The Hyper Marginalization of Black Fiction

Publishers Weekly cover from Dec 2009

The other day I was reading an interview with Ishmael Reed and he said some things about Black fiction that got me to thinking.? The interview was with Jill Nelson for his new book, “Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: Return of the Nigger Breakers.” Tell me how you REALLY feel Mr. Reed.

There is one part of the interview about Black art that stood out to me:

Jill Nelson: Why were you unable to get this book published in the United States?

Ishmael Reed: This is attributable to the state of black letters. Serious fiction and non fiction by blacks are becoming extinct, except for that which upholds the current line coming from the media owners and the corporations that all of the problems of Africans and African Americans are due to their behavior. This is true not only for literature but for black theater, film, art galleries and opinion columns as well. I saw a show of Kara Walker?s work at the Brooklyn Museum. I feel that this young brilliant artist?s growth is being stunted by museum curators, and big money capitalists. Even some white intellectuals support her most mediocre work and pit her against the great Betye Saar who uses a variety of materials and subject matter and whose work contains more depth.

This gave me something to think about, in terms of the serious, capital F fiction vs. hood lit conversation.

A little about my book background. I am a long time book list keeper. My? book list weighs a ton. And I don’t really get to read fiction often, so quirky fiction is special to me both because of my lack of time for it and its scarcity.

In fact, looking at my book list I realize that I have always had the eye and mind of an archivist (I have been working on a database of Black women artists which will be a link page on NMM then a site in its own right eventually.)

@Blacksnob Tweeted about Paul Beatty. Then @janie_crawford saw it, and I tweeted her a link to my post on Paul Beatty’s Slumberland.

Then @janie_crawford and I had a conversation about the fact that Paul Beatty needs to be on Twitter. Say? Word. I was beginning to think about where are these Quirky Black Fiction writers who have published in the last ten or so years, as newcomers?

There is a range of “Black experiences.” We are heterogeneous as shit, even if mainstream media would have folks think we are either the Cosby Show or The Wire, I know better and I would imagine that you do too.
There is some shit that we are subjected to because of how whiteness as a social system dominates, but yes, Virgina, we are all different.
Truth be told our lives are a mixture? and we need to have a range of art that captures the variety.
The hood lit vs. official lit argument is binary, doesn’t serve our interests
and is hyper counter productive.
However, I know that certain niggafied images of Black people serves the interest of maintaining White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalism.
More that that here, here and here.
So. It is in that spirit that I make a list of Quirky Black Fiction Writers.
Here are ten. Please add more in the comments, if you got ’em.
Danyel SmithMore Like Wrestling
Carl Hancock Rux– Pagan Operetta
Ernesto Quinonez -Bodega Dreams
Junot Diaz Drown
Matt Johnson- Hunting in Harlem
Nichelle TrambleThe Dying Ground
Paul BeattySlumberland
Percival Everett A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as told to Percival Everett & James Kincaid (A Novel)
Victor LavalleSlap Boxing with Jesus
ZZ PackerReading Coffee Elsewhere
Zadie SmithWhite Teeth

Looking forward to your comments.
Read anything good lately in general?
You have names for the list?

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  1. says

    I absolutely LOVE Junot Diaz. Now why isn’t he on twitter?
    I’d like to add “Before I Forget” by Leonard pitts, Jr. Not necessarily quirky but the storyline was engaging, uplifting, and geared toward Black males. Haven’t seen too many novels with all 3 of those characteristics lately.
    Heidi Durrow’s “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” is new and very different. I see you mentioned Zadie Smith’s “white teeth”. I haven’t read it, but I have read “on beauty”, which I thoroughly enjoyed and was very quirky.
    I don’t know if you were strickly looking for american authors, but Andrea Levy’s “small island”, with settings in the west indies and europe, is also a very good read.

  2. arieswym says

    I love this post!!!!

    I have a booklist that’s a good 30 pages in Word plus anther 150 books in Google Books that I came across and thought were interesting.

    I have never seen anyone shout out Bodega Dreams, but I loved that book. I met the author when it first came out at the Harlem Book Fair.

    Additions to the list:
    The farming of bones
    By – Edwidge Danticat

    Kinky Gazpacho
    By ? Lori L. Tharps

    The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification
    by Caille Millner

    That’s all I got for now, I’ll add more later after some sleep

  3. says

    great post! i read over the links to those other articles. began fumin but then had to keep a critical head and nod in agreement.

    my opinion is that just as we do not support our local artists, we do not celebrate our own authors. i think this goes to the community’s apathy towards reading. so if you’re not reading, how will you know what is good fiction and what it not? you like what you are told to like. same with the videos we watch, the movies, the music on the radio, even what we learn…

    i agree. we have many more shades and shapes to our experiences – just like everyone else. our stories are multi-layered.

    once again, the irresponsibility of those in charge of distribution gets unchecked. i say, focus the shift back onto us. i.e., value reading more, sharing books with each other (like you’re doing here), and supporting homegrown authors. we have two or three major black bookstores here in los angeles. not a huge market for black writers. you would think so, but it’s not. same goes for poetry. unless you have a connection with the cultural affairs department, your work will go unnoticed. book fairs are dismal. if you are not a big name, folks will come and just buy a children’s book. so word-of-mouth must happen..

    having said that, i don’t have much to contribute by way of black fiction. i read books of poems/essays. right now, i’m on opal palmer adisa “euros muse: poems & essays. i really adore her…

    the last true black fiction book that had a lasting impression for ME is “invisible life” by e. lynn harris. i thought i would have a problem with it but i was deeply involved and deeply moved. i was shocked at my response to it. it was definitely entering another world haunted by it, but then sympathizing in the end. i have purchased my first octavia butler novel – her last “fledgling.” that will begin my journey into her world…

    other than that, i read a lot of self-help/spiritual, non-fiction, and research studies..i have started a list of books recommended by others. time to devote is slim, but i am anxious…

    but thank you for challenging me to look deeper into black fiction and for your list from which to build my new list of black fiction.


  4. says

    Dinaw Mengestu, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

    This is such a beautiful, lyrical novel. I picked it up randomly in Busboys and I fell in love. The author’s based in DC, too.

  5. says

    Oh! How could I forget Kim McLarin? All three of her novels are brilliant: Taming It Down, Meeting of the Waters + Jump at the Sun.

    Martha Southgate is awesome too. She writes YA fiction (Another Way to Dance + The Fall of Rome) that doesn’t pander and works for, uh, old(er) adults too.

    And there’s Shay Youngblood (Soul Kiss + Black Girl in Paris) but she moved toward painting after 9/11; I don’t think she writes anymore.

    Digging the Paul Beatty and Mat Johnson (who is on the Twitter) love too.

  6. says

    Piri Thomas, Down These Mean Streets

    wait…we talking fiction…

    asha bandele, Daughter
    Walter Dean Myers–he STAY puttin in work, representing young urban people (and he’s like 100!)
    Delores Phillips, The Darkest Child
    Martha Southgate, Third Girl from the Left
    Edwidge Danticat, everything LOL

  7. says

    this list is the business.

    reminded me of a couple of books/authors i have been meaning to pick up. i loved junot diaz’s brief, wondrous life of osca wao but haven’t read drown yet…been wanting to read mat johnson since i came across him on the twitters a few months back…

    also, don’t know how quirky you thought danzy senna’s ‘caucasia’ was, but i hv always wondered what she was up to after that book…

    ty much for the post sis, definitely bookmarking this page for the next time i head to the bookstore.

  8. says

    I just recently heard about sci-fi writer, Nnedi Okorafor.

    I didn’t read her work but I plan on reading one of her novels very soon. I’m ashamed to say but I never picked anything from Octavia Butler, she’s a must read for any sci-fi fan.