Kellye Garrett

Diverse Voices: Same as Me

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.

Me at Book Expo

A unicorn sighting a June’s Book Expo in New York City.

 

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.”

Updated Cover

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.

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45 thoughts on “Diverse Voices: Same as Me

  1. I’m an aspiring mystery writer and my favorite mystery series written by a black female author is Valerie Wilson Wesley’s Tamara Hayle series. I was fortunate enough to personally know the late Dee Stewart, who wrote three mysteries in the Angel Crawford Bounty Hunter Series under the pen name Miranda Parker. Other mysteries I have come to love are the Marti McCallister series by the late Eleanor Taylor Bland, the Sienna St. James series, written by Leslie J. Sherrod and books written by Tyora Moody, just to name a few.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love love love love love the Tamara Hayle series. They’re set near where I grew up too so you know I was in complete love when I discovered them. I have never heard of the Angel Crawford series. Off to google. Thank you for the suggestions!

      Like

  2. “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.””

    YES! This is the moment that transforms us all and allows us into the story; that moment where we’re changed because of our recognition of sameness.

    I hope no one turns away from Hollywood Homicide because of the black woman on the cover or the black writer who created it. They would be missing out on a great story.

    And, for the record, just based on the cover, I’m sure my ‘same as me’ moment will be eyebrow-related. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I pick up books that have an interesting sounding premise period. Your premise sounds like a lot of fun. Obviously, I read lots of books by women with female main characters. Yes, I recognized that you and your character aren’t white, but that isn’t a motivating factor in my decision to pick up your book.

    Now, here’s where I am going to say something that might be controversial. In the past few years, there’s been a “We need diverse books” movement in the middle grade genre, something I still read occasionally. Someone even pointed out in a comment on one of my reviews that the main character in a book I was praising was a diverse main character. However, I’d picked up the book because it’s an author I love, and race wasn’t a factor in the book at all.

    And that’s the secret. Many of the books for kids that the We Need Diverse Books movement champions are about something that will only appeal to that niche market. Now don’t misunderstand me. I have no problem with those books being written and published. But for me, and yes, I’m a white man, the secret to creating more diversity in books published is to make the character’s race something that isn’t the focus of the story. It can definitely factor into the story, but it should be a mystery or an adventure or a fantasy story first. That broad appeal will help is sell. And book publishing, like anything else, is about sales.

    I’m a huge fan of the DC Comics superhero shows on the CW. They have racial diverse casts, even casting some traditionally white characters with African Americans. Yet they don’t make a big deal out of that, and the shows are great entertainment.

    I hope some of what I’m saying makes sense because I need to head in to work – something we all have in common no matter our sex, race, or sexual orientation.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You bring up an interesting point, Mark. I think we should be open to immersing ourselves in different cultures the way we do with different historical periods. Look at how popular many historical mysteries are. If I can lose myself in the turn-of-the-century worlds of Rhys Bowen and Victoria Thompson, I can also lose myself in the Watts world of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, which I have. I think what works across the boards is relatability. It’s a word we constant hear in TV. “Are your characters relatable? Is your story relatable?” If we can connect to characters and their plights, we’re hooked.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I should mention I certainly get where you are coming from. I wish there were more men main characters in the cozy world. So I understand the desire and I applaud you for doing something about it.

      Looking forward to reading your book!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I actually had a similar convo about this idea the other day, the idea of the “issue book” and that a lot of people feel like the only reason to have a “marginalized” main character is if that book deals with an issue unique to that main character’s race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, disability, etc. I’ve seen reviews/comments on other books where someone is like “The character was black but there didn’t seem to be a reason for it.” My response: Yay. lol

      While I definitely think “issue books” are important (and honestly should be read by everyone), I agree that we need more main characters who just “happen” not to be a straight, white, able-bodied Christian. It obviously isn’t going to save race relations in the US but I do think it will go a long way.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I probably shouldn’t say anything on this topic because it frustrates me to no end.
      I’m with you, Mark. I don’t even think about a character’s gender or ethnic background when I look at a book. I want the book because of the story, not because the characters are all white, and heterosexual. Bring on every type of character you can imagine, as long as I like the story. I don’t care what the characters look like, or what their preferences are, no matter how prejudice my family is. There. I said it. I’m appalled at my family’s views.
      That being said, I wonder if the other question at hand, the low number of writers with these ‘characteristics’ is based on the old adage that they are trying to better themselves by going after ‘more successful’ careers. I’m always seeing on the food network the Asian American chefs whose families don’t support their career choices. They are supposed to be doctors and engineers and scientists and such.
      Could this count for that low number?

      Liked by 1 person

      • It probably is why some don’t consider it as a “viable” career. But honestly, until we know the numbers of “aspiring” marginalized authors versus “published,” we’ll never really know.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. What a powerful post, Kellye. Having read your book, I can safely say that anyone who turns away because your gorgeous cover features an equally gorgeous black woman is making a huge mistake. They’re missing out on a funny, smart, incredibly entertaining read. And they don’t deserve you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Have you come across IQ by Joe Ide? It was nominated for almost every first best this year: Edgars, Anthonys, I lost track. I lucked into an ARC before it was published and recently reviewed the ARC for his next book, Righteous (also excellent). Here’s to the day when no one is surprised by a non-white character!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post, Kellye! I’d pick up the book (already pre-ordered!) because I know how funny, and kind and smart, the author is! I think the Hollywood setting will also attract many readers because of our national celebrity obsession. But, whatever the draw, you give them more once they’re in, and the characters will bring them back for more! (BTW, I can relate to Dayna’s totally-broke, how-can-I-make-some-quick-cash predicament!)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post, Kellye.

    I know she’s already on your list because she was your PW mentee (I think?), but I’m going to drop Kristen Lepionka’s name in the comments in case anyone else is looking for recommendations down here. The Last Place You Look is one of the best mystery/thrillers I’ve read in ages and it is #ownvoices LGBTQ (I believe).

    Looking forward to reading Hollywood Homicide as well once it’s out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t Kristen’s book brilliant????? Yep, it’s #ownvoices LGBTQ. I knew when she turned in her final draft during Pitch Wars in 2015 that her book would sell immediately. I’m so honored I got a first peek at it.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Keep the faith, Kellye, and keep writing! I’m deep into Alexia Gordon’s newest Gethsemane Brown mystery, Death in D Minor, and I’m a huge fan of Carolyn Marie Wilkins’ Bertie Bigelow series. You ladies are leading the way, and we need you!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. We’ve already talked about this a bunch, but this is something I always feel the need to comment on. Expect a mini-essay 😛

    Your Twitter thread about not needing a “reason” for your MC to be a member of a marginalized group was so good. I feel the same way about “issue” books: they’re important and they have their place in literature, but at the same time, why can’t we ALSO have books about POC/etc just living their lives and all the BS that brings?

    I’m a WOC and the child of immigrants, but my everyday life isn’t about the struggle of a 2nd-generation American trying to balance the two worlds. My sexuality is somewhat fluid, but my life isn’t merely about who I want to have sex with. I’m in an interracial marriage, but our married life isn’t about the clashing of cultures (it’s mostly about whose turn it is to clean up after the dogs). Nobody’s life is just that one thing, and it’s ridiculous to imply otherwise.

    Our background informs who we are, but it’s not all that we are. And to imply that our lives and identities are just that one thing not only others us, it dehumanizes us.

    And good on you for not compromising your beliefs for success. I’ve actually had this conversations with my husband about this same topic. He’s a black TV screenwriter, which (as you know) is an extremely competitive field. For him, compromising on a few projects to get his foot in the door makes sense because he’s an unknown. Once he gains traction, then he’ll be able to pursue his passion projects and not have to worry about stuff like that.

    So I understand why people do it, it’s just not for me. I write for myself. I write the stories that I’ve always wanted to read, but can’t find. And I write for the people who are looking for the chance to say “Same as me.” If I have to change my story in order to sell, then what’s the point?

    OK, getting off my soapbox now. Long story short, you’re awesome, you’re an inspiration, and I can’t wait to read your book ^^

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, yes, yes. In an ideal world. my book appeals to traditional cozy readers as well as people who are picking it up b/c they’re like “Ooh, is that a black girl on the cover?” We’ll see if it happens or not. Regardless, I’m going to just keep writing these black female main characters. lol Screenwriting is a completely different beast so I understand where your hubby is coming from.

      I’m super excited for you and your manuscript. I’m so excited it’s already getting attention.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Kellye, I’m sending your post to Frankie Bailey and the SinC web maven so we can look at adding a few names to Frankie’s List, Sisters in Crime’s list of diverse authors. http://www.sistersincrime.org/page/FrankiesList Thanks to everyone who mentioned an author we might have missed.

    Lucky me, I had an ARC of Hollywood Homicide, and I loved it. Dayna’s race is part of who she is, along with being an out-of-work, broke, semi-retired actress, a loyal friend, a loving daughter, a woman with the hots for an old friend who may or may not reciprocate now that he’s hit the big time, and an eye for the current, hottest clothes. What motivates her to investigate is a great set-up for a series, and it’s all just a lot of fun. Off to encourage a few people to read this post and buy your book!

    Liked by 2 people

    • You, like Kristopher, have described my character better than I can. lol Thank you for the support (as always).

      Super excited we have more names for Frankie’s List. The SinC Twitter account tweeted a link to submit authors to it. I have a couple I want to submit, including one who just came out today.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Kellye– I’m inspired by this conversation yet shocked at the paltry number of pubbed African-American mystery writers. Are there really so few? Are we writing for other media? Is indie publishing the answer? So many questions. We can change things. We are changing things.

    Like you, I grappled with the cover design of my soon-to-be-released technothriller. An African-American female protagonist. If the cover sells the book would people be turned off by or attracted by an image of a Black woman? I considered doing A/B testing but decided that I don’t want to cater to a reader who can’t get past the cover image…

    Excited about Hollywood Homicide!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Liz:

      That number is traditionally published so it doesn’t include self-pubbed. It also is all-time so a lot of the series are no longer releasing new books.

      And I feel similar about my cover. I honestly would prefer you know from jump versus being like “Wait, she’s black?” after you bought it. (Plus she mentions she’s black on page 3 anyway.)

      Love to see your final cover. Is it online yet?

      Kellye

      Like

  12. It’s funny…I never outwardly thought about the race of character in the book. Yeah, I knew they had blond hair, blue eyes, but it was the story that interested me more.

    I do remember when I was younger and some of the books by black authors that I came across were not mysteries but romance and some hardcore- not my thing.

    I am glad to see authors of color writing mystery and some with about characters that look like them.

    I’ve read your book and it kept me entertained at some of the antics, the heroine found herself involved in. If people judge your book by the cover and decide not to read it, then it’s their loss.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I appreciate your comments and look forward to reading Hollywood Homicide.
    I am a big fan of the Elouise Norton series by Rachel Howzell Hall. Lou is a woman of color, a detective in LA, a daughter, friend — a woman of many layers. The series is riveting and storylines are intriguing — highly recommend this series.

    Liked by 2 people

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