial fiction to raise sociopolitical issues from a womanist perspective to a broad readership. On the contrary, I hoped that women of color who craved stories that were both smart and edgy would read my work and be inspired to create their own. I still dream of this wave of socially conscious women-of-color novelists who grew up with hip hop marrying that aesthetic with a consciousness of resistance. I basically wrote the novel that I wanted to read but could rarely find. While I haven’t given up on that, it’s been very challenging. I have to remind myself that what makes it hard is precisely what makes it necessary.
Aya de León: For me the biggest challenge so far has been breaking into the industry. I had lots of agents tell me how much they loved the book, that I was a talented writer, but they didn’t think they could sell it. One agent explained that it’s much harder to sell “multicultural fiction,” a category that my book would fall into, having a Latina protagonist and an African-American secondary protagonist. I’ll never know for sure, but I suspect that if it had featured a white female sex-worker Robin Hood, stealing from rich, corrupt corporate ceos to fund women’s healthcare, I would have gotten many more offers. But you’re a lot further along than me, with five books out. Can you say a little about how that’s been?
SQ: Getting published was relatively easy for me. When I wrote my first feminist hip hop novel, Explicit Content, I had several things in my favor: Street lit had exploded, and mainstream publishers were now considering the same gritty stories with black protagonists in the underground economy that they would not have touched previously. Self-published writers like Vickie Stringer and Nikki Turner were proving that there was enough of a readership to make these novels profitable. So you had black women bucking respectability politics and blazing trails that the mainstream industry leaped on once it was [proven to be] profitable.
But my work is more in the vein of Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, a deliberately commercial work that also incorporated sociopolitical commentary—and was a New York Times bestseller. Editors were also looking for Latina authors in general, but especially those writing commercial fiction. They were looking for “the Latina Terry McMillan” because Waiting to Exhale was a major hit. The final thing I had in my favor was a unique voice—even editors who rejected Explicit Content couldn’t deny that I possessed something compelling and distinct.
Perhaps too unique, because I didn’t—and still don’t—fit into people’s narrow ideas of what a Latina is supposed to write. My characters don’t have quinceañeras, live in homes where there’s five generations under one roof, or struggle with fitting in between two cultures. Those are particular tropes that I have no interest in exploiting. My characters are burgeoning feminists, often without even knowing it and having never read any of the canon. They’re resisting patriarchy and all its henchmen—racism, poverty, heteronormativity, respectability politics—in their daily bid for survival, whether they’re emcees attempting to break into the music industry, women in the underground economy who are done with playing Bonnie to some abusive man’s Clyde, or a former sex worker who opens her own bail bond agency.
When a man writes about the urban, working-class male experience, people laud it as authentic, raw, poignant… insert your favorite cliché here. But being a woman writing about that experience from a woman’s point of view—and with a feminist lens to boot— makes me suspect. It was my addressing the sociopolitical context that shaped my characters’ choices that set me apart from others who were writing in the various genres I was melding. I have no doubts that if I were a man of any race writing what I have as Black Artemis, I’d have gotten more traction.
Being able to sustain oneself as a writer is yet another challenge. There’s a misperception that you’re making bank if you’re published by a mainstream house, especially if you’re writing commercial fiction, but that’s not true for most authors. Now add to that being a woman of color, a progressive feminist, and a commercial author who isn’t “writing white.”
AD: And “writing white” or “talking white” are accusations women of color often face if we’ve been educated outside our communities. But in some ways, learning to code switch can help us navigate the industry. Because I think the commercial-vs.-literary divide in the book industry is all about class dynamics. The two of us are interestingly suited to address these, having inhabited a variety of different class locations.
Certainly, going to an Ivy League school, I was groomed to believe I was supposed to be the next Toni Morrison. In my 20s, I aspired to win a Pulitzer. But over time, I let go of those dreams [in order] to write what I want. Plot-driven genres have always been my favorites. Even the literary fiction I love most has a genre structure—Morrison’s Song of Solomon is plotted like a historical mystery, and Danzy Senna’s Caucasia is structured like a thriller. So when I write, what comes out of me is very action packed. My attempts to be more literary were about thinking I should be someone I’m not. I thought I should be writing to impress the literary-fiction gatekeepers. For years, I tried to infuse my writing with the craft I’d learned over a decade working as a poet. But my freelance editor cut all the intricate and lovely language I’d painstakingly crafted. I hope the novel is vivid and well written, but no longer does it take a page out of the action for a luminous extended metaphor about grief. Instead of poetry, my editor had me reading contemporary erotic romance and other commercial fiction for women. At first, I was horrified by the politics of some of the books, but after I complained to a few hundred of my friends about the sexism, I got over it.
Since then, I’ve gotten excited about mastering tropes of romance, chick lit, and women’s fiction, and learning how to flip and subvert them. Part of my Harvard hangover was believing that the downward mobility of going from an elite college education to writing popular fiction was supposed to feel like failure, or like not living up to my literary potential. But as I’ve redefined literary success in terms of bringing reading pleasure and fun to beleaguered activists and bringing activist messages to readers of mainstream women’s fiction, I stay inspired with the work and I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m hoping to write books that appeal to people with a variety of class backgrounds and educational levels, as well as a spectrum of relationships to feminism. If you are only interested in women who are devoted to shopping and on a mission to get married, you aren’t going to like my work. But if you’re interested in women who inhabit the tension between wanting to be powerful and sometimes needing to be vulnerable, you probably will.
SQ: This is what upset me when Jennifer Egan took a dig at chick lit when she accepted her Pulitzer in 2011. Now, as a person who also writes chick lit, I get it. Much of the critique of the genre is fair, but here’s the thing: You would be hard-pressed to find a chick-lit novel by a woman of color that didn’t have a feminist undercurrent. When you get past the tropes—the glamorous jobs, the brand-name dropping, the romantic subplot—if an American woman is also addressing race and culture in her novels, that in and of itself is political and probably gendered. I’d be willing to bet that anyone who has griped about chick lit setting back the feminist movement has not read any popular fiction by women of color who refuse to deracialize their characters with the hope of crossing over to white readers.
I definitely agree with you that class may come into play in how your work is received by women of color. But here’s what else I wonder: Will any of the white feminists who claim to be sex positive and pro–sex worker pick up your novel, given that your protagonists are not white? How many white women who go to bat for the feminist potential of chick lit and devour anything by Jennifer Weiner, Sophie Kinsella, or Helen Fielding have actually read Terry McMillan? Have they even heard of Kimberla Lawson Roby or Benilde Little? The mainstream publishing industry places authors of color under tremendous pressure to cross over, but the truth is that if white readers are genuinely antiracist and pride themselves on being well read, they should be crossing over to us, punto final.
And that’s an interesting conundrum. I’m a commercial author whose work has been assigned along with Asha Bandele and Margaret Atwood, and yet very few people in feminist, Latino, or hip hop literature and studies know me. I’m writing, as are you, at a multitude of intersections. But sociopolitical “big concepts” are supposed to be confined to the literary realm, not commercial fiction. I’m Afro-Latina in a marketplace where you’re either black or Latina, and feminist in a medium where feminism is still equated with whiteness.
AD: Which is the classic challenge for feminists of color. I will say that I really appreciate some of the white women who’ve been calling out the sexism of the literary industry and documenting the underrepresentation of women and the gender double standards.
At the same time, I feel like I’ve learned a lot by being an independent, woman of color artist in poetry, spoken word, and hip hop: You don’t expect to be treated fairly, you hustle and create something irresistible, and you develop the audience for something people didn’t realize they wanted. I hope my fiction can have that same hip hop hustle.
SQ: Exactly. My agenda is simple: I write for women who love hip hop even when hip hop fails to love them in return. Regardless of the genre in which I write, my intention is to meet readers where they are and take them someplace better. I neither write for the literary elite nor do I dilute my politics for a broad audience. I’m uninterested in creating “positive” images of the Latino community, because when you unpack that word it usually translates to “college educated, middle class, U.S. born” and implies that everything else is “negative.” Rather, I’m interested in creating complex images of people who are misrepresented or rendered invisible in popular culture. My stories are not ethnic tours for non-Latino readers, but if you’re a reader astute enough to recognize that “mainstream” is code for “white” and open-minded enough to reject it, I’m confident that some aspect of my work will resonate with you. All artists know that we evoke the universal through the specific, and that does not exclude the specifics of those deemed “other.” The hybridity and intersections that exist in my work are quite intentional and unapologetic. If that means it takes longer for me to develop a writing career that is sustainable, so be it.
AD: Well that’s what’s kind of interesting about this moment in history. I think this is a really interesting time in fiction. In some ways, I’m glad my book didn’t get an agent in 2011. There has been a really big change in the cultural landscape that the book would potentially be born into: 2014 has been a zenith for the wildly successful character Olivia Pope on ABC's show Scandal.
In my first conversation with my new literary agent, I mentioned Scandal as the closest to what in publishing is called a “comparable.” My book has many of the same elements: a brilliant, powerful, flawed woman of color at the center with emotional baggage, and a highly sexual, suspenseful, political storyline. I gave her my elevator pitch: “It's like Scandal, except the gladiators are hookers instead of lawyers and the love triangle is with a billionaire and an ex-cop instead of the President.”
“Why didn't I think of that?” my agent asked. I think it doesn't yet come to mind because it's so new. The previous generation of writers of color have Terry MacMillan to thank for proving the revenue potential of commercial women's fiction that features African Americans. I am hoping that my generation of writers will be thanking Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes. This is the first time we've seen a woman of color in the center of a political, action-oriented series. Her supreme competence in the world, and her leadership at a national level gets equal airtime with her romantic and personal life. She leads men, white people, and is more sharp and savvy than the white president. This is truly unprecedented in mainstream media.
While I hope that this will open the way for me and other women of color writers who put brown women at the center, I do notice some differences that may impact the reception of our work, namely class. Olivia Pope is upper middle class. Her team is mostly attorneys. She moves in the world of the rich, powerful, and famous. Her love triangle is between the president and [spoiler alert] the head of the top secret black ops agency once run by Olivia's father. In Scandal, when Olivia is called a “whore,” it's a vicious slur. In the world of my novel, being a whore is a job. Given the stigma in our society that targets sex workers and the prevalence of storylines that have trafficked women being rescued by “respectable” white middle class folks from the US, it remains to be seen how much of Scandal's formula for success will translate to a story from the 'hood.
SQ: And the protagonist of my Black Artemis novel Burn is a former sex worker. Sex work of various kinds appears in my chick lit as well. My novella in the chick lit anthology Names I Call My Sister has a character who finds herself through BDSM and the discussion guide includes a basic FAQ busting the myths about that subculture. I have published erotica as well, and I think it’s vital for Latinas to write about sex—both fiction and nonfiction—to regain control of that narrative as well. Everyone can get off on us but us? Fuck that.
AD: Right! That’s always the challenge as a woman of color writing about sex. When I couldn’t sell either of my previous projects, I knew I had to write something sexier. My two previous novels-in-progress featured black and Latina women, but didn’t have a lot of sex or sexually titillating material. Women of color are valued for our “sexiness,” from African American women being considered “fast-tailed girls” to “hot Latinas.” I wanted to create women of color characters who were multidimensional. Yes, sexuality could be a small part of their lives, but wasn’t the main thing. White agents really questioned the commercial appeal of those projects. I couldn’t seem to get any traction as far as publication.
When I started this book, I accepted that I was going to have to engage sexuality more directly if I wanted to be published. I have a number of close relationships with people who have been involved in sex work. If I was going to write about women of color who had a fair amount of sex, then I was excited to write about sex work, because it sits at the location of race, class, sexuality and gender.
But I wanted to do it in a way that honored the sex work community. Not only did I consult with friends and family who had been in the industry, but I also asked a long-time Bay Area sex work activist to read my book. She had me change a lot of stuff, and referred me to the NYC sex work community to get the New York info conditions right. The entertainment industry is always willing to include sex worker characters for spice or cannon fodder. I wanted to create strong female characters with depth, complexity, and a range of relationships to the profession.
Because writing with sex as a main theme of my work was new for me, it took a while to work through the feelings that I was compromising to be more commercial. But I’m so satisfied with both the work itself and the process that I can honestly say this: The commercial fiction preoccupation with sex and romance has definitely pushed the exploration of sexuality to the front burner of my literary career. But I stand firmly behind everything my characters and I have to say or express about sex 100%, including the contradictions and complexity. Overall, it was a powerful process, and in it, I found my own authentic voice.
SQ: And we have to. I know I have to find that authenticity. The place where I say this is who I am as a writer. If I attempt to do anything different, I’d lose my voice and wouldn’t be able to write at all never mind publish, and that’s not an option. That would be toughest of all.
Aya de León is an author, spoken-word poet, hip hop theater artist, and the director of June Jordan's Poetry for the People program. Sofia Quintero is a writer, academic, and founder of the Feminist Love Project. Click here to read more about their forthcoming books!