Last year, someone called me a unicorn. It’s not because I am super cute or love hanging out in a forest. And thankfully, it’s also not because I have a horn sticking out of my forehead. It’s because I’m a black woman mystery writer who pens a series involving a black woman protagonist. As much as it kills me to say this, I’m rare around these parts.
It’s no secret that mystery novels with black main characters aren’t exactly a booming industry. Mystery writers who are black are even harder to find. Last summer’s Sisters in Crime Diversity Report listed 69 of us who were published. To clarify, that isn’t the number of black writers traditionally published last year. That is the number who have been published by a publishing company ever. For added perspective, a Wikipedia article stated that the United States published 304,912 new book titles in 2013 alone.
The numbers are pretty sad but we can’t even complain too much. Black writers have it better than other marginalized groups. But how do we get those numbers to increase?
Sadly, it’s a Catch 22. The only way we’ll see more diverse mystery writers is to have…more diverse mystery writers. When you’re growing up, it’s imperative you see people who look like you doing what you want to do. If you don’t, it can be nearly impossible to ever imagine this is something you can do yourself. It’s all about representation and when you’ve always been represented, you take for granted just how much representation matters. And that desire to see yourself starts early. My two-year-old niece was watching an episode of one of her favorite cartoons. She pointed at a one of the little girl characters with curly brown hair and brown skin and said “Same as me.”
Some might argue that it’s not a matter of racism, but that publishers will only publish books that will sell. They may be right. I don’t know the sales figures for books by—and for—marginalized voices. At the same time, it’s hard to report numbers for books that don’t exist.
I also can’t help but wonder how my book is going to be received. It’s a concern every debut author feels—and probably established authors, too. But for writers of color, you have an added layer. I’ve spoken about it at length with other writers of color and who are LGBTQ. And with every one of their concerns, I wanted to respond: “Same as me.”
The questions abound. Will a white reader see my book —with its black woman author and its black woman main character and its black woman cover—and want to buy it? Are people going to solely dismiss my book just because—ironically—the main character doesn’t look like them? Am I concerned that putting a black woman on the cover will turn people away? Or have my book labeled “black fiction” instead of as a mystery?
Are these legitimate concerns? Definitely and sadly. At the same time, it’s a risk I’m happy I have the opportunity to take. I never once considered changing my main character to white because I thought it would be an easier sell. I completely understand those who do so. It’s just not something I want to do. There is a really good chance a mystery lover might not want to read my book solely because it’s “black fiction.” But I don’t think about that person. I can’t. Not if I want to keep my sanity.
I’ve convinced myself—perhaps naively—that people are open-minded enough to read Hollywood Homicide, even if it’s because of—or in some cases, despite of—the main character’s race and gender. And I hope that when they do read it, there will be some small thing they see in my main character and think, “Same as me.”
I’ve been a hardcore mystery lover since I picked up my first Encyclopedia Brown book as a child. I quickly moved on to Nancy Drew before discovering cozy staples like Joan Hess’s Claire Malloy series and Jill Churchhill’s Jane Jeffry mysteries. As a kid, I’d have my mom drop me off at the mall, where I’d head over to B. Dalton (remember those?) and just walk up and down the mystery section. I do the same thing today. I just do it via Amazon, Barnes and Noble’s website and Goodreads. I can’t wait for the day my quest for my next favorite series includes more books written by black women.
I can’t wait to point at them and say, “Same as me.”
If you have any mystery novels by writers of color and LGBTQ authors you love, please share them in the comments. If you’re looking to find new authors who happen to be of color of LGBTQ, check out Frankie’s List: http://www.sistersincrime.org/page/FrankiesList.