On Self-Rejection and Writing From a Marginalized Perspective

Over the weekend I caught the tail end of a Twitter discussion centered on the hashtag #dontselfreject, created by writer and editor Rose Lemberg in response to an essay by writer and editor Nisi Shawl in the literary quarterly The Cascadia Subduction Zone. Nisi Shawl’s essay, titled “Unqualified,” is about how difficult it is for writers of color, and particularly African American writers (Nisi is African American, among other identities), to develop the confidence to try to get published — essentially, how hard it is to believe that their stories are valuable and worth it. If you have $3, you should buy the January 2015 issue of The CSZ containing Nisi’s essay because it’s totally worth it (plus you get poetry!). Rose Lemberg started the #dontselfreject hashtag to talk about the issues faced by marginalized writers. By marginalized she means not only African American writers, but other writers of color and queer writers. (Rose is queer, among other identities. It feels a bit weird to identify her and Nisi as “marginalized,” but I want to make it clear that they’re speaking from personal experience.) You can read the storified version of Rose’s tweets here.

I didn’t catch onto #dontselfreject until Sunday, but as soon as I saw it I realized how valuable this discussion was. I tweeted some thoughts with the hashtag, and I wanted to elaborate on them in this post, because #dontselfreject raised a whole lot of feelings in me.

When I was growing up I wrote nonstop: three complete fantasy novels, several plays and short stories, hundreds of poems. I talked to my grandmother about writing, and she was my number one source of support in this because she too was a writer. I had some English teachers who also supported me 110%, and they made me feel legitimate as a writer. However, I also grew up with parents who told me I could not and should not be a writer because it wouldn’t pay well and it simply wasn’t a logical career choice. I know they were trying to give me their best advice, but given the fact that my mother was (and is) a musician, the message of “don’t be a writer” was totally confusing. Then I went to Wellesley College, and even though part of my college application was a series of five poems, there was no way I could see myself as an English or creative writing major. I didn’t go to one of the best colleges in the country to waste my time writing stories (I thought). I majored in Economics and Chinese Studies, but I did sneak in a couple of writing workshops in on the side. Those workshops were wonderful. Confusingly, I also really loved Economics (and still do); I hadn’t figured out yet that writers are interested in tons of things all the time.

After graduation, I stopped writing almost completely, although I got a job as an editorial assistant at Random House and was surrounded by evidence of other people writing. I still wrote in my journal, but I largely stopped writing fiction and I definitely didn’t show what I wrote to anyone. I left publishing and went to graduate school, where I snuck in another couple of writing workshops around my academic research into China and popular culture. Ultimately, I spent eight or nine years of my twenties feeling like I was a loser of a writer because I couldn’t finish anything I started. Finally, after too many years of circling around my desire to write but not actually writing, combined with a fuck ton of coming out issues, I was so depressed about my life that I went to therapy. (Again. I’d been depressed when I was in college and I recognized the signs.)

That therapist soon understood that one of my deepest desires was to be a writer. She helped me to find my way back to writing. Without that therapy, I never would have written Ash, my first published novel. Ash was the way I taught myself that telling my story — a lesbian story that I had never read before in a published novel — was okay.

We live in a world chock full of stories — on TV, in books, advertising, movies, online, everywhere you look people are telling stories. However, the vast majority of those stories are about a certain kind of person: generally white, usually middle class or upper class, typically male, almost always abled, 99% of the time straight. If you live in that world and are not male, middle class, white, abled, and/or straight, you hardly ever see anyone like yourself in any media. As a writer, it can be incredibly hard to imagine telling a story that is fundamentally different than pretty much everything else you’ve read.

If you’ve never seen yourself or people like you in a story before, you have to imagine them out of nothing. This might sound like the very definition of imagination, but imagination is bounded by culture and belief systems and iterations upon iterations of stories already told. It requires a giant symbolic leap to imagine a story that breaks the mold of what’s already out there.

People often say they want stories that are “original,” but the fact is most stories are not original. They’re riffs on older stories. How many of those older stories have queer main characters? Not many. Hardly any.

That’s probably why the first draft of Ash was written as a heterosexual love story: I didn’t fully grasp that there could be anything else. It was so impossible to me that I couldn’t even consciously imagine it. It was only because I gave the first draft to a friend to read, and that friend pointed out that I had subtextually and subconsciously written a lesbian story, that I made the symbolic leap.

At first, the idea that I could write a lesbian retelling of Cinderella was seriously mind-boggling to me. I remember thinking: This is insane. Nobody is going to want to read a lesbian Cinderella, and definitely nobody is going to publish it. I certainly had never seen a book like it published before, and because I’d never seen it, I thought it couldn’t work.

I was really good at self-rejecting.

Luckily, due to that therapy and due to the support and help of my friends (who let me sleep on their couches, who loaned me money, who brought me cake when I was down), I had made some life changes in the wake of my depression. I had dropped out of graduate school and launched myself somewhat randomly into a career as a freelance writer for LGBT publications, including AfterEllen, which was then a tiny website that one of my best friends started out of her home office. As AfterEllen grew, I learned something life-changing: There is an audience for stories about lesbians and bisexual women, and they’re starving for those stories.

I also finally read a book with lesbian main characters, a book that was a huge mainstream success: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. That book was fearless about lesbian sexuality in a way that seemed to do more than push the door open to mainstream publishing; it seemed to tear the door off its hinges.

Over a few years, I rewrote Ash. I teased out the story it always had been, subconsciously. And to my utter shock, finding an agent and publisher was the easiest part of the whole process. I had always been pretty timid about submitting things; I was really quite afraid of rejection. I’d submitted a scant handful of stories or essays to literary journals in the past, and after I got a couple of rejections I stopped. With Ash, I honestly didn’t have to try very hard. I found an agent in my first batch of queries. We had five publishers offer to publish Ash. It was crap preparation for the future (more on that later), but at the same time, it told me definitively that I was on the right path.

And yet:

Since Ash was published, I’ve become known as a lesbian writer. People expect my books to be about queer girls. This is fine with me; I welcome it. But I understand that not every writer who is LGBT is going to write books about LGBT characters. Every marginalized writer has to struggle with their own personal identity and the way it connects or does not connect with the business of books. They don’t always match up, and that’s OK.

Part of the reason I’m so comfortable with being known as a lesbian writer is because one of the life changes I made after dropping out of grad school was to move to San Francisco, where I almost instantly developed a wonderful network of lesbian and queer friends. I became part of a welcoming lesbian community. During my life I’d always thought that I had problems making friends, but for the first time in my life making friends felt natural and easy. Maybe that’s because I was finally being myself, every day, all the time. And even though I had hard times too and made a lot of bad relationship decisions, I felt normal. This was so important to my development as a writer. Feeling normal made me feel like I could write stories about people like me.

Not every LGBT writer has had my experiences. I would never expect an LGBT writer to only ever write stories about LGBT characters.

When I was in college I went through what I now think of as my “Asian American phase,” in which I tried being friends with a bunch of Asian American people, went to Asian American clubs and dances, and I even had an Asian American boyfriend (he was great! I’m serious — he was probably the best part of my Asian American phase). I think if I’d continued to do that stuff, I might have written about Asian Americans sooner.

But, you know, it turned out that I was not straight. Sadly, Asian American and “gay” have not always been compatible identities. It’s often been hard for me to reconcile them. I’ve often felt like I had to choose between being gay or Asian American. I know now that this isn’t necessary, but the fact is I’ve rarely connected with a gay Asian American community. I’ve never felt that gut-level sense of “normal” that I did in the lesbian community. It’s not that I didn’t have gay Asian American friends — I did and still do — and those friends and relationships have gone a long way toward making me feel like I can be both gay and Asian American. It’s just been a longer road, because those friendships and relationships took place one at a time, rather than all at once like my lesbian immersion at AfterEllen and in San Francisco.

I tweeted that I find it offensive for white folks to question/challenge writers of color for not writing characters of color because it’s something that has happened to me, and because it felt deeply linked to the #dontselfreject discussion.

On a surface level, not writing about Asian American characters when I am myself Asian American seems like a sign of self-rejection, but it’s so much more complicated than that. As I said above, it took me a long time to even understand that writing about lesbians was possible. That is the main battle against self-rejection that we marginalized writers have to fight. We are taught through the media that our stories aren’t important. Sometimes it feels as if we’ve been erased everywhere.

If you’re a writer from a marginalized community struggling to make it in the mainstream, it’s clear as day that writing about minority characters is likely to be a ticket to Rejectionville. I think maybe white/straight writers don’t always get that. As a minority, you live in a world where obviously racism and homophobia exist (and other prejudices too!). It’s totally blindingly clear that if you want a passing chance at earning a living through writing, it would be in your best interests to not write about people like yourself. Is that self-rejection? Yes, but it’s a rational self-rejection based on reality. It’s my parents telling me as a child that I should not be a writer.

There are so many reasons that minority writers wouldn’t write about minority characters. Maybe they need to pay the rent and buy food. Maybe they have written about minorities in the past and been rejected for doing so. Maybe they’re still struggling with living as a marginalized individual in a world that constantly rejects them. I don’t judge any minority writer for not writing about minorities. I only hope that they can develop a sustainable writing career so that at some point they’ll be able to write what they want, whether it’s about minorities or not.

Yes: I still struggle with self-rejection. Maybe it seems strange, because I’ve had four novels published by a big publisher. Maybe it seems as if I must lack some basic self-confidence, but if you know me, you know that’s not true. I believe in myself; I believe I’m a good writer. The problem is, as soon as you get published, the entire world — especially the internet — becomes one giant source of rejection. Everybody has an opinion on your book, and they all feel free to tell you. No, your book is not yourself, but if you’ve written a book you know how closely connected you are to your book. It’s part of yourself, if not the whole.

I struggle often with anxiety and depression. I’ve had to figure out how to compartmentalize my author life so that I’m not constantly being bombarded with other people’s opinions about my work. Other writers may not feel the need to be so self-protective, but for my own mental health I have to be. Otherwise, all those opinions risk being absorbed by my subconscious to be spit back out at me as self-rejection. I hear those voices a lot. I bet a lot of writers do.

Additionally, in my specific case, I’ve become very much involved in the discourse on diversity in publishing. I co-founded Diversity in YA with my friend Cindy Pon, and for the past four years we’ve been talking about diversity online and in person at book events and conferences. At the same time, I’ve had three more novels published as well as several short stories, and the longer I’ve been in this business, the clearer it’s become that it is a business — one that often is not aligned at all with the discourse on diversity. The more comfortable I feel writing about people like me, the clearer it is to me that the business doesn’t really want that, thanks but no thanks. Yes, I think there are some people in the business who genuinely believe in diverse voices and want to support them (basically everyone who has been involved in publishing my books!), but I also think there are some people who are not interested in anything except what sells — and they rely on a set of institutionalized beliefs which are frankly racist and heteronormative to back up their business decisions. The problem is, some of those people don’t even understand that they’re relying on racist and heteronormative practices.

The fact that I have personally made that symbolic leap in my imagination doesn’t mean the fight is over. I still live in a world that is still extremely heteronormative, and now that my imagination has thrown off that worldview, I’m more aware than ever that I see things and write things differently. Seeing that stark difference raises the specter of self-rejection over and over again. It’s those voices saying: You’d make more money if you wrote about straight people. You’d get more marketing support if you wrote this mainstream thing instead of that diverse thing.

It’s totally obvious what I should do if I want to be a bestselling author — or even to have what people in the business would think of as a “breakthrough” book.

But is that the kind of writer I want to be? That’s the struggle I’m in now. I’m at the point in my career where I sense a turning point. I have plenty of mainstream aspirations, but they battle daily with my still-developing consciousness around diversity. The struggle to not self-reject continues for me, as I imagine it does for all marginalized writers throughout their careers.

Something I appreciated on the #dontselfreject hashtag was a shared sense of disbelief and relief: disbelief that so many of us marginalized writers have done this, and relief that we are not alone. That’s why I think it’s so important to talk about these things in public, to share our experiences and be open about the struggles we’ve faced and are facing. You are not alone, and I am not alone. This is a struggle we can go through together. #dontselfreject