Talking to creatives—no matter their medium—about their work is one of my favorite things to do. Every artist’s point-of-view is different, and looking at, reading, or hearing their creation is like a peek into their mind and the way they see the world. So, on the evening of November 14, when I got the chance to have a conversation with Diane McKinney-Whetstone and hear a little bit about her work and her process I knew it was going to be a highlight of my year. And it was.
About 50 women (and a few intrepid men, including Ms. McKinney-Whetstone’s husband, Greg) gathered on a cold night in Germantown, Philadelphia at the Our House Culture Center to watch me interview her about her books, her inspiration and her process. It was an interestingly personal gathering, with a few of the women greeting the author like old friends, several of them having known or grown up with her in Philadelphia even though some hadn’t seen her in decades. Just happening by for the event, was the iconic author of ‘Black Ice’, Lorene Cary. She, and Diane McKinney-Whetstone greeted each other affectionately, and obviously know each other well.
But I’ve come to learn that Philadelphia is like that—a small town masquerading as a big city,with intricate intersections of place, and space and relationships. And that’s how Ms. McKinney-Whetstone writes as well—her stories are complicated but familiar, personal, warm, welcoming and with the hint of an inside joke, that you’re only in on if you come from Philly. We talked about Tumblin’ her first novel, and about Lazaretto, her most recent offering, and she read from both which was a rare treat. I asked questions about her work, about race, about the craft. I was inspired and rejuvenated just listening to her and even more than that, I was struck by the commonality of the creative struggle—the characters’ voices in your head that come unbidden day and night, the self-doubt that often accompanies them, the worry that you don’t have enough time, aren’t “doing it right”, or should be engaged in something much more important, especially in times like these.
A few of my own writer-friends were in the audience, one of them on the cusp of publishing for the first time (who would kill me if I outed her), and another who already has, my friend Lily Java. Since Lily is, like me, prone to analysis of just about everything, I thought it might be fun to interview her about the interview, so you can hear another point-of-view besides my own. So, here goes …
Diane McKinney-Whetstone talked about ‘writing as a Black woman’ versus ‘being a Black woman who writes’. What did you think about her response? It was a great question you asked because it seemed like a deceptively easy one to answer. It’s funny too, cause thinking back on it, my initial reaction to her answer was that it was safe. She seemed to hint that she can’t help but write as a Black woman because that is who and what she is. In other words, it’s natural.
Did you relate? Of course. Absolutely. For me it’s sometimes difficult to extrapolate the difference between the two options given. Being a Black woman who writes and writing as a Black woman are, as a whole, the reasons I felt brave enough to publish my work to begin with. Knowing that I hadn’t read or heard enough of my type of voice was a strong catalyst — but how could writing like that not also be tied to my identity? I’m empathetic by nature, but I’m not that good at experiencing life outside myself to write as anything other than a Black woman.
One of the more gratifying moments for me was hearing her reaffirm that we need to give ourselves permission to write. How do you interpret that? Yes, I loved that moment too. And she was absolutely right. You have to make and give yourself the time to write. And even though an enormous load of guilt, self-recrimination, and exhaustion might come your way when you do acquire that time, it still has to be sacrosanct — untouchable.
What does that mean to you? The thing that resonated for me most was when she said that she needed to overcome the idea that what she’s doing is frivolous. Boy that statement rocked me. I was raised to fight my own inner demons early because there were plenty enough on the outside to fight. Consequently, I don’t always see myself as someone who is lacking in self-esteem or confidence but of course I am. And I especially am when it comes to writing. Also, the times we’re living in don’t help much. It’s easy to say you’re writing to entertain and allow people an escape but doing it while the world is fraught ain’t easy either. Yeah, I think it was during that part of the talk that I turned to the young writer next to me and whispered something unoriginal but apt, “If it were easy, everybody would do it.”
We also talked a little about writing ‘under the white gaze’. What were your thoughts on her response to that? You mean after I finished snickering and rolling my eyes that you asked it? Hahahaha. Seriously though I thought she was practical on the subject. She’s a literary writer but she isn’t writing purely for white audiences. Her themes and subject matter tell you that. I also thought it was clear she wasn’t going to object to anyone of any shade reading her work. I especially liked her encouragement of anyone writing in their own vernacular whatever that happened to be.
Do you feel the‘white gaze’ as you write? Not at all. I do feel the gaze of my parents, grandparents and the rest of my family, as well as some of my teachers in the K-12 years. I especially feel the gaze of other writers of various hues, that I love and who have inspired me to read. Here’s the thing though. I think people are always trying to put Black people in a particular box. As if because we’re Black what we do has to be, observed, managed, or judged through a certain lens in order for it to be called Black. It’s nonsensical. There’s good writing and there’s bad writing. Period. And not every story or voice is gonna resonate for everyone.
She had some interesting thoughts about the lack of differentiation among genres when authors are Black. Did you have thoughts on that as well? Yeah, I do. Can you tell? So, here’s the thing I keep wondering, why DO we identify AA fiction in such limiting ways? I suppose as a marginalized voice in publishing we feel as if that maybe the only way for our reading audience to find us but it does automatically keep us all in that same box I mentioned earlier. I’ve concluded that there’s no easy answer or solution except to have many more good AA writers who a rededicated to their craft and are writing out of the box that publishers as well as readers, black, white, or mauve, want to put us in. There’s a line in the movie “Legends of the Fall” where Anthony Hopkins plays an old man recovering from a stroke and he shakes his fist at the sky and says “Screw the government!” I think of it when I think about this subject cause I always want to say “Screw the genre!”
It was surprising to hear that she doesn’t think the publishing industry has become significantly more competent in terms of decision-makers that promote the work of Black creatives. I wasn’t surprised by that. I agree with her. There are still fairly poor hiring practices when it comes to broadening the employee demographics in traditional publishing and not nearly enough entrepreneurs of color jumping into the field of publishing either. I feel like we’re seeing a lot of placeholders in Black fiction right now, some quite brilliant, but not nearly enough to give us a true expansion of excellent diverse content in the publishing world. I think today the film and TV entertainment industry has in many ways done a better job of mixing it up and giving us that.
There was a minor skirmish during the conversation that seemed to indicate a divide between anew, younger generation of readers, and women who are Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s contemporaries, who read Bebe Moore Campbell, Terry MacMillan and the like. Do you think there is a real difference in the quality of Black fiction now than when those women were the household names for Black readers? Sure, there is, but I guess I would take issue with the word quality. That word suggests there might be a superiority of one group over the other. I think there are huge differences in the circumstances and trends for those writing Black fiction now as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago. Those historical differences are often what makes the reader feel however they’re going to feelabout it. I imagine sometimes it’s hard to relate. That doesn’t make it better or worse writing though in the aggregate. Does anyone want to compare the “quality” of Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen to Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou? They’re about three decades apart. It might bean interesting thesis but for my money, I’d rather just read them and forget the comparisons.
What were your most important take-aways from the conversation? I had two. 1) I need to spend more time with writers. It always makes me feel better to be around my people. Hahaha. Seriously though, I’ve gone to see a lot of writers talk about their craft and I always feel great afterwards. It’s such a niche profession, and there is much to learn from the others who do what you do too. 2) I saw a lot of familiar faces at this event, which made me happy. All were readers, but many were writers too and that is what keeps me hopeful about this profession especially when it comes to Black fiction. There are so many out there who want to take the plunge and eventually will.
Thank you, Lily Java. Fun hanging with you, as usual!