I had an eye-opening couple of days at AWP, especially in regards to what it means to be a woman and a writer of color. It’s funny, because when I was much younger and growing up in Miami, I never felt the need to self-identify as any of the many things that described me: Latina, immigrant, hispanic, Peruvian, American, Peruvian-American, person of color, woman; these things were simply understood. I grew up in a beautiful bubble where identity is fluid and the fact that we all come from somewhere is a given. Labels helped inform; they did not define.
I don’t know if that had to do with location or inexperience or both. There are days when I’m grateful I didn’t know all I know now (like how underrepresented women writers of color are in the publishing world) before I tried to write and publish my first novel.
Sometimes I wonder, would I have been discouraged? I can’t tell you if I had to work any harder than any other first-time, white male writer; I can only tell you how hard I’ve worked.
But I can tell you that there are countless other women writers working just as hard to get their stories heard, and somehow, so few of us end up breaking through. At a panel that looked beyond gender to various types of identity—like race and sexual orientation—and the many challenges identity authors face today, author Roxane Gay discussed that there shouldn’t be only one: one LGBT author, one hispanic author, one black woman author, who makes it big and ends up representing the whole. And when there is one, then it’s that person’s job to create pipelines of opportunity for others.
This really stuck with me. I feel lucky to be part of the publishing community, to have a book coming out, to have written it blissfully unaware that things like my name or my novel’s setting might have presented obstacles along the way. And I am in no way saying I’ve “made it,” but I’m grateful for the success I’ve enjoyed thus far, and I’d wish it for any other writer who wants it badly and works for it even more.
I may not know exactly how to create pipelines of opportunity just yet, but I think sharing truths is a good place to start. Below are some of mine: some I tell myself, some I wish to tell other writers who’ve ever felt marginalized, some I simply wish to tell the world.
Know what you stand for. Know what you don’t. Do not allow others to misrepresent you.
You are not one identity or one story. You are a mixture of big and small experiences, some of which must be known for you to be completely understood, none of which solely define you. Which ones you share, how you want to be understood, what you write about: these choices are yours alone.
Just because you’ve never perceived being discriminated against doesn’t mean you haven’t experienced it.
Your not being discriminated against (or your perception of it) is only your reality. This does not make it the reality of others like you.
The fact that you overcame obstacles without realizing it does not mean those obstacles don’t exist. Look at how far you’ve come, but also look back. You’ve learned some things along the way. Use it to help others who are trying to forge a similar path.
When you acknowledge someone is coming from a different place than you, don’t let that cloud your vision of all the ways you’re the same.